PM Articles > Kimberly Wiefling > Overcoming "Last Century" Thinking: Powerful Metaphors for What Happens in the Real World

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Overcoming "Last Century" Thinking: Powerful Metaphors for What Happens in the Real World

Another noggin' floggin' by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

As a kid, when I first studied how the world worked I learned that light was a wave, atoms were made of particles called protons, neutrons and electrons, and you could take apart a clock to figure out how it worked. But as my education progressed, I learned that the world was a bit more complicated than the simple models I'd been taught. Light wasn't really a wave, at least not all the time. Protons, neutrons and electrons weren't exactly billiard ball-like particles. And while you can figure out how a clock works by examining its guts, the same isn't true of a flock of birds. Over the past decade I've read three books that have further broadened—or warped, depending on your perspective—my mental models about how the world (including a project) operates:

Chaos helped me understand how slight variations in the starting point (what geeks call "initial conditions") could result in huge differences in the outcome, the famous Butterfly Effect.

Complexity opened my mind to self-organizing systems of interdependent entities (called "agents"), and the highly complex results that could emerge quite naturally from the collective behavior of simple agents (for example, complex structures built by simple termites). 20100427-wiefling A representation of complex adaptive systems, from Wikipedia Commons

A New Kind of Science helped me realize that even vastly complicated phenomenon in nature could be recreated by a very simple set of rules applied recursively, and got me thinking that seemingly complex happenings around me (like the unfolding of a project) might be produced by some relatively uncomplicated underlying principles.

As a result of these mind-bending experiences—a natural extension of my education as a physicist—I stopped thinking about the world as a machine which could be dissected into its component parts, and started appreciating "wholeness" and the nonlinear, highly interdependent nature of the world in which we live. This change in my thinking hasn't made me a better bowler or saved me money on my taxes, but it does help me attack problems that seem impossible and make progress on them, as I no longer expect to see a direct connection between my actions and the end result.

Because I encounter a lot of people who operate as if the world behaves in a linear way, my perspective sometimes gets me into trouble. I was recently asked how a particular exercise in a project leadership workshop contributed to achieving the workshop goals. People are understandably curious, but I was a bit annoyed. What perturbed me was the underlying linear, reductionist thinking that their question revealed, all too common in the business world. Would I really be expected to show a direct cause-and-effect link between everything I did in a workshop and the potential impact it would have on a particular participant's leadership development? It reminded me of the times I'd been asked to justify one or another project risk mitigation expense and how exactly it would shorten the project duration. Thoroughly explaining it would take more time than just doing it.

The sort of thinking embedded in these kinds of questions is at odds with concepts of wholeness, interdependence, complexity, nonlinear behavior, and emergence. This may sound rather like New Age jargon, but it's far better suited to explaining human beings and other natural phenomenon than simplistic views of the world. These ideas provide powerful alternatives to traditional mechanistic models, and I think that they can enable us to be better project leaders. Let's take a look at three interesting concepts that I've found to be powerful metaphors in project leadership and management:

  • Wholeness vs. reducing things to their component parts
  • Nonlinear behavior vs. linear relationships between cause and effect
  • Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and emergence vs. command-and-control


In 1773 the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. Now, can you imagine the prince asking Mozart, "How does this particular note support the beauty of this musical piece?" I rather doubt that the prince, or anyone else for that matter, would actually ask such an inane question! The beauty of a musical composition springs from the overall pattern and interrelationship of the notes. The beauty can't be explained by chopping the music apart like some kind of product breakdown structure exercise. It is a property of the whole. Wholeness, or holism, is the first concept that eludes obsessively last century thinkers.

David Bohm, a famous physicist, challenged traditional thinking in physics with his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Bohm had had quite enough of the tendency among physicists to assume that any phenomenon could be understood by reducing it to its component parts, somewhat akin to trying to figure out how birds flock by cutting apart a bird. A hologram is a great example of wholeness. Unlike a photograph, where each part of the photo represents the associated part of the scene, each piece of a hologram contains the entire picture, albeit from a different angle. Asking which piece of a hologram of you and your boyfriend contains your boyfriend makes no sense whatsoever. He is represented throughout the entire hologram from different perspectives. If you break up, you can't cut your boyfriend out of a hologram like you could cut him out of a picture.

Likewise, a project isn't a bunch of beads strung together to make a necklace. Your project plan may like a neat, tidy, linear sequence of tasks in PERT chart or a Gantt chart, but that is just a simple linear model of a highly dynamic, nonlinear, iterative system, and it can only be truly understood as a whole. That's why waterfall techniques don't work very well, and why Agile methodology is all the rage.

A project team isn't the sum of its parts, either. You can have a group of eight individual contributors who work at cross-purposes to produce nothing but conflict, or eight people who work together as an interdependent whole, every part supporting every other part. You can't map every accomplishment to the percent contributions of each team member any more than you can map which part of "beauty" in a musical piece comes from each note. The team as a whole achieves what no single member could achieve alone.


If I put twice as much gas in my car I expect to be able to travel roughly twice as far as with the original quantity. Three times the gas should carry me triple the distance. That's an example of a linear relationship. It's easy to predict what will happen to the outcome if I change the input.

As I'm sure you know, projects are nothing like this. Cutting the number of bugs in half doesn't necessarily make the quality twice as good, especially if one of the remaining bugs is a showstopper. And spending an additional hour on planning can save a day of wasted time and effort (up to the point of diminishing returns). Most physical systems are inherently nonlinear, and projects are no exception.

Nonlinear systems can't be described by adding up the parts because their parts interact. A small change in one part of the system can produce huge changes in other parts of the system. The reverse is also true—a large change in some part of the system may have little or no impact on the outcome, like shortening the duration of a task that's not on the critical path. Increasing the number of hours people work doesn't increase their productivity proportionately. In fact, in some cases the opposite occurs: they make more mistakes, resulting in misdirected effort, rework, or both. Adding people to a project can cause it to slow down rather than speed up, and reducing software engineering resources on a team of eight by one person could cause engineering productivity to drop by half if that programmer happens to be the one who can produce seven lines of defect-free uncommented code for every one line of an unskilled novice.

An example that far too many people can relate to, unfortunately, is the process of finding a new job. A great deal of activity may occur with no perceptible progress, and then finally a job offer is received. This is a great example of a non-linear system. All of the effort and time invested produces pretty much nothing, and then suddenly the result—a job—is produced. Projects aren't quite as bad since we can see progress along the way in the form of lines of code written, hardware designed, or tests run, but most project managers have learned long ago that a reported "50% percent complete" doesn't mean halfway to the goal.

Complex Adaptive Systems and Emergence

One of my many networking lunches recently was with someone who's famous in the world of business management theory. He was skeptical when I suggested that groups of people could, and would, self-organize around compelling future visions without hierarchy and a power structure to support attaining the desired result. It sounded to me like he was advocating a command-and-control approach—something that even the military has come to realize is ineffective in complex, rapidly changing environments.

Perhaps he hasn't heard that groups of termites following relatively simple rules are routinely able to build complex termite mounds that look like a castle out of a Disney movie, all without a grand plan or a controlling hierarchy. There is no termite project leader. There is no termite scrum master. There is no termite mound requirements document. It just happens as a result of each termite following a few simple rules and interacting with one another.

Imagine if the members of a project team followed a set of guiding principles out of which would emerge a project result that was aligned with customer expectation and business needs. Could human beings be capable of greater collaborative works than a bunch of termites without some higher-ranking manager bossing them around? I certainly hope so.

What guiding principles would enable project team members to co-create an outcome that would delight customers and turn a tidy profit? How about a customer delight meter strapped to each person's wrist with a needle that jiggled one way or the other with each act, depending on how it would ultimately influence customer delight? Maybe this is a bit too futuristic, so what if each person on the team was intimately familiar with client needs, could judge what would delight a client, and was highly motivated to meet those needs? Or imagine if the impact of each action and decision on the revenue, cost and profit of a company were instantly visible to individuals incentivized to optimize profit and customer delight? The results might be even more fascinating than a termite mound, and the process of achieving these results would be much more inspiring than a work breakdown structure and a task list.

The Lens of Wholeness, Nonlinearity and Emergence

I certainly don't recommend that you hole up in your office reading about chaos, complexity, nonlinear systems and the like, but I do think we all can benefit from looking at the world through a different lens now and then. Life isn't linear. Pushing harder doesn't necessarily make something go faster, and simple guiding principles enacted by each person at every level of an organization are far more effective in achieving results than an unenforceable mandate from on high. Peer through this alternative lens now and then to see what might look different on your project.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

What Kimberly is describing relates thinking at a system level, akin to the contributions of Jay Forrester and Peter Senge. In project management it's the rare ability to see a project from a high level and then relate it to the work breakdown detail, risk management, and communication. Help anticipate events and outcomes that the team would have never thought of, but they realize the benefits when hurdles are side-stepped. It may be one of the qualities that separate the truly good project managers from the pack, especially when it comes to large complex projects. This is a subject that will get a lot more attention in the next ten years. P.S. I want to read more of her work, I understand she has a great book, "Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces" that I can't wait to get a copy of.

Hiya Joe -

How very nice to see your comments in response to this article (which, by the way, I had a blast writing!). Yes, I'm a systems thinker, as you suggest. And, in fact, Peter Senge has influenced my thinking a great deal. I studiously read his book "The 5th Discipline", highlighting in yellow practically everything, and I was also fortunate enough to attend the Authentic Leadership Institute conference where he was a presenter and participant. I'm re-listening to his book on audio, and it's full of gems.

Holistically yours, Kimberly

Nice piece Kimberly.

I’m often amazed (and frustrated) by business leaders thinking that projects and software can be managed in a linear manner. Not too much in the business world can be viewed linearly. Once you start analyzing and dissecting, there are many variables and considerations for nearly every action and decision. The ability to see the effects of events and anticipate events is a necessary quality in those in a knowledge-management function.

Thanks for your comment, Ann! Only those who have never actually led a real project could possibly fall into that trap. Well, that's why they need us, right? Onward once more into the abyss!

A keeper !!!! Congrats !!

Fascinating article! I have recently become very interested in Eliyahu M. Goldratt's Critical Chain, especially regarding his Theory of Constraints - which is totally system-oriented thinking. Just wondering if you had read any of Mr. Goldratt's works?

Yes, have read and used Eli's work extensively! Now that you mention it, I see the relationship to this. Thank you!

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