Complexity and project management – exercising practical judgement in conditions of uncertainty

In an INGO where I was working recently one of the newer members of staff proudly told me that he was Prince2 trained. This was mentioned in relation to the conversation we were having about what he considered to be the ‘lack of systems’, I think implying a lack of rigour, that he perceived in the organisation he had just joined. As someone who once worked as a systems analyst, operating at the interface between software developers and end users, I was prompted into thinking about why my colleague might believe that a project management method originating from software development, and contested even there as to its usefulness, might also be suitable for managing social development projects. One would hardly look to the domain of IT for examples of projects which have been delivered on time and to budget, without even considering the other, obvious differences between the two fields of activity. Nevertheless, Prince2 is a good example of the kinds of tools, frameworks and methods which increasingly pervade the management of social development, and are taken to be signs of professionalization in the sector.

Prince2, Projects IN Controlled Environments 2, is the third manifestation of a highly structured method for managing complex IT projects (first PROMPT, then PRINCE, then PRINCE2). It has been developed, adopted and promoted by the British government and is now a requirement for anyone tendering for British government IT projects. Prince2 comprises eight components, three techniques, eight processes which have 44 sub-processes, and claims to be a generic method which is applicable for any complex project, not just IT, and in any context. While it has nothing to say about the management of people, Prince2 is very plan-heavy and has rigorous and bureaucratic procedures for reporting against, and correcting towards, pre-reflected goals. One of its key claims is the early identification and mitigation of risk, that is to say, any event in the project that might be a threat to pre-conceived plans.

Anyone familiar with the LFA (the logical framework analysis) will recognise similar conceptual underpinnings to Prince2. Like Prince2, the LFA claims a universality of application, and is supposedly useful in any context and for any project; it disaggregates logically from a whole into parts, moving from the general to the particular. It assumes that causality is of an if-then kind: it we undertake this activity, then we will get that kind of result, and it focuses management effort on correcting to the pre-reflected ideal.  In doing so it privileges thought before action, assuming that pre-reflected intentionality is more important than the consequences of following our intentions. Both methods are highly abstract, rely heavily on documentation, planning and accountability to contract holders and exception reporting: that is to say, reporting against those milestones in the plan which were supposed to be achieved but have not been. They are both methods which advantage administrators managing at a distance who want to ‘see like a state’ . Neither has much to say about power and politics, justice, context, history and judgement, since they cover over people and what they are doing with schemata. And interestingly, any social development professional could be competent in Prince2 after a five day training course, and with the LFA in two days, irrespective of experience in the field.

This post will continue to explore what I consider to be some of the more radical insights from the complexity sciences because I think that it turns many of the assumptions which underpin both the logical framework and Prince2, and one might argue, many of the other assumptions of predictability and control that accompany much contemporary management discourse, on their head.

So for example, a radical interpretation of complex adaptive systems theory would argue that causality is never of an if-then kind since interactions between agents are non-linear; that the local and global are arising paradoxically and simultaneously together, which would encourage a focus on how the particular Is informing the general and vice versa. We would not automatically privilege our abstract plans of wholesale change for the good over the particular conditions which we encounter. If the local and global mutually inform each other, then our understanding of our particular context and its historical development are central to constructive project work, rather than peripheral to it. To extend the analogy, abstract generalisations, such as project plans and LFAs, can only ever be taken up in particular places between particular people at particular times and interpreted together.

The future of complex adaptive systems is radically uncertain, and I am taking uncertainty to mean unknown unknowns, rather than the known unknowns, which is how I understand risk. Since we cannot know what we don’t know about how our plans will unfold, there is a limit to how much risk mitigation will be useful. If we were to take such an interpretation of complex adaptive systems theory seriously, we would be less concerned about exception-reporting against our pre-reflected plans, because we would expect our actions to bring about the expected, the unexpected and the unwanted. All three consequences would be important data to help us think through how our abstract intentions, which are a best guess at a certain point in time, play out in reality with others, who are often the objects of our good intentions. We would need to accept the limits to which it is possible to control circumstances in which we are not the only players.

The most important aspects of project work in social development are not to be found in the plan, or the planning methods. Rather they involve paying careful attention to what people are doing to achieve whatever it is they set out to do. This  involves taking seriously questions of power, recognition and practical judgement in the particular encounter with others, and a radical empiricism that remains open to the exploration of contestation and difference. Good development managers are not necessarily the ones who have mastered Prince2, but the ones who are radically open to the plurality of experience and who have developed a high degree of reflective and reflexive ability in the groups engaged in the social development undertaking. This is not something which can be mastered in a five day training programme.


2 thoughts on “Complexity and project management – exercising practical judgement in conditions of uncertainty

  1. PM Hut

    Hi Chris,

    A great article on project management… I am interested in republishing it on PM Hut, under the musings category, I think many PM Hut readers will benefit from it.

    Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact U” form on the PM Hut website in case you agree with the republishing.


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