Project Practitioners > Applying Chaos Theory in a Project Based Organization

Applying Chaos Theory in a Project Based Organization

By Randy Englund


As I head off to Amsterdam to contribute to the PMI Global Congress 2009 EMEA, I thought to share a little of what I will present to that audience.  Chaos theory is extremely useful to guide behaviors in an organization that depends upon project-based work for its vitality.  The theory informs us that small initial conditions can have a huge impact on project outcomes; however, what actually happens is unpredictable.  Nature, while chaotic, follows regular patterns, as does human behavior in organizations.  An organic approach to the implementation of project management implies that we can learn tremendous lessons from nature about how to achieve better, more harmonious outcomes from our projects.  Thus, by observing nature and paying attention to patterns in human behavior, we in essence create a “green”—as opposed to “toxic”—environment for project success.


Rather than viewing chaos as “undesirable,” harness the natural forces operating in organizations.  Discover strengths that form the basis for extraordinary results with minimal energy.  Recognize “green” elements that help people do their best work and bridge the gap between strategy and operations in a project based organization.  Transform a dark, murky world where people are disconnected from each other.  Instead, create a lush environment—aided by project management—where good things happen.  Rather than viewing chaos as the enemy or an “undesirable,” creatively learn to tap the natural forces at play in organizations—harness and manage them to achieve more.  Discover existing or latent strengths, both individually and within the organization, that form the basis for extraordinary results with minimal energy to produce.  This approach recognizes the importance both of people doing their best work and the contribution of project, program, and portfolio managers to bridge the gap between strategy and operations.  The focus is on alignment, execution, and optimizing results in the best ways possible.


Here is the essence of chaos theory, representing a positive natural occurring sense of being:

·         Unpredictable, disorderly

·         Essential process to renew and revitalize

·         Small changes in initial conditions create enormous consequences

·         Similar patterns take place across layers (fractal geometry)

 As this theory gets applied in organization, it becomes known as complexity science:

·         Information is primary organizing force—share widely

·         Develop diverse relationships

·         Embrace vision as an invisible field

·         People have similar needs and corresponding responses

·         Working together is a source of meaning and purpose

·         Establish shared sense of purpose

Each of these points provides guidance for organizational behavior.  Create conditions for people to make connections, because those initial conditions provide the idea or practice that could lead to resolving a major issue or inventing a new product or service.  Push back in these challenging times when in-person meetings are threatened, because people need to get together to form connections.  A project startup meeting enables people to learn more about each other’s talents and aspirations; then they can begin the forming, storming, norming, and performing stages of team development.  Value diversity because that provides more opportunities for “the next big idea” to flourish.  Tap people’s need for purpose by clarifying, in a purpose statement, an enduring reason for that group of people to work together, such as “lead the continuous improvement of project management across the company.”  Craft a vision statement about a desired future state.

 Recognize Organizational Patterns

 Recognize the patterns that guide all behavior in organizations, such as:

·         Focus on relationships

·         People respond to energy and enthusiasm

·         Ask questions that engage others

·         Use compelling evidence and vivid language to describe goals

·         Get explicit commitments

·         People know what is expected from them at work

·         Provide more value to others:

o        Feedback

o        Currencies of exchange

o        Learning

o        Fun

·         Develop common cultural values and leverage differences

·         Focus on trust, authenticity and integrity

Metaphors, examples, education, and communication are keys for leaders, whether they be executives, sponsors, program managers, project managers, a project office of one, or team members, creatively to immediately apply concepts adapted from nature…and bring out the best in people.  The good news is that is does not take massive funding or initiatives to change the naturally occurring nature of chaos in organizations.  By identifying key forces and patterns and systematically applying gentle reinforcements, nature will respond.


·         Recognize that chaos is a normal state in nature and in organizations.

·         Look for recurring patterns in relationships.

·         Selectively apply project management discipline, not for its own sake, but as the means to achieve strategic goals.

·         Focus on influencing others through skillful intervention at influence points, such as through networking and project startup events.

·         Create varied and plentiful conditions for interactions to occur among key project stakeholders; these are the initial conditions that later impact project outcomes.

·         Schedule specific events, together with a skilled facilitator, to surface mental models; dialogue about how effective or destructive they are.

·         Identify forces that drive and restrain activities toward project goals; seek to increase positive and decrease negative forces.

·         Focus on alignment, execution, and optimizing results that are harmonious with natural living systems and desired human behaviors.

·         View people and the organization as an integrated part of a natural living system, subject to ambiguities and chaos, and capable of coalescing forces into powerful outcomes.

Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy

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