Can Project Management Learn Anything from Studies of Failure in Complex Systems? (Ivory & Alderman, 2005)

Complex Systems and Local Interventionism

Ivory, Chris; Alderman, Neil: Can Project Management Learn Anything from Studies of Failure in Complex Systems?; in: Journal of Project Management, Vol. 36 (2005), No. 3, pp. 5-16.

This article is similar to the Cooke-Davis et al. from 2007. In this article Ivory & Alderman describe complex systems as being tightly coupled thus showing high degrees of interdependencies and creating complex interactions. The authors show that projects as Complex Systems have five distinctive characteristics

  1. Non-linear interactions – surprising/unexpected outputs, non-equilibrium states, tipped by small events
  2. Emergence – multiple causes for failures, sub-systems prevent system melt-down, unpredictability of failures
  3. Conflicting objectives – sub-systems with different and conflicting goals, dominance of trade-off decisions, short-term orientation
  4. Overly centralized management – more than one centre exist, tighter control does not solve problems
  5. Multi-Nodality – open-textured and multi-nodal technologies are managed uniformly despite their dispersed (and often not understood) contexts

To counter-act the shortcomings of classical project management which relies on tight control and standardised processes & policies, Ivory & Alderman recommend what they call „Interventionism“. Interventionism or interventions on the ground is the „flexibility to usurp the chain of command in favour for technical expertise in times of stress“. Especially slack engineered into plans and processes allows local ‚cells‘ to deal with dysfunctions of the central control authority.
If that slack is not used for these corrections it usually is used for self-improvement and learning. In order to make such a system work the authors recommend implementing local empowerment to fix errors and centrally embed processes for organisational learning from mistakes.

Furthermore Ivory & Alderman’s case study is set in an high reliability organisations, which has only few resource constraints, shows a procedure-driven top down management, learns from mistakes, and embraces a safety culture. In their case study complexity arises not from technology but from goal confusion among different customers and is further increased by inexperienced contractors. The project decomposed the final product so it could be build in mixed teams. This multi-nodality showed some major shortcomings, e.g., bad news were withheld, integration problems are created, management of change requests becomes more resource consuming.

In this setting the authors found Interventionism most helpful. They observed how vendor-client task forces were established as autonomous cells. These cells worked in advance of official decisions in order not to delay the plan due to central decision backlogs. They saw increased communication among leaders of cells. Furthermore they found most effective if the project sponsor forces the project to abandon it’s natural short-term view by carrying the concerns of operations and fulfilment of business needs.

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