Reality is difficult to analyze. Project Managers still have to eliminate root-causes to major problems though. How to analyze today’s complexity? I found something worthwhile exploring: Panarchy. Its origin is in ecosystem management, where it is used for assessment on how ecosystems, social systems and economic systems are interacting. How complex do you want to go?
Photography by Tscherno.
“Panarchy is a conceptual framework to account for the dual, and seemingly contradictory, characteristics of all complex systems – stability and change. It is the study of how economic growth and human development depend on ecosystems and institutions, and how they interact.” (from SustainableScale.org)
Interesting enough I my opinion, to spend a couple of postings on the subject, and see how it might be of use in Project Management.
The Adaptive Cycle
Within Panarchy a system is going through four stages: growth (r), conservation (K), release (O) and reorganization (a).
(I have taken the descriptions of the stages from “Assessing and managing resilience in social-ecological systems: Volume 2 supplementary notes to the practitioners workbook“, which can be freely downloaded from the Resilience Alliance – bottom of the page).
Image by SustainableScale.org.
- During the growth phase the system finds an abundance of resources available. Expansion and exploration of new opportunities are key concepts within this stage. “When new ecological spaces open up – due, for instance, to forest fires, or retreating glaciers, or many other things- resources needed for other species to grow are made available. There’s more light reaching the soil surface when large trees are toppled, or burned to the ground, for example.”
- “The r phase is transitory, and as the system matures, it is replaced by the K phase. Eventually slower growing, long lived species or entities enter the system. Resources become less widely available as they become “locked up”… The K phase is sometimes called the conservation phase, because energy acquired goes into maintaining or conserving existing structure, rather than building new structure. In this phase, a few dominant species or companies or countries … have acquired many of the resources and are controlling the way they can be used.”
- “Often systems rapidly pass into a phase called omega. This is also referred to as the release (or creative destruction) phase because structure, relationships, capital or complexity accumulated during the r and K phases is released (often in a dramatic or abrupt fashion). … Plants may die … or a company may go bankrupt, releasing workers and decommissioning factories or offices.”
- “The fourth, or alpha phase, is a period of reorganization, in which some of the entities previously released begin to re-structure but not necessarily as they were before. This phase can mark the beginning of another trip through an adaptive cycle … Many new entities may enter the system, and innovation becomes more probable.”
The adaptive cycle describes a system that has periods of stability and period of heavy change.
Blogging As An Adaptive Cycle
When I read it the first time it reminded me of my blogging. First I set out to explore all kinds of knowledge that could be beneficial to Project Management. The first couple of weeks I felt like a kid in a toy store: sociology, criminology, complexity, and even sociolinguistics. How cool! After a while you just start to focus on one or two topics that begin to dominate your time and effort. After a longer period of diving in the depths of these topics, I tend to get frustrated and demotivated. I hate not being able to explore the other subjects. This state ruins my motivation and has a negative impact on blogging. After the “breakdown” I reorganize my thoughts, close the subjects in some way or another, and start happily on a new cycle.
Projects In An Adaptive Cycle
Looking at projects the first example that comes to mind is this pattern that I have witnessed almost every time in projects that take longer (minimally a year). At first the resources are almost limitless: the real serious deadlines are not even on the horizon, budgets are fresh and hardly depleted, solutions aren’t fixed yet so technicians can run wild exploring the possibilities. When the project is well on its way, certain stakeholders are starting to dominate the field, certain project team members are becoming more in demand than others (think “single point of failures”) and a couple of topics are becoming “hot topics”, and are therefor dominating the agenda. This is the phase that last the longest.
But at a given moment, people burn out or leave, power struggles between stakeholders escalate, the deadlines are appearing on the horizon and the bottom of the budget well is becoming visible. A large breakdown shakes up the whole project. This is the real project crises. And sometimes a crisis is needed to get a project going again, to get new blood, to get innovation. After new people are brought in, stakeholders removed, deadlines moved and money poured in its like an r phase all over again.