Recently a frequent topic of conversation in my circle of colleagues has been one of complexity, and more specifically, emergence, in management of companies, portfolios, and projects.
By emergence, I mean ‘situations or properties of a given system that would not have been predicted by those observing the parts of the system’.
Some time ago, @daviding copied some terminology considerations down on ingbrief that are highly relevant. Here’s one that compares emergence (and emergent properties) and reduction, where emergence is conceived as, among other things, an actualization of potential relationships between parts (and therefore a functional reduction).
While you’re there, I personally find a nice pairing with this entry on wholism and reductionism.
My interests are highly pragmatic in this context. It seems to be the case that, among my circle, which is a group of relatively seasoned project/program managers with varying technical and non-technical backgrounds, that despite a well-intentioned start, and rigorous analysis of a given set of project requirements, team compositions, etc., a sort of ‘emergence’ takes place, where the ‘management system’ intended for the project is designed for a particular set of conditions, and those conditions change rapidly the point that the management system becomes it’s own burden.
This reminds me of Alex Ryan’s article on ‘systemic design’, which claims there’s a ‘boundary condition’ for ‘smooth water approaches’:
“The familiar approaches have been designed for sailing fast on a smooth lake. They quickly become liabilities in a white-water world.
Smooth-water approaches include:
- Divided organizations that fragment and compartmentalize objectives, responsibilities, and incentives;
- Linear processes that cleave workflows into neat boxes and sequential decision cycles;
- Reductionist tools and models that ignore context and messy realities in favour of the abstract, the idealized, and the measurable;
- Analytic mindsets that justify decision-making primarily through deductive logic, linear causal chains, quantitative data, trend-line extrapolation, and rational argument; and
- Habitual patterns for who we consult, who we collaborate with, and which levers we employ to make change.
At a certain point in this progression, however, we may begin to notice something that troubles. With increasing complexity, the marginal benefits of our methods begin to diminish while their costs escalate. This means there is a boundary condition for smooth-water approaches, beyond which their costs exceed their benefits. Worse, if we push smooth-water approaches too far beyond this complexity limit, they become not just costly, but counter-productive. “ (above link)
Traditional project management would, I’d argue, be categorized in this way (as would a number of quality-based practices, and other management practices identified by Ackoff as problematic due to their lack of systems orientation). I’m also reminded of Snowden’s take on scrum in this case as a good example of holding states of liminality.
I wonder if anyone here has any thoughts on this? Specifically:
Are there any great models on emergence as related to the management of companies, projects that come to mind?
Is there any evidence that certain practices work, across differing cultural, company or operating conditions?
Is this even a real phenomena, or is it something closer to one of the definitions on ingbrief, that is:
“2.”a) Properties which emerge as a coarser-grained level of resolution is used by the observer.
b) Properties which are unexpected by the observer because of his incomplete data set, with regard to the phenomenon at hand.