Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 22;   May 30, 2012: Nonlinear Work: Internal Interactions

Nonlinear Work: Internal Interactions

by

In this part of our exploration of nonlinear work, we consider the effects of interactions between the internal elements of an effort, as distinguished from the effects of external changes. Many of the surprises we encounter in projects arise from internals.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, Alaska

Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, Alaska. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, and swarms of insects, among many other biological groups, exhibit a behavior called swarming. Swarms seem to act in perfect if mysterious coordination. Swarms have no designated leader and no pre-defined global plan. Their behavior is emergent — a group improvisation. As humans, we like to believe that when we act in concert, we usually follow a leader or a plan. My own guess is that much of our group behavior is more like swarming than not. If it is like swarming, then the behavior of projects that seem ungovernable might be a bit less mysterious.

Recent research is beginning to explain how flocks coordinate their behavior. See Biro, et. al., "Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks," Nature 464, 890-893 (8 April 2010), or listen to the story by National Public Radio, "Backpacked Birds Reveal Who's The Boss." Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

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.

Discovery
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.
Emergence
In complex The only real surprise in any
project would be the
absence of surprises
systems, 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Wacky Words of Wisdom: II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenRdWdIkMspQkVQMEOner@ChacipjtbUcpJfrMofGXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The Cone NebulaShining Some Light on "Going Dark"
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
A schematic representation of the blowout preventer that failed in the Deepwater Horizon incidentOn the Risk of Undetected Issues: II
When things go wrong and remain undetected, trouble looms. We continue our efforts, increasing investment on a path that possibly leads nowhere. Worse, time — that irreplaceable asset — passes. How can we improve our ability to detect undetected issues?
North Fork Fire in Yellowstone, 1988The Risks of Too Many Projects: II
Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities.
Rosemary Woods, President Richard Nixon's personal secretaryYet 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.
Cargo containers at a port of entryUnresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seatedAnd on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenkVJjmPSnHaiDrSALner@ChacKxThnEmXncHDDJDpoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.