Complex systems are nonlinear
Take the two pendulums of the figure as an example. Each pendulum in isolation is a simple system. It has a deterministic nature. Once a college student gets his initial conditions, he is able to predict the system behavior.
However, add now a second pendulum to the first one as shown in the figure. The second pendulum follows a trajectory that looks chaotic. You have now a complex two-pendulum system. It is nonlinear and nondeterministic.
I believe that this phenomenon explains a large part of the challenges any project sponsor, project manager, project team and PMO has to overcome.
Yet traditional project approaches address systems as if they were simple and linear
Newtonian sciences are linear by nature. They describe cause and effect relationships with a very mechanical vision of the world.
Scientists working under Newton’s laws consider that an (approximate) knowledge of a system initial state and the comprehension of the law of nature render you capable to determine an (approximate) behavior of the system.
They generate an approach called reductionism, which breaks complex phenomena into simple components, with the belief that complex systems are the sum of its individual parts.
In this approach, a human or a project are the sum of components X1 + X2 + X3… This is the traditional paradigm that drives sciences from that point in time.
In the same manner, I have the feeling that traditional project management tries to predict an output and its benefits within a set of constraints as is everything was knowable, reducible to its components and linear.
However, most systems are complex and nonlinear
Nonlinearity arises indeed from the fact that when you put two or more things together, the result may not necessarily be a simple addition of each element’s properties in isolation. In contrast, you can get a combined effect that is greater or less than the simple sum of each part. The parts of something are only explicable by relationships to the whole. They have a nonlinear relationship.
A second paradigm is now being developed, the paradigm of synthesis and systems thinking that tries to understand an entity through the context of its relations within a whole of which it is part.
Nonlinear systems may appear chaotic, unpredictable, or counterintuitive, contrasting with the much simpler linear systems. In nonlinear systems, deterministic principles are defied. Simple additions do not work anymore. Two thirty- to fifty-year old men do not add up to an eighty-year old man.
Feedback loops change the ratio between inputs and outputs, challenging the homogeneity principle. System’s actions effect the environment. Effects feedback to alter future inputs. Infinite scaling is not possible either.
Project Managers as well as PMOs need therefore to learn how to deal with nonlinearities.
Most projects show clear characteristics of complexity. And Programs that connect different projects together behave like several pendulums attached together and generating rapidly chaotic behaviors.
They require specific approaches.
Here are a few paths that PMs and PMOs may want to explore, among others:
- consider the interrelationships of your many intertwined stakeholders
- study the whole system behavior more than the Individual behaviors
- prepare to facilitate the emergence of unpredictable new behaviors
- beware of the observer’s influence on the system under observation
- expect sub-optimal states where fitness is relative
- control the complex system with simple rules
- capitalize on the self-organizing capabilities of a complex system
You cannot use linear approaches to solve nonlinear problems. Only nonlinear approaches can fit the needs of complex project management.
To your continued success
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This article explores what project practioners can learn from thermodynamic cycles and their four phases. These four phases are: expansion, stagflation, crisis, and depression. The article suggests that project stakeholders should consider where their ecosystem stands regarding these cycles. Then they should adapt their approach to the ongoing phase. They should anticipate as well the next phase of the cycle.
Thermodynamics Deals With Heat and Other Forms of Energy
François Roddier, a French scientist and astronomer, is exploring how thermodynamics applies to economies and human societies. Thermodynamics is the branch of physical science that deals with the relations between heat and other forms of energy. These forms can be mechanical, electrical, or chemical energy for example. François Roddier proposed very exciting parallels between the thermodynamic cycles and the economical and sociological cycles. Why would these teachings interest the project management community? Because, synchronizing projects with each of the four phases of these thermodynamic cycles is a sure way to limit disappointing (if not catastrophic) results.
The French Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot introduced the new science of thermodynamics. He worked on the first two laws of this science. The first law states that energy is conserved. Heat is a form of energy. The second law states that energy dissipates. You cannot convert heat into mechanical energy without a temperature difference. And the total entropy can never decrease over time for an isolated system in which neither energy nor matter can enter nor leave.
We will see in a later article that there is a third law of thermodynamics. This third law states that energy dissipates as fast as possible, given a set of constraints. For now, only the first two laws need our attention.
Sadi Carnot stated that one can sustainably produce mechanical work only through a cycle of transformations extracting energy from a heat source and giving part of it back to a cold source.
A Steam Engine Produces Four Cycles of Transformations
A steam engine produces cycles of transformations. If steam or hot air can push a piston, one must apply a force to bring the piston back to its initial state. For this force to be weaker, one must condense the steam or cool the air content inside the cylinder. After each cycle, it returns to its initial state. During a cycle, it extracts heat from the boiler where the water is vaporized. And then part of the heat is given back to the condenser where water condenses. Only the heat difference is converted into mechanical energy. This thermodynamic cycle has four phases: isothermal expansion (the temperature of the gas does not change during the process), adiabatic expansion (they neither gain nor lose heat), isothermal compression, and adiabatic compression.
Figure 1 – The thermodynamic cycle.
The Same Cycle of Transformations Applies to Business Organizations
The laws Carnot developed could be applied to any dissipative structure. Such dissipative structures include human societies, economies, or business organizations.
They all show cycles made of four phases where the temperature, pressure, and volume of a fluid are replaced by supply, production, and demand. Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov describe these four phases in Secular cycles: expansion, stagflation, collapse, and depression. This is what figure 2 shows.
Let us follow the cycle with Turchin and Nefedov. The grey abrupt zone is called the Seneca cliff in relation to Seneca’s quote in his letter to Lucilius:
“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of ourselves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
If you start from the foot of the Seneca cliff, the production is minimal. Demand grows. It is the depression or “inter-cycle” phase.
While production grows, wealth inequalities are rare, and employment is high. Supply and demand even out. This is the expansion phase.
Once satisfied, demand tends to decrease. However, supply continues, sustained by the investments realized. This is a zone where luxury markets grow. Rich people are more and more numerous (and richer).
Production ends up stagnating and unemployment increases. This is the stagflation phase.
At the end, production collapses, firms go bankrupt, populations rebel, and governments fall. This is the crisis phase.
Figure 2 – The thermodynamic cycles apply to human societies.
When a System Is Too Complex, It Collapses
Around the critical point C, firms reorganize themselves to adapt to the environmental changes they produced. Such a change is a society divided in two poorly interconnected groups. one of (very) rich people and one of (numerous) poor people.
The farther from the critical point C, the bigger the avalanches or the crisis. It corresponds to the fluid condensation zone. But the avalanches are also less frequent. These avalanches help the natural process to self-organize. They appear when the ecosystem becomes too interconnected and too complex. It then collapses.
The period of these cycles varies. Small firms have a “Kitchin cycle” of 3 to 5 years. Medium-size firms’ “Juglar” cycles vary from 7 to 11 years. Large organizations have 15 to 25-year “Kuznets” cycles.
What Project Managers and PMOs Can Learn From the Thermodynamic Cycles
During a stagflation phase, leaders should regionalize the organization or the economy. This is the reverse of globalization. They may do this even at the cost of a business or an economic decline. For example, they have to tackle indebtedness. They also diminish the size of the cycle. Positioning initiatives as close as possible to the critical point is like being inside the cyclone eye.
It is not possible to avoid a crisis. Avalanches are inherent in complex ecosystems. However one can reduce its impact by getting closer to the critical point.
During a depression, the opposite move is favorable. Leaders must internationalize the exchanges and increase the size of the economic cycle.
Why not apply these hypotheses to project management?
Project practitioners and PMOs, especially those closest to the strategic level, would benefit from synchronizing their projects with their environment and their firm’s position on the four-phase Carnot cycle. They will thus avoid the launch or the execution of projects running counter to current economic, social, and technological circumstances.
Adjusting the approach to the phase of the cycle is especially vital during the two phases “depression” and “expansion.” Anticipating the Seneca cliff and its height is very important too.
To your continued success
Philippe Husser, author of the book The High-Impact PMO, How Agile Project Management Offices Deliver Value in a Complex World
 François Roddier, Blog 104 – Les oscillations du cerveau (généralisation) http://www.francois-roddier.fr/
 P. Turchin, S. Nefedov, Secular cycles, Princeton, 2009.
 Ugo Bardi, The Seneca effect: why decline is faster than growth, http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.fr/2011/08/seneca-effect-origins-of-collapse.html
 Joseph A. Tainter, The collapse of complex societies, New York & Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Later Robert Ulanowicz defined a law explaining the phenomenon.
 Kitchin cycle is a short business cycle of about 40 months. Kitchin discovered it in the 1920s. This cycle is believed to be accounted for by time lags in information movements affecting the decision making of commercial firms (Wikipedia).
 The Juglar cycle is a fixed investment cycle of 7 to 11 years. Clément Juglar identified it in 1862. Within the Juglar cycle one can observe oscillations of investments into fixed capital and not just changes in the level of employment of the fixed capital (and respective changes in inventories), as is observed with respect to Kitchin cycles. (Wikipedia).
 The Kuznets swing is a claimed medium-range economic wave with a period of 15–25 years. It has been identified in 1930 by Simon Kuznets. Kuznets connected these waves with demographic processes. (Wikipedia).
Complex Program Benefit Realization Can Be Slow
[This article is inspired by the book: The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World I have published in October and that is available on Amazon]
Grigori was once the PMO of a company-wide program whose deployment concerned several tens of local organizations around the world. Each organization had to install a lean management system in order to improve their performance.
All organizations had to be connected to several others at one time or another one. For example, they supplied other organizations with products or services. They had interfaces with functional departments like Finance, Marketing, and Information Technology.
The program was going to last at least five years due to the time required to change in depth the organizational culture. Several organizations volunteered as pilot organizations and developed their lean management practices with the support of Master Black Belts.
Grigori was in the early years of the program. Yet, the program sponsor was expecting quick visible improvements in the global performance of the company. Alas, even after several pilot organizations had adopted the lean management principles, no real high-level gains were visible. Benefits realization was far behind the initial premise.
What could be the problem?
How 1000 Randomly Attached Buttons Help You To Discover the Phenomenon
Stuart Kauffman is a complex systems researcher who studies the origin of life on Earth. Kauffman explains the following simple thought experiment in his book At Home in the Universe, the Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. It is about random graphs. Random graphs are a set of dots, or nodes, connected at random by a set of lines, or edges.
You can realize this toy problem at home yourself right away with buttons. Take all the buttons ripped off your shirts you can have saved, add maybe a few more, let say one hundred. Take some sewing thread. Now spread these buttons across your dining room floor and randomly attach two buttons at a time using bits of thread.
While you progress by linking buttons randomly two by two, one after the other; every time you have connected two buttons, pull one random button and observe how many buttons come together. At a certain point, you will pass a critical threshold. When lifting one button randomly, you will get most of the other buttons as well. You won’t need to have connected all buttons.
You do not need to link all buttons with a thread to pull them all together at once[i].
Well before normally expected, most buttons will have been interconnected and grouped into a single set of buttons. This threshold is represented in the above figure. It appears when around 50% of the buttons are connected.
The curve is what we call an S-shaped or a sigmoidal curve. The steepness of the curve at this critical point depends on the number of buttons. When this number is small, the steepest part of the curve is shallow. When the number increases, the steepness becomes more vertical.
This phenomenon is similar, explains Kauffman to phase transitions. During a phase transition certain properties of a medium change, often discontinuously, because of the change of some external conditions (here sewing two buttons).
Can this experiment serve to explain why benefits realization in a large complex program may not be a linear curve?
From Isolated Components to an Integrated Network of Connections
Imagine that instead of buttons, you repeat the same exercise again with people or with processes.
The properties of the isolated components do not define the complex system they form. What is connected, how it is connected, and to what it is connected, are all dimensions of great importance to understand observed system behavior. The nature and structure of the connections define the system.
In the real life of an organization and its ecosystem, these people and processes will be already more or less connected. Like in the button experiment, at some critical level of connectivity, the system stops being a set of apparently isolated components and becomes an integrated network of connections.
Here also we have this significant behavior change at a critical point.
You have surely already seen that your organization generates such transitions as the result of changes and connections you introduced. What is called transformation in an organization is nothing more than a successful transition. What is interesting for a Project Practioners and especially for PMOs is to understand as much as possible this phenomenon of transitions and how it is generated.
Tipping points are at the end of this process.
Grigory hypothesized that one of the possible reasons he did not yet see benefits in the deployment of his program was maybe that not enough organizations were connected. He did not have to pressure the system. On the opposite, he had to let the interconnections develop without creating unnecessary constraints on them. His role was only to remind the vision of the lean system they all looked for and to facilitate what needed to be.
Your remarks, own experience, and additions will be warmly appreciated.
To Your Continued Success!
Check out my new Book that explores a series of real life snapshots showing how project management practioners and especially PMOs can confront a VUCA world. It gives valuable insights that will allow you to more successfully navigate the wave of complexity that is coming our way.
You can also contact me at www.philippehusser.com
[i] Picture inspired from Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, 1995,
Project practioners and especially project management offices (PMO) can explore and practice complexity sciences, indirect strategies, and human dynamics to deliver more successful projects, programs, and portfolios.
Do you know that that there are several tens of millions of Project Managers in the world? If the number of PMOs seems difficult to apprehend, there is no doubt that it represents a large percentage of the previous number. On the impact side, are you aware that most surveys find fewer than a third of all projects being successfully completed (whatever means success for project)? Now, can you imagine a world where PMOs would contribute to, say, double the number of successful projects?
I would like to share an original idea with you. This idea is that the fundamental foe to fight in any project, program, and portfolio is complexity. Complexity is the dragon that, like the Phoenix, always rises from its ashes.
However, there are solutions PMOs may decide to explore and adopt if they want to better navigate complexity, and, at the end, make their projects more successful.
Let me share with you what I have experienced as a tinkerer for more than 40 years in complex project management.
Project, program, and portfolio practitioners and especially the PMOs can find actionable insights by exploring, learning, and putting in practice
- complexity sciences,
- indirect strategies,
- and human dynamics.
When they do, they soon become “high-impact PMOs.”
Complexity Sciences show project management techniques that are adapted to organizations seen as dissipative and complex adaptive systems. They explore typical questions. What is the difference between simple, complicated, and complex? What is a dissipative system? How to deal with nonlinear behaviors? Is a complex system predictable? How important are initial conditions when propelling a change in a social organization? What are phase transitions or avalanches? What is the difference between fragility and antifragility, between resilience and efficiency? How do social networks function? How do you create favorable conditions for achieving tipping points?
Indirect Strategies consist in studying and developing roundabout approaches that are adapted to a complex world where direct strategies fail most of the time. Here also they explore typical questions. Should multimodal approaches study and practice both the Chinese indirectness (situation, potential, opportunity) and the Western directness (goals, ways, means)? What if project approaches were intertemporal rather than temporal? Is it worth losing first to earn more lately? What means pulling back before re-engaging? How to connect a portfolio with a strategy? How to describe a strategy in one page? What role should have and should not have measures? How to use a five-ring framework to define and monitor your approach?
Human Dynamics deal with extended social sciences, both hard (like social network analysis for example) and soft (like cultural understanding for example) adapted to our very diverse and complex world. Human Dynamics go well beyond traditional leadership. They also explore many topics. Why and how to really position people as your number one focus? What are the social structures, cultures, languages, behaviors, influence networks concerned by a project? What is the Procrustean bias? Why buddy systems are they so powerful? How do cognitive biases, synergies and antagonisms, decision-making processes play a role? How to capitalize on all human and technological means available today to progress in this domain? How to learn and respect different cultures? How to make an impact when dealing with people or an audience?
By studying these three domains and by putting what they learn into practice, project management practioners and especially PMOs get a real chance to better navigate within complex environments and to deliver higher results in what they do.
This article is derived from the book “The High-Impact PMO, How Agile Project Management Offices Deliver Value in a Complex World.“