Traditional project management processes are founded on the presumption that a project can be planned down to the smallest detail, and that after the planning phase is complete, the project manager’s job is to execute the project in the order prescribed by the plan, without surprises. The reality of the modern world is quite different.
Anything that involves human beings working over a period of time with limited resources involves a certain amount of unpredictability, with things often occurring outside the expected order. Successful project managers intuitively understand this and are adept at adapting to events as they unfold. In other words, they understand how to make the most of a different kind of order.
Two Kinds of Order
In his 1907 book Creative Evolution, the French philosopher Henri Bergson investigated the nature of human creativity and its relation to order. According to Bergson, by “order ” we generally mean a mechanistic, predetermined, linear relationship between things. Event A leads to Event B; Event B leads to Event C; Event C leads to Event D; and so on, with no possibility of variation or adaptation. We also tend to consider creativity as something that arises only in a state of disorder—that is, when no type of order is evident. The free-thinking artist is a stereotype founded in this way of thinking. But Bergson argued that the disorder we associate with creativity is really just a different type of order.
Alexander Laufer has drawn some powerful insights on project management from Bergson’s work. Laufer summarized his ideas in Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management:
Bergson claimed that there is no such thing as disorder, but rather two sorts of order: geometric and living order. While Bergson used “geometric order ” to refer to the traditional concept of order, he used “living order ” to refer to a phenomenon such as the creativity of an individual, a work of art, or the mess in [someone’s] office.
In project management, geometric order aligns with traditional managerial thinking. This concept of order is associated with linear development, in which one stage necessarily leads to the next. It is the kind of project progression that project managers traditionally idealize, and it is the driving force behind the process-oriented approach to project management that organizations tend to focus on. Geometric order is an essential component of project management, and inexperienced project managers should start by mastering a geometric approach to their work. However, when relied on exclusively, geometric-order thinking can lead to inefficient and ineffective results.
By contrast, living-order thinking recognizes that a system of things is always in the process of remaking itself, and that a system is always—at some level—in a state of uncertainty. In project management, this suggests that projects happen in dynamic environments, and that unexpected events should be considered part of a complex project’s life cycle. This is something that experienced project managers learn over time. But even inexperienced project managers can try to incorporate an understanding of living order into their work.
Figure 1 illustrates the characteristics of living and geometric order.
Figure 1: Characteristics of living order and geometric order
Living and Geometric Order Practices Can Coexist
Keep in mind that a project can have qualities of both geometric and living order. Geometric order methods might be ideal in one situation, with living order methods more useful in another. For example, preparing a peanut butter sandwich for yourself for lunch, is a straight-forward, geometric order task. But contrast, preparing a five course meal for an unknown number of guests whose arrival time you won’t learn until a half hour before, using recipes you’ve never tried before, is a living order project.
Our new, free ebook, Technical Project Management in Living and Geometric Order, shows how to adapt time-tested project management techniques to living order realities. Here are a few practical tips to get you started:
- Throughout a project, recognize the tension between geometric and living order, and avoid imposing a geometric process on a situation that requires a more flexible, living order approach.
- In all stages of a project, take time to remind stakeholders how the customer perceives the project’s value. A clear understanding of a project’s value should serve as your lodestar for navigating the uncertainties of living order.
- The ever-changing nature of living order necessitate nonstop conversation and collaboration. Use the planning part of any project to begin this process. Focus less on the plan itself and more on starting the dialogue with all stakeholders.
- Confront the living order uncertainty in any project. Only by understanding the many forms of uncertainty associated with a project can you understand the degree of risk involved.
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