Leading Dynamically Complex Projects

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Author: Steven Cavaleri

Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut, USA, and
Fred Reed
As It Is Inc., Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, USA



– The paper seeks to establish a critical role for leaders in guiding projects to higher levels
of effectiveness. This role centers on using the thinking capacities associated with systems thinking,
knowledge processing, action learning, and pragmatism. It is also to design systems to imbue these
capacities into the operation of project teams.
Design/methodology/approach – This paper presents a case study, action-research observations,
and conceptual models. Actual case studies including a medium-sized US manufacturer and a large


– This paper includes a section that presents research findings that suggest efforts by
managers to improve profits actually reduced profit in the longer term due to erroneous learning and
low-quality knowledge.

Research limitations/implications

– The research presented does not focus specifically on project
teams, but rather on the interplay between project teams and the larger organizations of which they
are part.

Practical implications

– In certain industries, the performance track record of project teams for
operating according to schedule and within budget is dismal. Such failures have been wrongly
attributed to bad staffing, poor decision making, internal politics, or external forces. This paper
proposes that the more common reasons for such failures are erroneous learning caused by
misperceptions of dynamic feedback, low-quality knowledge, imbalances among system elements, and
failure to account for dynamics and time delays. An approach called project management system
pragmatics is proposed for use by leaders as a way to improve the effectiveness of project teams.


– This is the first approach to project management/leadership that offers
practical ways for leaders to conceive of how to deal with the ambiguities posed by the dynamics of the
complex systems many project teams operate within.


- Leadership, Project management, Knowledge management, Learning, Thinking styles
Paper type Conceptual paper

Quotes from the Article:

"Conventional wisdom holds that controlling projects ever more tightly is paramount for
success. This view often stems from the belief that control alone is what leads to
continuously higher levels of consistency in project performance."

"The Project Management Body of Knowledge (Project Management Institute, 2004) defines project management as being “the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to
meet project requirements.”

"Cavaleri and Obloj (1993, p. 13) explain that a system is “a group of elements that
act in concert and with some degree of coherent unity.” Further, a management system
is a purposeful assembly of management tools and processes used to achieve some
strategic end. Typically, elements of a management system may also include:

. structure;
. strategy;
. culture;
. procedures; and
. leadership."

Hard Systems Approach:

"Project management has historically relied nearly exclusively on hard systems approaches for program planning, resource allocation, scheduling, budget compliance, and control – and is driven by classical
economic and engineering models. For example, PERT, CPM, and materials requirements planning (MRP) techniques all fall within this class."

"Traditionally, project managers have seen projects as clearly defined systems that behave in intrinsically linear and deterministic ways that can be rationally engineered and tightly controlled. Here, projects are often unwittingly envisioned as being no more than simple machines that operate within a framework of certainty where rational decisions produce predictable effects by means of discernable

- the authors seem to indicate there is insufficient evidence to argue the validity of this perspective.

"Project management is at once one of the most important and one of the most poorly understood areas of management. Delays and cost overruns are the rule rather than the exception in construction, defense, power generation, aerospace, product development, software, and other areas. Project management suffers from numerous problems of costing and scheduling. Cost overruns from 100 to 200% are common. Projects are often delayed to the point that market conditions for which they were designed have changed. Many projects suffer from the “90% syndrome” in which the project is thought to be 90% for half the total time required. Project management is often counterintuitive."

"As projects grow complex, and “project failure” is appallingly a major trend in the several
areas of economic activity, the traditional approach to Project Management has proven
ineffective to cope with complexity, and hence new more sophisticated techniques are needed
to improve performance."

Soft Systems Approach:

"…the soft systems tradition – which assumes that goal-seeking is not sufficient to capture many aspects of human affairs and regards models as merely logical frameworks based on some view of reality, not reality itself."

The Root of the Problem:

"…organizational effectiveness, in complex systems, is mainly a
function of changing the way problems are defined. They propose that most solutions
are ineffective because the problems they were meant to solve were diagnosed based on
faulty or incomplete knowledge of how the complex systems that problems are
embedded within work. The underlying limitation, in their view, is that the quality of
knowledge about the system that is used to define problems is of insufficient quality to
enable the creation of a valid diagnosis."

Important People & Concepts:

1. Philosophical Pragmatism - originated with American Scientist/Philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce -

2. Knowledge life cycle -

3. Process philosophy -

4. Autopoiesis -

"We recommend several steps for project managers to move in the direction of increasing the effectiveness of dynamically complex projects in meeting requirements. These include:

(1) Focus on being a project leader as well as a project manager.

(2) Direct one’s leadership efforts toward building the capacity of team members to
learn from experience and translate that into new knowledge of what works
most reliably well in various projects.

(3) Design systems that increasing organizational knowledge processing
capabilities and improve the overall quality of knowledge within the project

(4) Conceive of projects as complex dynamic systems by:

. defining the system and its boundaries;

. identifying the causal relations among the systems elements;

. envision how the interactions among the system’s elements might create
various imbalances and trigger certain patterns of behavior or dynamics;

. discover the natural state of balance that enables the system to change,
adapt, renew, and repair itself."

A summary of the five elements is presented below:

(1) Identity. The quality that results in a strong cohesive organizational culture,
clear brand identity, ethical business principles, calm productivity, and
unifying values that guide daily behavior and decision-making.

(2) Vision. The quality that is reflected in a clear, inspiring vision of the future,
good humor, optimism, planning before action, examining of assumptions, and
creativity that results in valuable new knowledge.

(3) Mission. The quality that results in a strong commitment to an exciting shared
mission, clear priorities, decisive action, high motivation and energy, and a
willingness to quickly address and resolve conflict.

(4) Interactions. The quality that is reflected in the workplace as caring community,
good communication and information flow, high-employee satisfaction, ability
to give feedback, a strong market and loyal clients.

(5) Structure. Highly functional infrastructure built to realize organization’s
identity, values, vision, mission, and optimize interactions. Strong bottom-line,
careful resource management, high-quality products/services.

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