Applying chaos theory in a project based organization


Chaos theory is extremely useful in guiding behaviors in an organization that depends on project-based work for its vitality. The theory informs us that small initial conditions can have a huge impact on project outcomes; however, what actually happens is unpredictable. Nature, while chaotic, follows regular patterns, as does human behavior in organizations. An organic approach to the implementation of project management implies that we can learn tremendous lessons from nature on how to achieve better, more harmonious outcomes from our projects. Thus, by observing nature and paying attention to patterns in human behavior, we in essence create a “green”—as opposed to “toxic”—environment for project success.


This paper describes how applying chaos theory can help improve the practices of project management. Several examples provide a foundation wherein nature offers a few simple “rules” for success. Project managers and executives must learn to operate within “bounded instability.” You should identify up-front practices that set the stage for project teams, whether co-located or virtual, to be more creative and productive. Map driving and restraining forces that cause equilibrium or the status quo. Finally, put an action plan into place, either to nudge or massively change the uncovered forces. The result is a shifting of the stable point toward a desired future state that is much different from the present.

In between the assessment and the outcome is a refined or more mature way of thinking and operating. This is not a massive change project or initiative requiring huge funding. Metaphors, examples, education, and communication are the keys for leaders, whether they are executives, sponsors, project managers, or team members, to apply the concepts immediately and bring out the best in people.

Rather than viewing chaos as “undesirable,” project managers should harness the natural forces operating in organizations. You should discover strengths that form the basis for extraordinary results with minimal energy. Recognize “green” elements that help people do their best work, and bridge the gap between strategy and operations in a project-based organization.

To this end, strive to meet the following objectives:

  • Reevaluate environmental factors that impact project success
  • Overcome confusion by focusing efforts on purpose, vision, and mission
  • Apply specific tools and examples to harness chaos and achieve extraordinary results

Understand Chaos


Transform a dark, murky world where people are disconnected from each other into a lush environment—aided by project management—where good things happen. Rather than view chaos as the enemy or as “undesirable,” learn to creatively tap the natural forces at play in organizations—harness and manage them to achieve more. Discover existing or latent strengths, both individually and within the organization, that form the basis for extraordinary results with minimal energy to produce. This approach recognizes both the importance of people doing their best work and the contribution of project, program, and portfolio managers to bridge the gap between strategy and operations. The focus is on alignment, execution, and optimizing results in the best ways possible.


Here is the essence of chaos theory, representing a positive natural occurring sense of being:

  • Unpredictable, disorderly
  • Essential process to renew and revitalize
  • Small changes in initial conditions create enormous consequences
  • Similar patterns take place across layers (fractal geometry)

As this theory is applied in organization, it becomes known as complexity science (Lewin & Regine, 2000):

  • Information is the primary organizing force—share widely
  • Develop diverse relationships
  • Embrace vision as an invisible field
  • People have similar needs and corresponding responses
  • Working together is a source of meaning and purpose
  • Establish a shared sense of purpose

Each of these points provides guidance for organizational behavior. You need to create conditions for people to make connections, because those initial conditions provide the idea or practice that could lead to resolving a major issue or inventing a new product or service. Push back in these challenging times when in-person meetings are threatened, because people need to get together to form connections. A project start-up meeting enables people to learn more about each other's talents and aspirations; they can then begin the forming, storming, norming, and performing stages of team development. You should value diversity, because that provides more opportunities for “the next big idea” to flourish. Tap people's need for purpose by clarifying, in a purpose statement, an enduring reason for that group of people to work together, such as “lead the continuous improvement of project management across the company.” Craft a vision statement about a desired future state, such as:

  • The practices for project success are:
    • Identified
    • Concisely documented
    • Widely understood
    • Willingly adopted
    • Appropriately adapted
    • Enthusiastically applied
  • People managing projects should continuously improve how they do their work and lead others to quickly achieve excellent results.

The purpose and vision statements above both came from the corporate Hewlett Packard Project Management Initiative of which I was a member (Graham & Englund, 2004). It derived from deliberations among ourselves and served extremely well every day to remind each of us why we were there and what we were doing. We developed a mission statement for specific objectives that we need to achieve and then goals for each member that tapped into our interests and talents and clarified how each of us contributed to overall objectives.

Measure Group Dynamics

The field of engineering mathematics provides a useful concept for measuring group dynamics, albeit qualitatively. Use a vector approach to assess project progress. A vector has magnitude (α) and direction (θ) (Exhibit 1). Of course, the ideal for project progress is large magnitude in the direction of the project outcome statement. However, there will be times when the direction gets altered, such as priority interruptions or reorganizations, and times when magnitude is less due to redirected work or morale and motivation setbacks brought on by “integrity crimes.”

Vector Approach

Exhibit 1 – Vector Approach

Project managers need to be conscious of the ebb and flow of project work. There are times when magnitude may be down but the vector is still going in the right direction. That's okay, and it may reflect the natural energy of the group for that moment—the right work is happening albeit slowly. A project manager could mess things up if he or she pushes too hard at that time; my advice is to “go with the flow.” If the vector turns in an undesirable direction—impeding progress, retracing old decisions, or engaging in unconstructive conflict—that's the time for the project manager to take a more active role to turn things around. The magnitude of the vector determines the type of action: gentle coaching and reminders if the magnitude is small, directive action and commands or an intervention if the magnitude is large.


Progress is measured by observing that the vector is constantly pointed in the right direction with a magnitude appropriate for the stage of the project. Use this concept by constantly asking yourself how the team is doing with regard to direction and magnitude in meeting its deliverables and project objectives. Adjust your responses up or down according to the guidelines described above.

Recognize Organizational Patterns

Recognize the patterns that guide all behavior in organizations by taking the following steps:

  • Focus on relationships
  • Keep in mind that people respond to energy and enthusiasm
  • Ask questions that engage others
  • Use compelling evidence and vivid language to describe goals
  • Get explicit commitments
  • Remember that people know what is expected from them at work
  • Provide more value to others:
    • Give feedback
    • Observe currencies of exchange
    • Provide learning
    • Have fun
  • Develop common cultural values and leverage differences
  • Focus on trust, authenticity, and integrity

Taking these steps provide the core essence of applying chaos theory in a project-based organization. Use them every day to guide actions in dealing with project stakeholders. Remind yourself to put in the extra effort to connect with others through compelling language. Know what motivates both yourself and others; align tasks to match motivation vectors. Model desired behaviors. Tap the power that a clear and compelling sense of purpose has for each individual. Be courageous to withstand pressures that disrupt the precious state of natural living systems found in project teams.

A bottom line for management behavior is to embrace “bounded instability,” which means: allow teams to operate autonomously and self-directed in ways that may appear chaotic, up to the point where they approach constraints or boundaries (Stacey, 1992). Appreciate the ebb and flow of a natural energy the team enjoys. If the vector of their performance—direction and magnitude—is on the right path, let it be. Only when the direction or magnitude is out of alignment or approaching its limits should you apply negative, or controlling, feedback. Up to that point allow positive, reinforcing feedback to occur. Create the conditions in which people can relish their freedom of expression and contribution. Provide positive feedback, building on strengths. Use negative consequences sparingly.

Use Organic Metaphors

Redwood trees, which grow hundreds of feet tall in the coastal fog belt in California and Oregon (Exhibit 2), have very shallow roots, and that fact makes it difficult for them to survive. They need fog to get through dry summers, and shaded canyons supply water for their very shallow roots. The root system goes out as far as a mile; the roots interlock and grow together in a way that allows those trees closer to the water source to send roots up the hillside and supply water to trees that are further away. The trees depend upon active teamwork for survival. The redwood forest, through its root system, is totally interconnected. Their co-location, interdependence, and interconnected structure enable them to survive difficult winters and windstorms.

Redwood trees

Exhibit 2 – Redwood trees

A vast majority of work in most organizations is project based—delivering unique new results within time and budget constraints. Achieving results in a project-based organization also happens through an organic approach—people on teams—that builds upon a solid base of interlocking roots. Metaphors such as redwood trees (or any other type of tree or animal unique to your environment), and story-telling in general, accelerate the alignment of people, projects, and the organizational environment. They do that by getting past intellectual filters and establishing emotional bonds that come from tapping shared human experiences. Consider developing personal, team, and organizational metaphors related to nature as a way to coalesce everyone into a cohesive unit.

If your project assignment is to get geese to fly in a “V” formation (Exhibit 3), how would you do it? The answer: set up a few rules (Ambler, 2006) that make it inherently beneficial for each goose:

  1. As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an “uplift” for the birds that follow. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
  2. When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front.
  3. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.
  4. Geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
  5. When a goose gets sick, wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.
Vee Formation

Exhibit 3 – Vee Formation

In a project-based organization, set up a similar set of [simple] rules to guide behavior, such as each project should link to and support a strategic goal, and each team member knows what is expected of him or her on the project. Tap the power that comes from people who share a common direction and sense of community and get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.


The Cycle of Knowledge-Creation (Exhibit 4): “Like theories, the tree's roots are invisible, and yet the health of the root system determines the health of the tree. The branches are the methods and tools, which enable translation of theories into new capabilities and practical results. The fruit is that practical knowledge. The tree as a whole is a system.”

Peter M. Senge and Daniel H. Kim (1997)

A fruit tree is a powerful metaphor and serves as a symbol for the Englund Project Management Consultancy—an organic approach to the implementation of project management. Effective teams emerge out of shared purpose, urgency, mutuality, and care. A gardener has to create an environment for a tree to flourish—he or she cannot command it to grow. Likewise, a manager in an organization cannot depend upon command and control but rather has to create an environment for project success.

A tree's root system absorbs nutrients from the soil; organizations develop theories from research. The nutrients flow through the trunk and into the branches and leaves; theories turn into methods and tools that create results. These activities are repeatable because they derive from a solid (known) foundation (roots and theories). Success requires investment in an innovative infrastructure (theories, methods, and tools) and the practical application of knowledge into results (fruit). The low-hanging fruit is easy to harvest. Sustainable results take more effort, such as climbing higher up the tree or out on a limb, and involve more risk.

The whole process begins with seeds and seed distribution. Seeds represent the potential for an organization. All growth starts small. It then builds linkages and grows organically. Additional growth comes from new branches on old trees. Success creates seeds that seek fertile ground to grow into new opportunities. Close the loop with project reviews to continuously feed the roots based upon knowledge of what works and what does not.

Focus on Alignment

Bridging the Gap

Exhibit 5 – Bridging the Gap

Bridging the gap between strategy and operations is the crux and essence of project-based organizations (Exhibit 5). Just as an arch possesses powerful strength as a structure in nature, you need to view project management as a similar construct in organizations. Crossing the bridge for groups such as Information Technology (IT) means viewing IT as a crucial enabler to meet strategic goals and achieve competitive advantage for the organization. An IT department may be viewed as inflexible, capable only of following a rigorous, dogmatic process. Or it can be the shining light where a burning platform—a clear, convincing, and compelling vision—is turned into value-added, wealth-producing opportunities. Create the conditions where strategy, culture, portfolios, and organizational structure are in alignment, and tap the natural energy that people exhibit when they believe in and can voluntarily contribute their best work to these endeavors. Pull—people coming to you via their internal motivation—is the desired operating characteristic, not push—where you nudge, command, or force others. Energize people through a shared vision, then reap the benefits of higher performance that comes because pull exceeds the transfer rate of push. That is, more gets done when people want to do whatever needs getting done.

Look at how people both within the department and across the organization view IT. What are their mental models? A mental model is an explanation in people's thought processes for how something works in the real world. It is a kind of internal symbol or representation of external reality and plays a major role in interactions and decision making. Once formed, mental models may replace carefully considered analysis as a means of conserving time and energy (Senge & Kim, 1997). For example, at an offsite meeting for an IT department, I asked team members how they think other people viewed them. After awhile, they finally opened up to say that they were usually viewed as bureaucratic, slow moving, and unfriendly. This view is a mental model—a way to understand why interactions happen they way they do.

A secret to successfully integrating a department into a larger organization is to surface the mental models so that they become conscious understandings, not flowing beneath the surface and sabotaging efforts to work together. I asked the team, now that we put the model on the table, what were they going to do about it? If explicit and overt efforts were not made to change these models, a year from then they would be back together with the same frustrations, trying to solve the same problems. The task is to understand and then change behavior and operating modes towards a more productive model.

One way to ensure that people in an organization cross the bridge, both effectively and efficiently, is to map driving and restraining forces that cause equilibrium or the status quo where people are stuck in the same old way of doing things. Force field analysis is a useful technique for identifying forces for and against a change. With key stakeholders, pick a topic and brainstorm all forces that drive an organization either to get better or to get worse. Assign a vector—direction and a score—to each force, from weak (1) to strong (5). This analysis shows both driving (up-positive) and restraining (down-negative) forces.

Conduct a force field analysis similar to that shown in Exhibit 6:

Force Field Analysis

Exhibit 6 – Force Field Analysis

After identifying relevant forces, a first step is to unfreeze driving and restraining forces that hold change in a state of inertia. Determine ways to reduce the strength of forces opposing a change and increase forces pushing for change. Unfreeze the forces that hold the organization in the status quo, perhaps by sharing this assessment, focusing on one of the forces, and demonstrating its impact on projects through a clever story. Then introduce an imbalance to enable change towards a better state. This can be achieved by increasing the drivers, reducing the restraints, or both. A small change in any force cannot help but change the status quo—that is how nature operates. Engage managers in dialogue to discover specific behaviors and actions that better support project work. Set dates for follow-up reviews.

Then put an action plan into place, either to nudge or massively change each of the uncovered forces. The result is shifting of the stable point towards a desired future state much different from the present.

In between an assessment and the outcome is a refined, natural, or more mature way of thinking and operating. This is not a change project or initiative requiring huge funding. Metaphors, examples, education, and communication are keys for leaders, whether they be executives, sponsors, program managers, project managers, a project office of one, or team members, creatively to immediately apply concepts adapted from nature…and bring out the best in people. The good news is that is does not take massive funding or initiatives to change the naturally occurring nature of chaos in organizations. By identifying key forces and patterns and systematically applying gentle reinforcements, nature will respond.

Another tool would be to use causal maps that show the cause and effect relationships among a series of activities. When complete, these maps serve as a reference point to influence behaviors—all you have to do is break the loop somewhere, anywhere, make a change, and the dynamics will follow through.

Final Words

  • Recognize that chaos is a normal state in nature and in organizations.
  • Look for recurring patterns in relationships.
  • Selectively apply project management discipline, not for its own sake, but as the means to achieve strategic goals.
  • Focus on influencing others through skillful intervention at influence points, such as through networking and project start-up events.
  • Create varied and plentiful conditions for interactions to occur among key project stakeholders; these are the initial conditions that later impact project outcomes.
  • Schedule specific events, together with a skilled facilitator, to surface mental models; dialogue about how effective or destructive they are.
  • Identify forces that drive and restrain activities toward project goals; seek to increase positive and decrease negative forces.
  • Focus on alignment, execution, and optimizing results that are harmonious with natural living systems and desired human behaviors.
  • View people and the organization as an integrated part of a natural living system, subject to ambiguities and chaos, and capable of coalescing forces into powerful outcomes.

Amber, G. (2006, July 18). Leadership lessons from geese. Retrieved from

Graham, R. J., & Englund, R. L. (2004). Creating an environment for successful projects (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lewin, R., & Regine, B. (2000). The soul at work: Listen…respond…let go. Simon & Schuster.

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of learning organizations. New York: Doubleday.

Senge, P., & Kim, D (1997, May). The systems thinker. Retrieved from “My Approach – Strategy”

Stacey, R. D. (1992). Managing the unknowable: Strategic boundaries between order and chaos in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

© 2009, Randall L. Englund
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands



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