Sunday, July 21, 2024

The latest news from the world of project management

How to fail well...

Failure Is the new success. Here are five ways that you can embrace...

5 Skills Needed To...

Why do projects fail? It's a question that invites a lot of interest and...

Embrace the change: Getting...

New IT systems for a growing business can be an exciting prospect and...

Does a Project Manager...

What makes a successful project manager is a combination of their academic abilities,...
HomeLeadershipLiving Projects -...

Living Projects – Complex Adaptive and Living Systems

This is the second of a 3-part article – you can read the first part here.

Complex adaptive systems theory has been developing for more than 30 years and is beginning to inform most of the literature on organizations and change.  Since the work of Ludwig von Bertalanfy in the 1960’s to describe a “general systems theory”, scientists have been exploring the relationships between the components of complex systems, including living organisms (von Bertalanfy. 1968).  They have discovered that living systems have certain characteristics that differentiate them from mechanisms.  In living systems, the ongoing order or patterns emerges from the interaction among the parts.  It is through the “self-organization” of the components that life emerges and becomes self-replicating.


I believe that successful complex projects become living systems; they take on a life of their own.  The “new science” of the Santa Fe Institute and others gives us some clues as to how to maximize the conditions for that life to emerge and be productive.  According to Stewart Kauffman, there are five conditions that enable self-organization that relate directly to what a complex project needs to be vital (Kauffman. 1995).


Conditions for Self-Organization Examples of What Living Projects Then Need
A relatively safe and nutrient environment Sufficient financial resources and political support or a fertile “skunk works” culture. This means support for learning, mistakes and growth and sponsors and leaders who can enable that environment.
High level diversity of the elements with the potential for complex relationships Complex multi-stakeholder projects have the diversity, but project teams often do not engage the complex relationships in ways that enable self-organization. A project team with enough diversity to reflect both the systems and the skills involved or a clear strategy to engage the diversity is required.
A drive for change or a search for fitness in its environment Commitment and drive are a requirement, but an ability to perceive and agilely respond to changes in the social, political and technical environment are keys to success in projects. This means a balancing of results with the acceptance of change.  Measurements of that are transparent to all involved enables self-organizing agility.
Relatively sparse prior connection of the components The ability to generate new connections between the components of a system.  A “hard wired” set of unchanging relationships can create stale or ponderous projects.  Engaging new people or changing the relationships is required for vitality.
Functioning at the edge of chaos When things get confusing because of changes in the environment or unexpected situations, the chaos can be an opportunity to find the next level of project life or energy.  The challenge for project managers is to allow the new to emerge rather than shut it down out of fear.  It is possible to intentionally allow the pattern of project development to emerge, within boundaries, toward a clear and compelling goal, rather than be prescribed from the beginning.


If everything in a project is neat and orderly, and running like a clock, it will likely stay as a clock and not live.  If the changes are substantial or transformative, requiring people to learn and do new things, then applying what we are learning about complex systems, chaos and the emergence of life could be the difference between real success and window dressing.

Appreciating our Social Constructions

Over the last 30 years we have also been learning how humans construct their view of the world and how that social construction influences what actually happens.  Traditional organizational change theory has focused on identifying problems and then trying to fix the problems.  This perspective works well in mechanical systems.  If you fix a broken wheel then the car will run better.  There is growing evidence that if you focus on the problem in human systems you can decrease the energy for bringing about change.  Focusing on what has worked in the past and extending that learning to the present can create more energy for a living system to move toward growth and positive change.  Focusing on the problems often leads to finding someone to blame rather than finding ways to move forward toward solutions.


David Cooperrider was one of the first to apply “post-modern” thought to organizational development and change.  At Case Western University he challenged the traditional Action-Research paradigm developed by Kurt Lewin and others which focused on identifying problems in a “force field” and then overcoming them or going around them.  For Action Research, problem or barrier identification is the primary starting point.  Much effort is spent in researching and diagnosing the “problem” and then developing a solution.  In many circumstances that approach was not working, in fact fixing one problem just led to another.  People were using the “problems or blocks” as excuses for not acting (Cooperrider. 2001)


Cooperrider, Jane Magruder-Watkins and other appreciative thinkers believe that this creates less energy for change than looking first at what is working.  Appreciative Inquiry is a reframing of the proactive planning process, an innovation in action/research.  It follows a similar pattern by gathering information (data or stories) and collective interpretation of that information to develop propositions, drawing conclusions and developing actions.  It does it quite differently than traditional action research because it has re-framed (or socially constructed) the process “appreciatively”.  It engages a system in appreciating what has worked and what gives energy for positive change and then articulating provocative propositions that clarify what is to be done next.  Propositions that are grounded in the life-force or energy of a system provide a stimulus for positive growth and self-organization (Magruder Watson. 2001)


Appreciative Inquiry is a less linear approach to change than action/research.  It requires intuition as well as real information from those involved.  That “information” is embedded in the “stories” of what works.  Inquiry into the stories of where there has been energy in the past taps into the current energy for change of the organization or project.  Stories provide much more information about human systems and people’s experience then do independent lists of information or data.  Stories integrate experience at the individual, social and concrete levels.  It is an intentional way of grounding the vision of what is next in the life-force or energy that is present in the living system.  Articulating the values behind the story clarifies what has worked in the past.  Constructing provocative statements in the present tense gives light or energy to actions that can be taken now and tomorrow.  The approach seems to enables a system to find a better fit with its environment and use and build upon the capabilities and assets that it has already.


Projects that require the active engagement of people must pay attention to the energy or life-force for change that is present with those people.  Some projects prefer not to ground themselves in the realities of their related systems for fear that the lack of skill or commitment will bring down the project or mean that it will take longer than projected. Unless the plan is to fire all staff and start again the project at some point will still need to build on the strengths and successes of the people who are there.  Those people will need to learn the new approaches and culture required by a new technology or business process.


These issues are also often faced by the project team itself.  Teams have their own ups and downs as they find ways to work together and accomplish their goals, particularly if they reflect any of the diversity of the complex systems in which the project is embedded.  When something is not working as hoped or planned then the team often loses energy and the ability to “fit” with its changing environment.  It can stagnate or fall into divisive conflicts.  Thus, project teams also need to discover how to build, sustain or renew the energy or life-force to make it through the normal ups and downs of living systems.

This article continues in Part 3:- “Living Projects – The Space to Become Lively”


Larry Peterson can be contacted by email at or you can read more of his articles at



Cooperrider, Sorensen, Yaeger & Witney. 2001. Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organizational Development. Stipes Publishing.

Johnson, Steven. 2001. Emergence. Scribner. New York.

Kauffman, Stuart. 1995 At Home in the Universe. New York. Oxford University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Magruder Watkins & Mohr. 2001. Appreciative Inquiry. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Owen, Harrison. 1997. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

Owen, Harrison. 2004. The Practice of Peace. Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

Peterson, Panchyshyn & King. 2001. eCollaboration in Complex Communities. Starfield Consulting. 2001.

Von Bertalanfy, Ludwig. 1968. General Systems Theory. Braziller. New York

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. 1992. Complexity. New York. Simon & Shuster

Wilber, Ken. 2002. “Kosmos Trilogy”. Unpublished.


Related Posts

Continue reading

Living Projects – The Space to Become Lively

This is the third of a 3-part article – you can read the first 2 parts via the links below: PART 1: Living Projects PART 2: Living Projects - Complex Adaptive and Living Systems   It is not possible to “control” lively self-organizing...

Living Projects

Successful projects are a critical part of our work environment, and we have learned much in recent years about establishing clear objectives and managing deliverables, quality, costs and schedules.  Linear planning has given us some useful approaches but we...