Project Management Institute

Accelerating complex projects

get concrete results fast by managing the environment rather than the details

Our world is changing faster and faster, and our projects are being asked to deliver more and more results in less and less time. In fourteen months, Napster went from having 1 million to eighty million users, and was the most successful new technology on record. And then it, effectively, went out of business, only to re-emerge years later with a completely different business model!. Today, some of the most popular shows on television are in formats that weren't even broadcast in prime time three years ago. And we, as project managers, are expected to keep up and deliver significant results in this fast-paced environment. No wonder projects are getting more demanding. No wonder people feel discouraged. No wonder things don't seem to be working anymore.

As the complexity of business increases, so do our projects. Yet despite the amount of time and energy being pumped into projects, results have been disappointing. Examples of project failure rates abound. Recent statistics indicate a current failure rate of 40% and costs overruns 30% of the time. (Smith, 2000) This increasing failure rate extends to other types of projects, as well. There are countless studies describing the failure of re-engineering or merger and acquisition projects to deliver on their promises. It is not only time and money that are wasted in these projects, but opportunities are lost because the window to capitalize on them passes before we are ready.

To put this in a more relevant example — nobody would drive an automobile that just dumped them at the side of the road 40% of the time, or used gas and oil sometimes at rates greater than 50% of their ratings. We need to think about projects in a revolutionary way.

When Copernicus developed his sun-centered model of the universe, everything took on a whole new meaning. The earth-centered model could no longer explain the complexity of what was being observed. Instead of trying to perfect the old model, Copernicus came up with a whole new way of looking at the same data. He didn't throw the foundation away, he just shifted his perspective, and the complexity could suddenly be explained. In a more recent example, VISA changed the way we think about shopping by changing the way we think about the whole borrowing and lending business. By changing our perspective, VISA changed how we think about a familiar activity. It is time to do that now with project management. It's time to change the perspective of how we control projects.

At present, we see projects and project teams as objects to be controlled as in a machine. If, instead of seeing our projects as machines, we thought of them as ecosystems, how would that change our perspective? In this new view, we no longer seek to control our projects, but to influence them. This doesn't mean we throw away the cornerstones of project management – project-planning and points of control – instead, we will reframe them in a revolutionary way. These new perspectives and techniques allow us to manage people's energy instead of their activities, thus enabling us to achieve more with less effort. In this paper, we will use real examples to show that by tapping into the creative potential of the people involved, and using, rather than fighting, the dynamic environment we achieved more with less.

Projects As Ecosystems

Projects are not machines. Instead, they are like ecosystems: multi-faceted entities that evolve, adapt, and grow as their inhabitants and elements interact with each other and their external environments. Seen in this way, projects literally take on a life of their own. Until now, business enjoyed a relatively stable state of affairs that encouraged us to manage projects in a mechanistic way because the path to the results could be controlled as long as enough detail was incorporated in the planning stages. This approach still works well when the deliverables are clearly defined and the context is relatively stable, as in construction projects or technology upgrades. However, when major change is required in a volatile environment, projects are more successful when we acknowledge that they are more like living systems than machines.

If, as project managers, we understand how project-ecosystems function, we can use this knowledge to enable a whole new level of productivity. Some of the inherent characteristics of a project-ecosystem are:

There is no clear division between the inside and outside of a project. Projects exist within their own environment and as part of a larger environment. There are more or less fluid boundaries across which information flows to and from the surrounding environment, creating a feedback loop. As the larger environment changes, projects survive by adapting. Conversely, as the internal environment of a project changes, it has an influence on its surroundings.

The people in the project interact in apparently random ways. (Patterns or structures emerge from the interaction among the people, teams, and groups within the project.) From all these interactions, patterns emerge which inform the behaviour of the people and teams within the project and the behaviour of the project itself.

Individuals are most productive when their own “survival” is aligned with the goals of the project. Project team members are not only influenced by the project plan and management, but also by all the elements in the environment, such as other individuals, external contexts, and their own passions and interests. The natural level of complexity and ongoing change make it impossible to fully understand a project-ecosystem or orchestrate change at a detailed level.

Because of its capacity for growth, adaptation, and evolution, a project is open to influence from both inside and outside through a shifting of overall focus or boundaries.

Due to these characteristics, the goal for project managers is to foster an environment that catalyzes productivity at all levels. (By creating the right conditions, individuals and groups of team members will naturally change their behavior to improve their fit with the new environment, thereby increasing productivity.) Instead of managing the particular details of each individual's activities, project managers regulate the ecosystem's overall energy. Here are some concrete ways project managers can influence the project-ecosystem in a positive direction:

  1. Clearly articulate the project outcomes and “givens” and then enforce and reinforce those conditions. The objectives and boundaries of a project create the environment within which the project team will strive to fit. This will bring about the creativity needed to take project performance to the next level.
  2. Foster connections and relationships between team members and stakeholders. Insisting on direct interaction between diverse team members and stakeholder groups encourages information-flow which is essential for productivity within a project.
  3. Don't rush to eliminate ambiguity or paradox within the project. Contradictions abound in living systems, and those that use them to create new possibilities are able to co-evolve with their environment. These new possibilities are the breakthroughs that result in higher-level outcomes. Develop arenas in which participants can discuss their perspectives and experience.
  4. Commit to transparency and interactive feedback at all levels. Allow all team members and stakeholders to understand the entire project and learn about the effects of the whole. Use tools that maintain a constant awareness of both the internal and external environment so that participants self-correct to ensure they are contributing effectively. This will result in an increase in productivity with no effort on the part of leadership.

Advertise small positive changes to cause a positive ripple effect. A small change that is mirrored back to the system can create an echo effect that causes more changes of a similar nature. Again, without significant effort on the part of leadership.

Let's use a more concrete example to understand our new framework. Consider the challenge of creating an effective transportation system in a busy city. Clearly, directing individual routes by analyzing and managing each vehicle would be far too complex. Instead, traffic engineers develop a framework within which citizens self-organize and operate in a highly efficient manner. From this framework, four components are clear:

  1. Objectives: Maximum Safety, Maximum Mobility
  2. Boundaries: Traffic Laws, Roads
  3. Boundary Enforcement Mechanisms: Driver Exams, Police, Road Building Plans and Inspections, Traffic Lights and Signage
  4. Information Accessibility: News Reports, Highway Signage and driver observation

By creating a framework and allowing people to operate freely within that framework, society has created a highly efficient system that self-corrects and continually strives towards the objectives. At different times, the environment changes dramatically. For example, there can be severe weather conditions, construction, or accidents. Because of the structure of the system, dealing with these changes does not require intentional interventions. As long as the boundaries are maintained and information is accessible, and because drivers want to get where they are going without putting themselves at risk, individuals can easily adjust their behaviour and continue moving towards the objectives.

Creating a similar framework to drive productivity within a project enables project managers to realize the full potential of their workforce with the same level of simplicity. This approach has worked for years in organizations that have stood the test of time. 3M, a company that is universally recognized for its success, has used these principles to its advantage to foster innovation within the company.

Ecosystem Project Productivity Curve Improvements

Figure 1 - Ecosystem Project Productivity Curve Improvements

In a project-ecosystem, the role of the project manager is to catalyze the team into action, foster self-organization and capitalize on people's ability to adapt to their environment. Team members and stakeholders are expected to create their own solutions. Instead of resisting or ignoring changes in the surrounding, managers actively create mechanisms to force people to stay aware of the whole, and the environment becomes a part of the project's driving force.

But how does this work at a practical level? Typically, a project has a three-stage life cycle in terms of productivity: the learning curve, peak productivity, and confidence crisis. Each of these stages has specific characteristics and different techniques are used to maximize the project-ecosystem principles.

The Learning Curve

The early stages of a project or project phase are full of ambiguity, anxiety, and disorganization. Team members are anxious to prove themselves, stakeholders are concerned about potential changes to their jobs, and sponsors feel a strong need to achieve some visible results. Initially, eager team members take the lead, and jump in to work with stakeholders and produce results, but no one is on the same page, and isolated insights emerge with no clear framework. This is because each sub-team needs to learn the same basic information about the context as well as the details of their specific area. The typical approach is for each sub-team to work with the same small group of “Subject Matter Experts” (SMEs) to collect this information. Unfortunately, the result is usually that the SMEs become overwhelmed, sub-teams remain isolated from one another, and while everyone is working very hard, productivity remains low. Progress is painfully slow because, even though the overall structure becomes clearer and new insights emerge, major changes must be made to any previous work before moving forward.

Energetically, project participants begin to exhibit defensive postures during the learning curve. Some are looking to achieve a specific direction or outcome; others are passively resisting the changes, hoping that if they stay under the radar, their jobs won't be affected; and still others, believing that the best defense is a good offense, attack the approach as a whole. The result is a variety of conflicting motivations that affect the energy and focus of the team members and hold back the project's progress. The learning curve, at its least productive, is a breeding ground for anxiety, redundancy, and frustration.

Applying the Project-Ecosystem Principles to the Learning Curve

For the learning curve to be more productive, we must create an atmosphere that fosters co-operation, synergy, and parallel thinking, making self-organization, breakthrough thinking, and collective understanding of the whole possible. Instead of working to perfect and refine the individual aspects of the project, the learning curve becomes an opportunity for the project team and stakeholders to work together to address the project objectives.

Let's look at a real example: A multi-national road and building materials company with over twelve thousand employees wants to streamline its payroll processes because of a wide variety of inefficiencies. Everything from IT problems to compliance dilemmas require employees to work overtime on a regular basis. Solving the root cause of the problems will be very time-consuming, but time is a luxury not available to a division that is responsible for ensuring thousands of employees get paid on time.

In this project, productivity is not just desirable, but it is essential. The project sponsor decided to use an Open Space1 workshop to focus the team on the situation as a whole and identify the opportunities that would have the biggest impact on their environment. In an Open Space workshop, the group is presented with the project objectives and the boundary conditions or “givens” of the project. They are then challenged to find ways to achieve the objectives within these boundaries. In a free-flowing process that operates similar to a corporate grapevine, the opportunities and challenges are defined and discussed, and solutions are presented. Minutes are immediately available throughout the process to allow participants to stay connected to the whole. The group self-organizes according to their individual passions and interests. Leaders emerge from these groups and take responsibility willingly.

As in all Open Space workshops, the construction materials company ensured everyone from the payroll clerks to the division directors were given equal footing to their issues and solutions. As is common with self-organizing processes, simply allowing the free flow of communication among levels of management and departments caused miscommunications to be cleared up and seemingly complicated problems to be resolved with little effort. As a result of the Open Space, the payroll employees generated forty-six concrete solution strategies, and were able to commit to them because the boundaries of the project (i.e. resources, governing structures, and time constraints) were clearly defined.

Using a method such as Open Space increases the productivity of the learning curve because it creates an environment in which information is easily disseminated. Stakeholders and employees are able to discuss and define the challenges and opportunities of the project as a whole. As long as the project objectives and boundaries are clearly defined, participants easily produce viable solutions without the frustration or negativity of a typical learning curve.

Peak Performance

The Peak Performance stage is characterized by a general sense of confidence – even overconfidence – in the direction and progress of the project. Now that the issues have been defined and the solutions outlined, everyone is operating at capacity, synergies are common, and there is a sense of alignment and common direction. Although this may seem to be exactly how project should run, there is a tendency for teams to stagnate and become complacent because it is too easy for employees to chip away at their individual tasks and are unable or unwilling to address aspects of the project that are in trouble.

This usually occurs because the project teams are not consciously aware of the internal or external issues of the project and are no longer proactive in looking for new solutions. No one wants to face the problems because everyone is impatient to get the work done and achieve the objectives. Employees and team leaders are reluctant to put in more time and effort than is required. Problems either grow or fester, and productivity levels off because the unresolved issues eat away at the integrity of the entire project.

Applying the Project-Ecosystem Principles to Peak Performance

Workers are more likely to be creative and self-correcting when the project incorporates mechanisms that ensure that the facts of the project and its environment are transparent. Transparency forces the team to face the facts and take responsibility for the project's conditions. The project avoids stagnation and generates realistic solutions from within its own ranks that are in line with its goals and limits. The project's boundaries are strictly controlled, information is widely available, and within the project boundaries, workers are free to take initiative. The plans and points of control are the project's skeleton, and the workers' creativity is its circulatory system. Both are needed for the project to stay alive, and neither works without the other.

Let's return to the large building materials company. To keep workers involved and informed, and to maintain a sense of personal accountability, the project managers placed a bull's-eye chart in the lobby and indicated the progress of each team with either a red, yellow, or green marker. They used public accountability to prevent complacency from setting in. It motivated team members to take responsibility because they wanted to be thriving, not just avoiding stagnation. Different teams worked together to ensure that the project kept moving. No individual project was ever in the yellow (being in the yellow meant the project was at risk of losing ground) for more than a week. Project leaders asked for help if their section was lagging, and found ways to solve problems in order to return to the green status as fast as possible. The project as a whole became everyone's responsibility and there was a collective sense of commitment and pride in the results they were achieving.

To keep workers involved and informed, management has to be open and transparent about the project as a whole. This is difficult because everyone wants to look good for the boss, and it can be embarrassing and discouraging to admit failure. Therefore, managers are responsible for putting in place structures and processes that sidestep this conflict of interest and ensure that transparency is being used to foster co-operation between the front line and the executive team. Making sure that the conditions of the project's internal and external environments are made available to everyone, forces individuals to take responsibility for their own place within the project as well as those areas which need assistance. No one is confined to his/her own isolated niche anymore. Instead, everyone is allowed to participate in other aspects of the project. This increases a sense of personal responsibility for the entire project, which in turn leads to a deeper commitment to the project's objectives, and a greater willingness to confront problems as they arise. These attitudes are more than enough to avoid or eliminate stagnation, and bolster the project move forward at a vastly increased pace.

The Confidence Crisis

The confidence crisis occurs when participants, for whatever reason, start to believe that the project may not succeed, and there is an increase in negative, blaming, and self-protecting behaviours. It starts with a gap. It might be real, such as a rapidly changing context, discouraging results, or limited time, or it might simply be the natural energy drain that all projects experience as projects proceed and team members lose touch with what others have accomplished. Individually and collectively, team members begin to worry about what will happen. The natural reaction is that individuals begin to work harder and harder on the deliverables for which they are personally responsible. With the increased focus on their own work, they have less time to work on related aspects for which they are not personally accountable. The result is that the gap increases because individual pieces are become isolated and are no longer compatible. As the gap increases, fears and personal vulnerability increase, as well as negative behaviours such as finger pointing and self-protection. Issues are escalated, tension rises, and the energy of the project plummets.

Applying the Project-Ecosystems Principles to the Confidence Crisis

To re-energize a project that is mired in the confidence crisis, or to avoid it altogether, project managers can use methods that allow the team to reflect on the project team's accomplishments. This simple process of affirmation increases the participants' self-assurance and renews the desire and confidence needed for them to achieve success because it focuses attention on accomplishments instead of on the problems or “gaps” that arise in transformation projects. It requires discipline to take the time to focus attention on past accomplishments when present problems are looming. But taking the leap of faith to do so will stimulate the confidence, commitment, and energy needed to achieve a higher level of performance.

When the payroll employees at the building materials company hit the confidence crisis, this reflective technique was used to draw the attention away from the sense of being overwhelmed to affirm what had already been accomplished. As the end of the project neared, participants began feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work still to be done and lost confidence that progress was being made. Although they were committed to the process, the increased workload with no obvious outcomes was causing workers to lose momentum and succumb to a real confidence crisis. People were frustrated, and began to lose their connection to the vision they had created at the beginning of the process; they lost sight of the whole, and their individual concerns were blown out of proportion.

To pull the project out of this crisis, management asked everyone involved to share in a free-flowing conversation about what they had accomplished. Participants were astounded to find that they had already implemented forty-six significant changes. Because they had been included in the project's development from the beginning, they could feel a real connection to the evidence of their hard work. It was shown to them what they had already accomplished, and they could claim a genuine sense of ownership. This sense of responsibility and pride made them more willing to commit to following the project through to completion. They were re-energized, re-focused, and confident. A testament to this is a study conducted by an independent consultant that found that the payroll division of the building materials company had achieved a twelve percent improvement in productivity in less than three months.

By reflecting back to the group what they have already accomplished, managers create a positive feedback loop that creates greater and greater accomplishments. This strategy influences the project by managing the energy, not the activities of the group. Participants are willing to structure their activities once their passion and commitment have been re-ignited. As the thought patterns of the participants are shifted from a negative to a positive focus, the entire project is influenced in a positive direction. People re-commit to goals of the overall project, a sense of collaboration is re-established, and project success is imminent.


In today's fast-paced world, projects behave more like ecosystems than machines. They are open to influence both from within and without, and are capable of growing, changing, and adapting to these influences. Project-ecosystems are complex entities with layers of interaction and influence that are constantly changing. This makes it impossible to pin down each aspect for long enough to create a detailed plan. Once we acknowledge this reality, we can take advantage of it by changing how we think about and manage our projects. As managers, we need to articulate clear objectives and define the project's boundaries instead of creating a plan that regulates every aspect of the project. Once these have been established, our job is to manage the energy of the people involved. By giving the freedom to participate where they have a natural interest, we tap into their reservoir of potential energy and eliminate the time and energy involved in selling and orchestrating a pre-planned change. This freedom to choose within the project's boundaries unleashes a pride and sense of ownership that fosters co-operation, commitment, and creativity. Using the methods we have outlined, such as Open Space workshops, compassionate transparency, and affirmation of past successes, we as managers no longer need to use our own energy to motivate our workers. Our job is to manage the energy, focus, and direction of the project once we have created an environment that allows them to take ownership of the project. Projects re-claim their place as tools of success because the people involved use their own sense of responsibility, passion, and commitment, to get a lot more done with a lot less.


1 See for more information about Open Space and its applicability.


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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2005, Sharon King
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Congress Proceedings — Toronto, Canada



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