If we think of a project and its people as a system, we can regard as external inputs the project charter, the project's requirements, and its resources. Changes in these inputs produce changes in the project's outputs. Consternation and frustration arise when changes in the outputs violate our expectations with respect to changes in the inputs.
As we've seen, nonlinear work doesn't always obey the superposition principle. That is, the result of two sets of inputs acting together is not always equal to the sum of the results of each input acting separately. This failure is one reason why our predictions of project results are so wrong so often.
Internal interactions within the project can provide another reason for our frustration. Here are three examples of internal interactions whose effects can dominate the effects of any change in project inputs.
- In the course of development, the project team might discover something that nobody knew or understood before work began. It might be an unanticipated obstacle (bad news), or a wonderful new opportunity (possible good news). Sometimes these discoveries lead to changes in requirements, even though no external agent sought a change in requirements. Whatever the discovery is, it can affect both project performance and project outcomes. And with alarming frequency, these effects can be far larger than the effect of any changes anyone — customer, manager, executive, regulator, marketer — might impose on the project. From this perspective, such changes come from nowhere.
- In complex The only real surprise in any
project would be the
absence of surprisessystems, emergence happens when many small identical elements of the system organize themselves into coherent behavior. For example, the organized movement of a school of fish is emergent behavior. Emergent phenomena are also observable in projects or portfolios of projects. When one task encounters difficulty, the consequences of that difficulty can propagate across the project, with the result that many other tasks find themselves in similar straits, resulting in a form of gridlock. This can happen at any time, in the absence of any external stimulus.
- Outputs can change even when inputs don't
- Even when none of the inputs have changed, mistakes, miscommunications, insights, and creativity can cause the outputs to develop along paths that differ from what anyone expected. This happens because the system contains more internal degrees of freedom than those that are specified by the inputs. We tend to call these unexpected changes "surprises," but the only real surprise in any project would be the absence of surprises.
Nonlinear work is frustrating not so much because it is nonlinear, but because we insist on believing that it is linear. We consider a project most successful when it behaves according to our expectations: no discoveries, no emergence, and outputs fully determined by inputs. It's a nice fantasy, but it's a fantasy nonetheless. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- The Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources
- Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule
for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask,
"If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"
- The Weaver's Pathway
- When projects near completion, we sometimes have difficulty letting go. We want what we've made to be
perfect, sometimes beyond the real needs of customers. Comfort with imperfection can help us meet budget
and schedule targets.
- Design Errors and Group Biases
- Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of
many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: II
- When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can
affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive
See also Project Management for more related articles.
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