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