Order and Absence of Order, or “Solve et Coagula”

Order and absence of order: what can you do as a PMO?
A Project Management Officer is often a kind of alchemist, always in search of the best balance between SOLVE and COAGULA, between YIN and YANG, or ORDER and ABSENCE of ORDER.

“Systems that endure – that is, are sustainable – lie in dynamic balance somewhere between these two poles of order and disorder, efficient performance and adaptive resilience”.

This is what tells us Robert E. Ulanowicz, a theoretical ecologist and philosopher in his search for a unified theory of ecology[1]. Ulanowicz is an American theoretical ecologist and philosopher of Polish descent who in his search for a unified theory of ecology formulated a paradigm called Process Ecology.

Ulanowicz explains that an ecosystem self-organizes, or diminishes its internal entropy, by increasing its interconnectivity :

  • Order leads to greater efficiency (usage of resources).
  • Absence of order, with means of interconnectivity and diversity, leads to greater resilience.

This is really something that must engage the project management community. The figure below shows this search of balance between order (planning) and diversity or interconnectivity.

Nature selects for a balance between the two opposing poles of efficiency and resilience.

Ulanowicz demonstrates that this balance is closer to the absence of order than to the order [2] and that it is found within a “window of viability” through a test and learn process.

In the same manner, leaders understand this search for a balance between order and absence of order [3] in the social, political, and economic domains.

They recognize that finding this balance is not easy. And they accept oscillations within this “window of viability” around the optimal balance.

Above all, they know that this equilibrium is indispensable for long-term sustainability and health.

  • Too much efficiency leads to brittleness (and incapacity to manage shocks).
  • Too much resilience (or diversity and interconnectivity) leads to stagnation (due to a lack of efficiency).

And, worst, an excess of either attribute leads to systemic instability and collapse. Ecosystems that survive and develop are those that achieve a balance between the mutually exclusive attributes of efficiency and resilience. This is a “universal conversation between structure building and dissipation.”

How does it apply to Project Management and what can you do as a PM and a PMO?

Ulanowicz findings doubtlessly apply to the domain of Project Management in its broadest definition (from Strategy Execution to Portfolio, Program, and Project Management).

Project Management also has a “window of viability” around an optimal point.

That is to say that mixing deterministic and adaptive into some kind of hybrid approach is surely the domain to study and learn in priority today.

Most Project Management Schools of thought develop such research [4].

The PMs, the PMOs, the Project Teams, as well as any kind of agile organization, could do several things to get as close as possible to the “window of viability”.

Here are 3 ways to help to position a project around the critical point of highest resilience, developed in my book The High-Impact PMO :

1 – Introduce as early as possible a positive high-impact surprise in a new project.

Example: create an initial shock challenging the status quo by making the leadership team immediately stop a lagging project competing for the key resources the organization needs. Later, introduce new “vibrations” to the project in order to test the equilibrium and navigate the window of viability.

2 – Make your project management system both agile and controlled.

Example: make it much more agile than the management system of your organization (see the Ashby law of requisite variety). And make sure that order remains in order to direct the agile activities in a common direction towards the organization’s strategic goals. This requires leaders to be ambidextrous.

3 – Develop Barbell strategies (read Nassim N. Taleb’s book Antifragile).

Example: create options in your projects with many low-risk high-probability low-impact actions and a few high-risk low-probability high-(positive)-impact actions. Nothing in the middle.

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO

[1] Ulanowicz uses techniques from information theory and thermodynamics to study the organization of flows of energy and nutrients within ecosystems. His ideas have been primarily applied in ecology. Similarly, many of his concepts have been applied to other areas in which flow networks arise, for instance in psychology and economics.

[2] The graph represents the function f(x) = (x-1) * Log(1-x) where x varies between 0 (order) and 1 (absence of order).

[3] Read the chapter 2.4 of my book The High-Impact PMO published in Oct. 2017 and how R.E. Unanowicz helps anyone, especially agilists, leading a successful transformation.  

[4] In France, contact for example my friend Stephane Derouin and the Hybrid Management Institute-HMI.

3 Steps That Reduce Project Fatigue

All organizations need projects to execute their strategy. However, they multiply over time the number of projects they launch and realize. Thus, many mission-critical employees become overloaded by a stack of projects at different degrees of maturity. They suffer from project fatigue. The result is an overwhelming effort for change required from all employees.

Project Fatigue Represents a Threat to Us All

An Enterprise PMO* can help take the weight off people’s shoulders. It does this with three steps:

  1. Make visible the stack of projects impacting specific sensitive populations
  2. Evaluate the change effort over time
  3. Focus on the vital few projects and eliminate or postpone the others

*An Enterprise Project Management Office serves here as a Strategic PMO, linking strategy and projects, overseeing the strategic initiative portfolio, providing a central visibility on key data, and serving as an enabler for decision-making.

1-Make the Stack of Projects Visible

The PMO of a new transformation program received complaints from several key stakeholders. They said that this new program was only one more of those “wonderful programs” that never delivered. Too many priorities and too many initiatives had to be managed simultaneously in addition to this program. Everyone was showing signs of project fatigue.

The PMO decided to go to the facts. He asked for the support of the Enterprise PMO. They chose a few iconic jobs in the organization. For each of these jobs, they asked a few individuals to count and describe in terms of change effort the projects that had to live with daily. They took into consideration both their own projects and the projects coming from other departments.

projet fatigue pmo

Figure 1
The “Stack of Projects by Team” graph shows that operational teams are engaged in a variety of projects.

Figure 1 shows the “Stack of Projects by Team” as an illustration of the result. It was breathtaking.

Each color represents a specific project. Its size is relative to the change effort felt by the employees (rated between 0 and 5). Note that the change effort is different from the project team workload.

Regardless of the criticality of the change, the number of different projects on the head of operational teams went from 4 to 8. In this illustration, planning employees contribute for example to 8 projects, including at least 2-3 with a very large change effort.

2-Evaluate the Change Effort

The Enterprise PMO contacted each of the project leaders. They evaluated together the level of change effort required from employees during their project life cycle.

This evaluation used the perception of the employees as shown in the first figure. It also used each project leader’s own evaluation.

The PMO rated the change effort. Green, orange, and red colors visualize the impacts the change puts on people, from acceptable to unbearable. A blue color indicates a project in test phase, usually not too much demanding since it only concerns a very small group of volunteers. Grey means that the impact evaluation is not known yet.

This produced a “Change Effort Map” that figure 2 illustrates. This map gives the criticality of the change imposed by each project over time. The past view allows to understand the history of the change effort already made by the people. The present evaluation requires an action. And the future view helps to anticipate the need for further change efforts.

Figure 2
The “Change Effort Map” shows how projects require a change effort from employees over time.

The addition of the colored lines visualizes the difficulty of the cumulative change. It is clear in the example of this graph that the middle of the year N will be very difficult to pass.

The Enterprise PMO drew three conclusions.

  • One, the project fatigue of the teams was clearly justified and its potential for resisting a new program was high.
  • Two, this addition of projects on the same individuals was like increasing the traffic on a motorway. It was surely explaining one cause of delay among others, and it would surely add one more reason to be late thanks to the new program.
  • Three, there was an opportunity for reassessing the project portfolio priorities and maybe stop a few low-priority high-fatigue projects.

3-Focus on the Vital Few Projects

The Transformation Program PMO and the Enterprise PMO proposed a very first action. They invited the Executive Committee to challenge the existing portfolio against the Change Effort Map and project priorities. The leadership team identified their vital few projects within the organization. And they decided to stop or postpone the lower-priority projects.

Figure 3
The “Strategic Impact and Change Effort” table helps a leadership team to limit the project fatigue and to focus efforts where it is most important.

They used a “Strategic Impact and Change Effort” map. Figure 3 illustrates such a map.

Each disk is a project. The size of the disks represents the project change effort. An evaluation of the strategic impact of a project and of its change effort imposed on employees determines its position in the map.

Five segments categorize the projects, from “to be done” to “stop these projects”.

The organization’s executives agreed to pursue the realization of the high-impact, low-effort projects.

They stopped or postponed the low-impact, high-effort projects.

Typical stopped projects in this category were for example projects they authorized during the previous years, that already delivered, say, 85% of their benefits, but experienced difficulties to produce the other 15%.

They also postponed several of the lower-impact, lower-effort projects to focus attention on fewer critical projects. Instead of working in parallel on several of these projects, they chose to realize these projects one after the other.

But most of all, they dedicated a special attention and support to the high-impact, high-effort projects (the “special focus” projects). They adjusted attention, time and resources to the real needs of these important projects. And of course they disengaged key resources from the stopped projects.

The End Result

  1. This three-step process engaged the leadership team in better managing their strategic initiative portfolio. It produced a revised portfolio that was better focused on what the organization really needed to do and could do.
  2. Employees enjoyed very rapidly the simplification their leaders introduced in their work. They also agreed that working on projects one after the other and not in parallel was going to increase the delivery speed while reducing their overal fatigue.
  3. As a result, people generally accepted to engage with the highest priority in the new transformation program.

To your continued success


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