An Organic Approach to Project Management

Randy Englund

In Flocks and Swarms – The End of Control As We Know It

(blogs.cio.com, Tuesday, October 24, 2006), Michael Hugos asks, “What makes a flock of birds or a school of fish move as if they are a single entity? What makes them all suddenly rise, turn and accelerate at the same time? There is something more subtle at work here than just a leader bird or a captain fish telling all the others what to do. What can we learn from the dynamics of flocks and swarms that is relevant to the way we structure and operate a real-time business?”
To which I say, this is chaos theory in operation, also known as complexity science when applied to human dynamics and organizational behavior. The swarming behavior that he describes follows a pattern where small initial conditions can lead to a big happening, but which initial condition and what outcome are unpredictable. The point is that these are patterns at work in nature as well as in the practice of project management.
We have much to learn from flocks of geese and from redwood forests. By getting project teams started in the right direction, with a clear sense of where they are going and why, project leaders create initial conditions that then allow people to move naturally toward the goal. Our need for feedback and interdependence and all other forms of motivation are patterns at work that can function very effectively when invoked organically by the leader. – Randy Englund, www.englundpmc.com

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3 thoughts on “An Organic Approach to Project Management”

  1. Wow. The imagery of flocking is fascinating. Setting initial conditions appropriately seems like common sense. One aspect of those initial conditions should be the manner of control we will use. I’m reminded of the computer models of flocking behavior where slight changes in how closely any individual responds to its neighbors can lead to tight flocks or chaotic individual flight.
    I’m also reminded of a tragic instance of the Blue Angels flight team. Flying in a very tight formation, where each pilot maintains a specific orientation to the adjacent plane, they all followed the leader into the ground. Could a more organic approach also be applied to avoid going lockstep into trouble, yet maintain cohesiveness?

  2. Projects are complicated, non-linear, highly interdependent systems, and as a physicist, I agree that chaos and complexity theory have a great deal to teach us about project management. There is a terrific book called Chaos: Making a New Science, and another one called Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos Both are extremely readable and utterly fascinating. If you want to understand how to predict, influence and thrive in circumstances that cannot be calculated or controlled, read these books. Understanding these intriguing areas of physics is part of my toolkit for solving “impossible” problems!

  3. The great thing about applying chaos theory to project management in organizations is that fewer controls are required. By setting up simple rules and asking everyone to agree to them, such as all team members will review posted work in process and provide feedback within 24 hours, everyone benefits and the quality of work goes up.

    There is another neat book on this topic by Roger Lewin called The Soul at Work.
    Randy Englund

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