Project Management Institute

Managing the DANCE

think design, not plan


Today's turbulent project and program environments are more and more characteristic of the DANCE— the Dynamic and changing, Ambiguous and uncertain, Non-linear and unpredictable, Complex and Emergent nature of projects that causes instability. There is an increasing recognition in recent project management literature of the reality of complex projects and the limitations of traditional approaches to deal with this complexity. Traditional approaches to deal with complexity are to focus more on intricate and elaborate planning. This paper argues that the reality of the DANCE makes it difficult to plan, and has an opposite effect: the more you try to control, the more variability and greater impact of the DANCE. This paper discusses the need for new approaches and introduces the idea to focus more on “design” instead of just planning complex projects and programs. It draws on the insights from complexity science with the application of design thinking to provide a new perspective and design framework for complex projects and programs.

This paper builds on a previous paper, “Managing the DANCE: The Pursuit of Next Generation Project Management Approach and Tools” (Duggal, 2010c), which introduced the challenge of dealing with the DANCE and discussed the need for new approaches to manage complexity.


Perhaps your project environment is dynamic and constantly changing, driven by factors like a turbulent economy, market forces, or shifting stakeholder needs. There is ambiguity and uncertainty, it is not clear who all the stakeholders are, and the identified stakeholders are indecisive, they do not know what they want. The project direction is not clear and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future.

Sequential tasks and dependencies do not seem to hold in a non-linear, changing, and unpredictable project reality. The project is complex due to a combination of factors, like complexity of scope, sheer number of linkages and dependencies, or the multiplicity of stakeholders involved. Project scope, requirements, and solutions are emergent in nature and are hard to pin down and plan for in a continually shifting landscape.

What you are faced with is the DANCE—the Dynamic and changing, Ambiguous and uncertain, Non-linear and unpredictable, Complex and Emergent nature of projects that causes instability. How do you manage this DANCE?

The emerging project management literature in the last few years is starting to recognize some of these elements in the context of complexity science (Williams, 2002) and to acknowledge the limitations of traditional project management approach and tools. However, there has been limited innovation in project management to come up with new approach and tools. Some of the approaches like agile are definitely steps in the right direction, but the more you implement and practice the more you realize they are an extension of existing approaches and tools, and give you more of the same.

This paper discusses the need for new approaches and introduces the idea to focus on design instead of just planning complex projects and programs. The argument is twofold: first, that design approach is better suited to deal with the DANCE, and second, that the application of design thinking addresses a number of contemporary challenges of today's project environments.

This paper explores the application of the emerging ideas of design thinking to complex projects environments by distinguishing planning versus design, reviewing design thinking and its principles in the context of project management, and outlining a design framework for DANCE projects. DANCE can occur both in projects as well as programs, and this paper uses project and program interchangeably. Also, it should be emphasized that the concepts of design thinking are an imperative for and much needed in program environments.

Why it is Difficult to Plan DANCE Projects?

The conventional approach to deal with the DANCE would be to focus on more elaborate scope, plan, execute, and control (SPEC) processes. But the challenge is how do you break down the scope and create a project plan when the scope is ambiguous and changing constantly. For example, in a project if you have one of the aspects of a project that is not well defined, is ambiguous, and has three possible outcomes, it may be relatively easy to manage. If you have two areas of ambiguity with four possible outcomes, now you have sixteen possibilities. As the areas of ambiguity increase, the possible outcomes grow exponentially: five areas of ambiguity with four possible outcomes each poses 625 options (Remington 2007). How do you create a project plan to accommodate and deal with this many options? The challenge gets further expounded when you combine it with the sheer number of uncertainties surrounding the project.

Project management tools and techniques are based on a deterministic and reductionist approach, which is based on linear cause-and-effect thinking that is the basis of traditional management concepts and scientific principles of management that emanated during the 19th century after the Industrial Revolution. In a mechanistic way, you determine the scope and break it down in a work breakdown structure, which is the core of project management techniques. The challenge is how do you break down the scope when there is ambiguity and uncertainty, and the stakeholders don't even know what they want?

Plans based on sequential tasks and dependencies do not seem to hold in a non-linear, changing, and unpredictable project reality. In fact, relying on the plan in these situations can become a risk. The more elaborate the plan, chances are the more blind spots there are that prevent you from seeing the unfolding project reality. While SPEC processes in these situations give you a sense of control, they also lull you into comfortably following a plan that may no longer be relevant.

A common response to manage the DANCE is to rely on risk management. While risk management can mitigate some of the impact, it only helps in known and known unknown risks that are identified, in which uncertainty can be quantified. But the challenge is how do you deal with the black swans (Taleb 2007), or the unknown unknowns, the unexpected and unimagined events that result from the unpredictable and emergent reality of projects in which uncertainty cannot be quantified?

As a result of the limitations of traditional approaches and inability to manage the DANCE effectively, the software development community has adapted agile practices for project management (Highsmith 2004). It is certainly a step in the right direction, but in our experience with organizations that have adapted agile approaches, there are mixed results. One of the reasons is that even though the principles of agile outlined in the agile manifesto—individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; responding to change over following a plan (—are sound, an analysis of the tools and techniques reveals that they are better in some areas, but not necessarily effective in others. Even though the tools and techniques appear to be different, they are an extension of existing approaches and tools and as a result you get more of the same.

In our interaction with executives at different levels, there is a sense of frustration that they are not getting the expected results and project success even though they are applying all the standard approaches and tools of project management. Part of the frustration emanates from the limitations and inability of existing mindset and tools to manage the DANCE.

The key questions remain: How do you plan to adjust your project or program quickly to changing circumstances? How do you prepare your project or program to withstand the impact of the DANCE? How do you build a sound structure to run your project in an increasingly uncertain environment? You need to think design, not plan.

Why You Need to Design, Instead of Plan

While the plan spells out the details, the design provides the form, function, and structure to organize the project or program. Planning in DANCE situations is like dancing on a constantly moving and changing landscape, with a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability. Instead of investing a lot of effort on the plan, which is bound to change, it might be more effective to focus on design. A sound design can better withstand the dynamic nature and is better suited to deal with the DANCE. Whereas plans try to avoid or fight uncertainty, design leans and thrives on it. Design uses an architecture approach—providing form, function, and structure to ensure the feasibility and viability to enable the vision of the project or program. Rushing into planning without design is like detailing the engineering blueprints of a building without thinking about architecture, resulting in an unstable structure. Instead of the detailed specifications, the design approach focuses on the structural interfaces, linkages, and dependencies. Design is based on a holistic, integrative approach as opposed to a reductionist, breakdown basis of planning, resulting in a broader perspective to accommodate the DANCE elements.

It is important to understand the distinguishing factors between planning and design to understand the need for design to better deal with the DANCE.

Planning versus Design

Table 1 summarizes the key points of distinction between planning and design (Duggal 2010 a & d).

Planning Design
Engineering approach—spells out the details and provides a mechanism to execute the vision Architecture approach—provides form, function, and structure to ensure the feasibility and viability to enable the vision
Focus on tasks and activities Focus on interfaces—linkages and dependencies
Focus on what needs to be done Focus on why it needs to be done
Geared toward deliverables and outputs Geared toward experience and outcomes
Hierarchical organization Visual and contextual organization
Emphasis on delivering scope and specifications Emphasis on achieving customer and enduser satisfaction
Reductionist breakdown approach Holistic, integrative approach
Convergent and analytical process Divergent and creative process
Constraints as limitations Constraints as opportunities
© J. Duggal 2010

Table 1. Planning versus Design

Cultivating a Design Mindset

Imagine you have been assigned to plan an important event at your company. As you find out more about the event, you are already thinking about all the tasks that need to be listed in your work breakdown structure and how to organize them. You think about the budget and the timeline for the event.

What if, instead, you were asked to design the event? What would you do differently?

I had an “aha! moment” thinking about this question as I focused on the subtle but important distinction between planning and design. When considering the idea of designing the event, my thoughts immediately went to:

  • What kind of experience attendees and stakeholders would like to have
  • What the purpose of the event was
  • What the intended outcomes of the event were
  • How I could best design the event to achieve these outcomes

Instead of jumping to develop a list of things to do, thinking about the design aspects can help develop a better plan that meets stakeholder needs and expectations, and achieves the desired results. Cultivating a design mindset requires an understanding of the emerging idea of design thinking.

The idea of design thinking was introduced by Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, an innovation and design firm. In his article Design Thinking in the Harvard Business Review (June 2008, page 86), he describes it as “a discipline that uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Project and program managers can use this type of thinking to design for maximum benefit and intended outcomes within the given constraints and boundaries. It provides a greater opportunity to understand and focus on what customers and key stakeholders need, and to design a plan to deliver it.

For example, in a large IT systems implementation project, the rollout was typically planned on a regional basis. After a design approach was introduced, the project team realized that a better plan was to implement systems on a line of business or departmental basis. In the previous approach, if there were implementation problems, the whole site would be down. In the new customer-focused designed plan, the site would be operational and business could be conducted even if there were issues in one of the areas.

Benefits from design elements can be realized in many projects. At a recent chapter conference where I gave a keynote address, the chapter invited a Tai Chi instructor to engage the audience in a brief demo and workout to get them warmed up and energized. There were different food options available, unlike the high-carbohydrate, sugar-only foods that are typical at these events. They did not cram in too many sessions, the topics were balanced, and the space was organized to promote networking and interaction. Overall, these design elements made the event memorable, and a great learning and networking experience.

Principles of Design Thinking

To apply design thinking we had to understand the underlying principles. Following is a summary of some of the design thinking principles that can be applied to project management, culled from the literature based on the work of Tim Brown (Brown 2009) and Tom Kelley (Kelley 2001) of IDEO, Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Jeanne Liedtka, Darden School of Management at the University of Virginia, and Tim Ogilivie of Peer Insight (Liedtka 2011):

Feasibility, viability, and desirability—Match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value. Intersection of feasibility (what is functionally possible within a given timeframe); viability (it is viable from a business standpoint), and desirability (this is what customers, end users, and other stakeholders want) (Brown 2009).

Aim to connect deeply with those you serve—This involves observation, gaining insights, and deep understanding of what customers want, walking in their shoes, validating assumptions, asking penetrating questions, deep listening, connecting emotionally, and having empathy for your customers and end-users. This is different from conducting a business requirements process or interviewing stakeholders or conducting focus groups. It is insightful observation, living in their world and experiencing their perspective, to design and deliver what they want. Ironically, projects rely on classic scope definition and requirements gathering processes that are often static, cursory, and rely heavily on documentation. Design thinking espouses that it is hard for people to articulate what they want; you have to observe, engage, and empathize with them to gain insights.

Constraints as opportunities, not limitations—Design thinking is divergent by nature, open to possibilities and seeks opportunities. It advocates not letting your imagined constraints limit your possibilities. An oft-used example is the constraint of buildings getting proportionally heavier, weaker, and more expensive as they grow in size. Buckminster Fuller was inspired by this constraint to invent the geodesic dome, which becomes proportionally lighter, stronger, and less expensive as it grows in scale.

Traditional project management mindset is based on the management of constraints as limitations of time, cost, and scope. Instead of limiting what we cannot do, design thinking helps us reframe the problem and discover new opportunities in the process. According to Richard Buchanan, former Dean of Carnegie Mellon School of Design, great design occurs at the intersection of constraint, contingency, and possibility.

Visualization, prototyping, iteration—Design thinking visualizes opportunities, believes that you can't achieve perfection in a rapidly changing world, and emphasizes quick prototyping and frequent iteration. It uses visual tools and relies on testing, seeking feedback, and refining.

The above principles are well suited to address some of the contemporary challenges of today's DANCE project and program environments. The challenges of understanding and managing customer needs and changing scope, mismatched expectations, and pressure to focus on outcomes and benefits in an uncertain and unpredictable environment can be dealt with better by applying the principles of design thinking.

It should be emphasized that design thinking should not be confused with gold-plating or styling. It is about making sure we apply the principles of design thinking to plan, execute, and deliver what the client desires and wants.

How to Design Projects—Applying the Project Design Framework

We have developed a design framework based on the application of design thinking principles. It is a combination of practices and tools that focus on the design elements of form, function, structure, interfaces, linkages, priorities, and interactions that are more effective in dealing with the DANCE and complexity of projects and programs.

Practice stakeholder intimacy—Develop a relationship with key stakeholders, customers, and end-users to understand and empathize with their needs. This takes stakeholder management and requirements gathering to the next level and is more involved. It is deep and careful observation to develop insights for their needs so you can design the solution that best meets their needs and expectations. It goes beyond static interviews, focus groups, or requirements analysis, it involves spending time walking in their shoes to feel their pain and empathize with their needs. It is a different way of developing a deeper understanding of the scope. For example, having business analysts spend time working together with end users, doing their jobs, and gaining first-hand experience of the end users' needs helps in gaining a better understanding of scope and reduces scope changes and rework after the fact. Often customers don't know what they want, or don't know how to articulate their needs. Practicing stakeholder intimacy by spending more time, deep observation, and walking in their shoes can help in better understanding of scope and managing expectations.

Establish simple rules or guiding principles—Contrary to conventional thinking, rigid controls in the form of heavy rules, processes, and governance mechanisms are not necessarily effective to manage complexity. The more you try to control a DANCE project, the messier it can get, because the governance is not designed to withstand and take into account all the variations. Instead, establishing simple rules and guiding principles sets the boundaries while leaving room for flexibility and applying individual judgment. Simple rules can also be designed around project priorities and help focus and align the team around top priorities and desired behavior and outcomes.

Develop structural blueprint—It can be hard to monitor and control all complexities caused by the DANCE elements by focusing on the details. It is more effective to understand and focus on the structural components by developing a blueprint that maps the OBS, PBS, and BBS besides the detailed WBS. The organizational breakdown structure (OBS) is a visual breakdown of all project/program participants and stakeholders, and helps in defining and understanding the various relationships and interrelationships both within the project and subsequently between projects. The product breakdown structure (PBS) is decomposition of project products (and by default deliverables). The PBS assists the project manager and project team in defining and understanding the full project scope by identifying the specific products/services and associated subcomponents. The benefits breakdown structure (BBS) is the decomposition of the potential benefits. Visual tools like mind-mapping and storyboarding can be used to map the blueprint and illustrate the linkage of the OBS, PBS, WBS, and BBS.

Identify key interfaces and leverage points—Complex projects are bound to have a high number of potential interactions and inter-relationships. As projects become larger, it is difficult—if not impossible—to manage the diverse parts. Project managers can enhance their chances for success in this environment by identifying the vital interfaces, linkages, and dependencies. These interfaces can be classified in terms of business, technical, resources, information or external events, and risk-oriented interfaces. Due to the sheer number of interfaces and degree of complexity, it is hard to focus at the detail level, and it becomes important to identify key leverage points. The structural blueprint and key interface analysis can be used to identify leverage points of focus and possibly redesign project structure and interfaces for better leverage. The Design Structure Matrix (DSM) is another tool that can be used to perform the analysis of interfaces and dependencies of various elements in complex systems (Eppinger and Browning 2012).

Perform network analysis—In complex project environments project managers have to deal with multiple vendors, partners, contractors, consultants, and other internal and external stakeholders, without clear organization charts or well-defined roles. How do you identify the key stakeholders, who wield power and influence? How do you know who controls resources and information essential for your project? Who should get closer to whom? To decipher the intricate maze of relationships and their impact in complex projects, you can perform a stakeholder network analysis and use the outputs to design and influence interactions. Stakeholder network analysis analyzes the connections of nodes and ties. You can start simply by illustrating the network of stakeholders in your project environment and identifying the key nodes and any gaps between stakeholders that might need to be bridged. You can further leverage stakeholder network analysis in powerful ways depending upon what you know about who you know; enhance your knowledge based on who they know, and how they know them; or expand your connections based on who you know, and who they know and influence (Duggal 2010b).

Establish self-regulating governance and measurement—Good design enables desirable behaviors and outcomes. Design thinking can be used to design governance and measures that drive appropriate behaviors. Besides the traditional measures like time, cost, scope metrics for meeting business case objectives, benefits realization can drive a broader ownership of outcomes among project managers. Stakeholders and customers care about the scope and quality of what is delivered, but they also care about how it is delivered. Metrics related to stakeholder and customer satisfaction and experience, customer/end-user adoption, quality of delivery can be designed to drive the desired behaviors.


Today's project and program environments are increasingly characteristic of the DANCE—increasing the Dynamic changes, Ambiguity and uncertainty, Non-linear, Complex and Emergent and unpredictable nature of projects. Traditional approaches and tools are limited and incapable of dealing with the DANCE. In the ongoing pursuit of new insights and next-generation approaches and tools, this paper explains the need to focus on design instead of traditional emphasis on elaborate plans to deal with complexity.

The focus on design and design thinking has a two-fold advantage: first, it is better suited to withstand the impact of the DANCE. As Roger Martin explains in his book The Design of Business (page 159), “The design thinker has a stance that seeks the unknown, embraces the possibility of surprise, and is comfortable with wading into complexity not knowing what is on the other side.”

Second, the focus on design and design thinking addresses the contemporary challenges of today's project and program environments, like understanding and managing customer needs and changing scope, mismatched expectations, pressure to focus on outcomes and benefits in an uncertain and unpredictable environment. By applying the principles of design thinking, you can match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value.

You can choreograph your project for success by applying the design framework and the related practices and tools by practicing stakeholder intimacy, establishing simple rules and guiding principles, developing a structural blueprint, identifying key interfaces and leverage points, performing network analysis, and establishing self-regulating governance and measurement.

It should also be pointed out that besides the DANCE, it is imperative for program managers to particularly think like designers—designing the program for the achievement of benefits aligned to the business, focusing on stakeholder intimacy and customer experience, building a sound governance framework, and ownership of outcomes.

The marriage of design with planning can produce better results. While planning brings images of tedious work, the idea of design is exciting and will attract more stakeholders eager to engage. Next time, don't just plan, but design your plan.


Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY: Harper Collins

Brown, T. (2008 June, 86) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review.

Duggal, J. S. (2009). Rigor Without Rigidity: How to achieve balance in the next generation PMO. Proceedings of the EMEA PMI Congress, Amsterdam, Netherland.

Duggal, J. S. (2010a). Are you a Project Artist? The skills of project artistry. Proceedings of the PMI Global Congress— North America, Washington DC, USA.

Duggal, J. S. (2010b). Is it Who You Know, or What You Know That Leads to Success. PMI Community Post.

Duggal, J. S. (2010c). Managing the DANCE: The pursuit of next generation PM approach and tools. Proceedings of the PMI Global Congress—EMEA, Milan, Italy.

Duggal, J. S. (2010d). Need a Better Plan, Think Design. PMI Community Post.

Eppinger, S. and Browning, T. (2012). Design Structure Matrix Methods and Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Highsmith, J. (2004). Agile Project Management: Creating innovative projects. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Kelley, T. (2001). The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.

Liedtka, J. and Oglivie, T. (2011). Designing for Growth – A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Martin, R. (2009). The Design of Business – Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Remington, K., & Pollack, J. (2007). Tools for Complex Projects. Surrey, England: Gower Publishing Ltd.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable. New York, NY: Random House.

Williams, T.M. (2002). Modelling Complex Projects. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

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.

© 2012, Jack S. Duggal
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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