Surfing on the edge of chaos--developing the master project manager


Interest in project management is growing at an astonishing rate and an industry is evolving around project management training and education. At the same time, there is increasing recognition that projects are becoming more complex and requiring new skills to manage. Complexity theory provides a foundation for our discussion. We review current project management education programs as they are advertised in terms of what they contribute to developing master project managers capable of dealing with the paradoxical and unpredictable complexity of projects embedded within organizations and dancing on the edge of chaos. We conclude with a review of the benefits of web-based education in addressing these needs.


As we celebrate the 35th year of the Project Management Institute, project management has seen many successes. Yet the validity of project management as a profession still comes into question as failures to plan accurately and control within “acceptable” limits are commonplace. At the same time, the role complexity, chaos and uncertainty play within our projects and project environments is gaining recognition in both research and practise. Perhaps it is time to reflect about how we develop project managers and in particular what advice we give to the growing number of practitioners aspiring to a “master” level of understanding, which is necessary to manage the complex organizational projects facing them today.

In this presentation we first look at the possible impact of complexity and complexity theory on project management and the development of project managers. Next we examine the current status of project management educational practises and compare them to the. We conclude with some suggestions as to how to develop the master project managers to enable them to surf on the edge of chaos.

Impact of Taking Complexity Seriously

The term “edge of chaos” has found its way into many practitioner presentations at recent symposia as a vivid metaphor of the space in which project managers feel they must operate. A brief introduction to complexity theory serves to show why this is the case and provides a theoretical foundation to discussion of how to develop project managers.

Complexity sciences are a relatively eclectic collection of academic efforts crossing a wide variety of disciplines. The notion of complexity and chaos has been widely studied in fields such as astronomy, chemistry, evolutionary biology, geology, and meteorology (Gleick, 1987; Kauffman, 1995; Lorenz, 1995; Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989; Stein 1989), however its translation into management theory and education has been rather slow (Peters, 1987; Lewin, 992; Gharajedaghi, 1999; Aram & Noble, 1999). Organizational theorists drawing on this literature typically take one or more of three approaches (Stacey et al., 2000): chaos theory, dissipative structure theory, or complex adaptive systems. Chaos theory is concerned with the behaviour over time of certain kinds of dynamic yet unstable systems – specifically those that are continually changing and evolving in a random fashion. Dissipative structures build on this dynamic between stability and instability to point out the potential for unforeseen consequences embedded in deterministic linear equations (Prirogine, 1997). Complex adaptive systems consist of a large number of independent agents, each capable of behaving according to unique principles of interaction and relation. All three streams of research are interested in the two zones in which a disturbed system may return to: a stable zone and an instable zone. “Under appropriate conditions, systems may operate at the boundary between these zones, sometimes called a phase transition, or the ‘edge of chaos’.” (Rosenhead, 1998).

Operating at this ‘edge of chaos’ requires managers to first pay attention to relationships at all levels, second realize that small changes can have large unexpected results, and finally that organizational activity is emergent rather than planned (Lewin, 1992). Cooke-Davies (2004), suggests that adopting an approach that recognizes projects as complex adaptive systems means that people – understanding them, motivating them, communicating with them, etc. – become the fundamental tools available to the project manager for “managing” the project. Making sense, generating meaning and learning become far more important activities than the traditional “control” techniques emphasized in traditional project management. Guidelines become tools to assist in making meaningful conversations with project participants. However, as Singh and Singh (2002) conclude, while project managers must “…shift away from the primal importance they grant to quantitative analysis and project controls. This is not to say that managers should begin to adopt their old seat of the pants approach to management” (p. 32).

In this view of the world, many of the rules that are currently taught in business schools or project management programs are ineffective. Thus, today's project managers may not be equipped or trained adequately to handle complex projects even though significant efforts have been put into professionalizing project management and providing an ever growing number of project management education courses (Price & Dolfi, 2004)

The Evolution of Project Management and Project Managers

Over the past ten years, various standards have emerged and have helped to increase the degree of professionalism of project management. Between 1996, when the first edition of the Project Management Institute's (PMI®) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) has been published (PMI, 1996), and 2004, (Project Management Institute, 2004), various additional standards have been published (PMI, 2000, 2000b, 2000c, 2002, 2003). The fact that the PMBOK® Guide is accepted by the ANSI, IEEE, and Standards Australia (PMI, 2004) indicate it has “become the de facto global standard for project management” (ibid. p. 1). Changes over the various versions of the PMBOK® Guide show an increased perception of project management being embedded in various environments (PMI, 2000 p. IX) and “related endeavours” (PMI, 2004, p. 2). . Specific references to team and stakeholder management as well as to the professional responsibilities and adherence to ethics (ibid. p. 4; Mengel 2005) acknowledge the importance of knowledge areas and competence fields that reach far beyond the original approach. However, the “softer” and more intuitive approaches to human activities are still under-represented in the PMBOK® Guide which still focuses almost exclusively on linear, rational, analytic approaches to the world omitting alternatives that promote more flexible, relational, improvisational perspectives (Buckle & Thomas, 2003).

At the same time, there is no recognized development path for project managers. The “Project Management Competency Development Framework” (PMI, 2002b) identifies a rather comprehensive list of knowledge and performance indicators including personal competencies crucial for project management success in addition to the application of project management knowledge (ibid. p. 57; Mengel & Thomas, 2004). However, these extensive “shopping list” approaches to identifying project management competencies do not address the learning or development issues around how these skills, competencies and characteristics are to be acquired, when and at what level or for what kind of project. At present project managers are left to choose among these lists based on their own best judgment.

In summary, the development of project management to date has followed a very linear, positivistic epistemology focussing on the development and transfer of “know what” aimed at improving the competence of project managers on “most projects most of the time”. There is very little included here for the development of the “emotionally and spiritually intelligent” expert project manager (Mengel & Thomas, 2004, p. 5) involved in highly complex and unique projects. The next section of the paper draws from learning theories and theories of professions and trades to develop a model of project management education that goes beyond know-how training.

Defining the development path of Project Managers

How then can we look at the development of knowledge workers in a way that will help us understand this evolution of project management and place it within a context of other occupations? The apprentice, journeyman, master model originating in the medieval guild structure has general applicability to the professional development of any occupation. Based on this model and on another approach to project management knowledge presented at this conference (Mengel & Thomas 2004), we suggest a comprehensive model of project manager development:

Development Model for Project Managers

Exhibit 1: Development Model for Project Managers

This model indicates that the PMBOK® Guide and training based on linear, rational, analytical knowledge only moves practitioners to the Competent or Proficient performer level. Given the complex adaptive systems which projects are unfold in a real time environment, effective project managers are going to be the masters and leaders who can act and react in a timely manner without having to resort to time consuming analytical application of context dependent or independent techniques. Development of the master project manager requires going beyond the inculcation of standards of practise and best practise.

Requirements for Developing Master PM's in this Context

Management theorists and educators suggest that to function in a world defined by complexity, managers need to be reflective practitioners capable of “staying with the ambivalence and ambiguity of the not-yet-known; recognising that how a situation emerges crucially shapes its meaning, interpretation and social significance “ (Chia, 1997, p. 84). Aram and Noble (1999) propose six steps to accomplish this. First, focus on feedback and encourage students to stay with the process even through disquiet. Challenge students and instructors to take risks and go to potentially surprising situations. Second, clear a place for creativity and double loop learning – a place of bounded instability operating on the edge of chaos, where paradox holds and is constantly rearranged rather than resolved. Third, the instructor must move away from a position of control and trust that the diversity of ideas and views within the group would generate a self-organizing form of control. Fourth, sustain multiple cultures, break down shared cultures and challenge students expectations, encourage them to take risks. Allow creativity and originality to emerge. Fifth, the instructor becomes a participant learner, not an expert teacher. Learning happens through joint thinking on emerging themes throughout the process of learning. Sixth, “shifting the emphasis from the end result to the process of learning itself allows both the teacher and the student to participate in an exercise of constant change and learning” (p. 339) Emphasis is removed from external evaluation of learning and moved towards self reflection and developing the ongoing processes and skills to continue learning.

This suggests that the development of “master” project managers will need to address the following:

  • New objectives – less focus on mastery of content and analytic skills and more focus on developing skills to deal with ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty.
  • New content – The master project manager is much more engaged with the context of the project and must have a much broader understanding of the organizational, project and project environment.
  • New delivery methods – traditional “stand and deliver” lecture or short form seminar formats are not likely to facilitate the deep change required.

Each of these is addressed in turn below.

New Objectives

A master project manager must be able to lead change through cooperation and communication in complex and dynamic environments. This is not easy to do and requires that the objectives for any training aimed at developing “master” project manager prepare individuals to:

  • Reflect and think creatively (non-linear).
  • Feel comfortable in uncertain environments while being able to make decisions based on vague knowledge in these environments.
  • Engage in and facilitate double-loop learning.
  • Move from kknow-how to know-why.
  • Network across all types of borders.

Meeting these objectives will require mastery of new material in new ways.

New content

Master project managers can no longer rely on expert “project management” knowledge. As the boundaries of what is included in a project expands and the complexity of the projects and industries in which they are undertaken evolves, master project managers must expand their knowledge base to include solid understandings of the organizations within which projects are undertaken and the nature of the individuals who make up the project teams and stakeholder groups effected by these projects. Project managers will need to study topics such as:

  • Strategic project management.
  • Leadership and human skills.
  • Ethics and values: developing and communicating vision and mission, perceiving and facilitating meaningful activities.
  • Networking.
  • Knowledge management.
  • Cross-cultural issues.
  • Learning to ask the right questions rather than giving the right answers.
  • Experience and contemplate about comprehensive organizational and social learning (including meaning, reason, emotion, intuition and interaction).

New Methods of Delivery

Three things are required of this training: it needs to flexibly fit into the work lives of senior practitioners, it should develop a learning community that encourages questioning theory and practise; and it has to be of sufficient duration to allow the students time to reflect on action and then apply that reflection in action to close the learning loop. It must also be at the Masters level to ensure the recognition and dedication necessary to develop. What is required is a transfer of knowledge and experience across academics and practitioners of a sustained nature where practitioners are encouraged to question deeply held assumptions and “given knowledge” both to develop closely held pattern reading skills. Traditional “stand and deliver” lecture based courses or short form seminars are unlikely to develop the “deep” thinking changes required to instill a whole new world view in project managers who have up to this point focussed solely on analytical rational planning techniques.

Web-based delivery of Masters education may be an appropriate approach. Educators have begun to realize that web-based education is not simply offering “more of the same” on a different platform but actually entails the need to return to a truly “collaborative approach to learning” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p. 8) that challenges the construction of our personal meaning by exposing us to a larger, less familiar and constantly changing social context. Web-based education enables and supports “communities of inquiries…where both reflection and discourse are utilized to facilitate the construction of personally meaningful and socially valid knowledge” (ibid. p. 21). Education in these communities inspires reflection, sets the climate and supports the discourse.

From here the question is how much of the education and training available to our project managers addresses these approaches to education? A review of the existing offerings is in order.

Review of existing project management educational programs

In this section we provide a first overview over the current focus of educational programs in project management in regards to the competencies and capabilities required by increasing complexity and uncertainty. We have systematically scanned two sources: PMI's Registered Education Provider (REP) database and educational programs on project management offered by universities.

Educational programs in PMI's REP's database

1,210 REPs offer 6,982 programs or courses (retrieved June 29, 2004). However, only 580 of these offerings (8%) are targeted towards an advanced audience. When searching for the keyword “complexity” or “complex” within the programs offered, only 4 or 30 entries respectively were produced (0.05% or 0.43% respectively offered by 23 providers or 1.9% of all providers). Furthermore, analyzing the descriptions of the programs and courses offered revealed a rather disappointing result: in most cases the descriptions were not detailed enough to dig deeper and assess what exactly the providers meant by the terms “complexity” and “complex”. However, 10 out of the 23 providers were rather referring to large or multiple projects or programs when speaking about “complex” projects or managing complexity. The main objectives in these cases were teaching students to learn how to manage these “complex” projects. Only three of the respective programs are indicated to be offered online rather than in individual or classroom based training.

The remaining 13 providers (1%) touch on issues like complexity theory, multicultural sustainable development, regular up-dating and capitalization of knowledge, learning in uncertain unstable contexts, sharing knowledge through collaborative tools, new way of thinking, new approach and thus get close to what we have described as the requirements of increasingly complex project environments on project management education. Two of these providers indicated to offer courses online.


We have looked at 12 universities that offer project management programs through PMI channels or through webmarketing; most of them (9) offer their programs online. These institutions are dispersed throughout the (English-speaking) globe with the majority of them residing in the US. Most of the programs (10) offered are at the master's level (MBA, MA, MSc etc.); some offer certificates or doctoral programs. 5 out of these programs are explicitly targeted at covering the PMBOK© Guide areas and preparing for PMP© certification. Only one institution explicitly goes beyond the PMBOK© Guide level in that it mentions certification as PMP© (or equivalent) as prerequisite. Three programs touch on issues of complexity in their program description. All of these do offer their programs in an online-environment.

Emphasis on PMBOK© Guide and traditional educational offerings

It is safe to say that the large majority of providers and programs are focussing on PMBOK© Guide based, basic training. Even the few providers offering advanced training – including universities offering courses on the graduate level – focus on PMBOK© Guide based education prior to and at the level of professional certification.

In our research, we have had difficulty finding educational providers, either REPs or universities that prepare their project management students to deal with the increasing complexity that they will face in today's working environment.


Current models of project management education continue to focus on transferring “know how” on knowledge areas and process groups through programs delivered in traditional learning environments emphasizing instruction and training. Developing the problem solving expert is privileged over educating the understanding and creative facilitator of change. That may be an appropriate approach to developing junior level project management professionals. However, to encourage growth and development towards master project managers another approach altogether is needed. Project management education in a world that takes complexity and complex adaptive or responsive systems seriously requires much more than the transfer of know what or know how through traditional educational/training methods. In order to meet the increasing requirements of complex projects being conducted on the edge of chaos, we need more emphasis on educational models supporting and fostering continuous change, creative and critical reflection, self-organized networking, virtual and cross-cultural communication, coping with uncertainty and various frames of reference, increasing self-knowledge and the ability to build and contribute to high-performance teams. Master project managers need to develop the emotional and spiritual skills and capabilities to create buy-in and provide orientation even in complex, unknown and uncertain environments. Thus, they need to learn and practice how to lead the changes into an unknown future by surfing on the edge of chaos.


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© 2004, Janice Thomas, Thomas Mengel & Natalie Andrès
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Proceedings – Anaheim, California



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