Dealing with the edge of chaos using emotional, cultural and spiritual intelligence
Often challenging, complex projects are limited, and locked into corporate processes and procedures that simply do not fit the scale, the complexity, or the other challenges being faced.
This paper, will focus on what counts the most in delivering projects successfully: the people you have, the team, and on how to motivate them in tough situations. First, I will justify why there is the need for more flexibility to focus beyond short-term objectives, or rather why a linear or deterministic approach, such as in management by objectives (MBO) is not sufficiently agile for success. Then, I will discuss the basic concepts of Complex Adaptive Systems and of Edge of Chaos, and why they are valuable and relevant in project situations. Finally, I will address emotional, cultural, and spiritual intelligence as tools to support project managers in maintaining the difficult balance characteristic of the Edge of Chaos. I will argue that this balance, necessary in complex projects, can be reached by giving up the need for total control, and by moving away from managing by objectives, to leading by trust and_coaching.
Introduction: The Prevailing System of Management — Beyond the Short Term
“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.”
Dr. W. E. Deming, (Senge, 2006, p. xii)(in the introduction to The Fifth Discipline,
Peter M. Senge, revised edition, 2006, p. xii)
According to Peter Senge, by the end of his life, Deming had stopped using terms such as total quality management (TQM) because he felt that these terms had been abused and tended to represent only a “superficial label for tools and techniques,” which was nothing but a tiny part of the meaning he had envisioned.
He felt that a transformation was needed; however, in order to succeed, this transformation required a “system of profound knowledge.” Because we are still talking about Deming, and not some sort of New Age eccentric, it makes sense for us to try to understand what he meant.
Deming's System of Profound Knowledge (2000) can be considered a tool to help us understand the “messiness of the system”; it rests on four pillars:
1. Understanding the System: understanding what composes the observed system and how the parts interrelate with each other
2. Theory of Variation: the statistical theory and methods
3. Theory of knowledge: different theories that people (or team members) have: their views of the world
4. Intrinsic motivation: psychology, which drives human behaviour: why do people act the way they do?
These four elements are connected to each other and give us a full picture only if used as a whole. Understanding statistical data and deviations from the mean will not give us, by themselves, the insight necessary to creating quality in our processes.
The model of Profound Knowledge is a tool that Deming offers us to help understand complex situations, systems, or even difficult, challenging projects. It painfully points out one clear message: there are no shortcuts in managing complex projects.
If we want to master a difficult context, we must put forth the work necessary to understand the full picture. Managing by short-term objectives by splitting a complex picture into little bits and pieces, which are then distributed to members of the project team, (each of whom may not understand his or her relevance in the broader picture) is one such shortcut that has been failing over and over again. Today, we often call this: management by objectives (MBO).
The Trouble with Management by Objectives (MBO)
Following are a few select quotes about MBO:
“MBO as practiced sets arbitrary targets, avoids the reality-check questions, and focuses on short-term compliance–that unfortunately leads to the long-range failure. ” (Craddock, 2012, ¶13)
“With MBO learning about what did not work (and why) is not valued nor preserved within the organization.” (Craddock, 2012, ¶14)
“At a minimum, an organization expects that the results of having Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D would be the Sum of all (A+B+C+D); what they get many times is something less. As Dr. Deming describes in The New Economics, what organizations experience are the sums of the various interactions between the individuals: (AB)+(AC)+(AD)+(BC)+(BD), (ABC)+(ACD)+(BCD), (ABCD). Some of these interactions are positive; others are negative. The goal of management is to support and create positive interactions and work to minimize negative interactions. It's only through these efforts that an organization's true potential can be unleashed, and true system optimization can be realized. If each person/team/department is required to optimize itself for individual profit, performance or gain, the system will not be optimized, as these efforts lead to negative interactions with other components of the system.” (Christiansen, 2011, ¶12)
With MBO, the processes followed to meet objectives are secondary to the actual meeting of the objective itself; therefore, they become one-off elements functional to the specific objective only. Necessary questions are not asked because they are not considered key priorities, such as: Is it the best approach? Is it a sustainable approach? Can we improve on it next time? Will it cause unwanted side effects? Will employees and team members become frustrated? Are team members respected personally and professionally? All these questions are not asked, and often, this can compromise the reasons for which the objectives were chosen in the first place.
Moreover, MBO's focus on top (or bottom) performers loses sight of the system within which these people work. Categorizing employees as under-performers, on-target performers, and above expectations performers, creates dissatisfaction and focus on the short-term result as evaluated by the direct manager only. Often, these categories are even subject to a predefined percentage distribution (Human Resources: “Oh no! You can't have more than 10% of over-performers!”) to keep a lid on the expected salary raise requests and bonuses. In addition, this can create all sorts of frustrating dependencies (“Oh, Mary, you're a great performer, but Joe hasn't had a raise since last year, so I am categorizing him as ‘above-target.’ .Sorry…”).
MBO aims at lining objectives of a complex system up, by focusing on each link of the system separately. The way the thinking goes is that complex objectives can be met by meeting a string of individual objectives. The complex objective is therefore considered as a sum of individual objectives. If these are set correctly, their aggregate will be the satisfaction of the corporate objectives. However this often does not work out for two types of reasons:
a) the corporate objective is not the sum of the single personal objectives, and
b) the setting of the correct single objectives is impossible because different people have different understanding of what the corporate objective is.
This situation is illustrated in the left hand side of the diagram below. (Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1 – Interdependencies between performing channels
A complex objective Y, is split into individual objectives (a,b), which are in turn split into further personal objectives (a',a'',b',b'',b'''). The basic assumption is that:
However, these objectives interact with each other. Each personal objective may (or may not) be reached in infinite different ways. How the objectives are tackled and addressed, will also impact the way other objectives are tackled and addressed. In short, we are in a situation similar to the one Deming is addressing above (in relation to interactions amongst individuals), in which also these objectives will create a composite result, but this result is the sum of the products of each objective influencing the others. The result reached by the objectives set Y’ will be:
…the chances that Y=Y’ are very slight.
The focus will need to shift from controlling specific personal objectives, to leading teams in reaching overall results (in the diagram above: Y=((AA’)BB’)C). This cannot be reached through managing small pieces of a complex context, but only by managing the whole. This calls for leadership skills at every level of an organization.—
Managers who focus on and look for performance above target will, more often than not, lose sight of the overall reality of the system. They will be justified in investing in their key performers and looking for that exceptional player. What is regularly occurring, however, is that this form of management leads to disregard of investing on, improving, developing, and fine-tuning the system as whole, and therefore making the project, department, or the corporation, unsustainable in the long term.
No good soccer coach would ever dream of paying attention to only the three superstar players on his or her team and forget about the fact that the team is a whole. This, by no means implies that he or she should not have star players, but that the main focus of a successful coach is creating trust and interdependence between his or her players. He would never dream of strengthening competition among his or her players, because he or she would end up in a regular blame-game after each match, which would eventually bring his or her team to a string of defeats and his or her own career to an early end. So, why should it work any differently in a project team or corporation?
Mark McDonald, PhD, group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs said:
“Don't drive your organization's future by looking in the rear view mirror. Basing your future models on patterns of past success are a certain way to lock into today's opportunities and put your company on a lifecycle path that always ends with death” (McDonald, 2009, ¶9)
It is clear in practice, as well as in past literature, that MBO as currently practiced, is: (1) failing to deliver, (2), not what Drucker had envisioned; and, worse (3), it is damaging motivation and employees. It is just as clear that the long-term focus is not in the picture of management; several practical approaches have been proposed in order to overcome this (e.g., Hoshin Kanri [HK]); however, without that broad success that characterized the spread of MBO or of other management practices. Why? Why is it that these well-studied concepts and approaches are not already in place? If it is so clear that our objectives need to make sense in the long run… why do we primarily work toward results we can touch and see today?
I refuse to believe that it is all due to short-term greed or other such deterministically flavored explanation. This is happening because the picture is not yet complete; we still need to understand two simple elements relating to the environment in which we work:
1. Why is a simplified, deterministic approach not sufficient? What is complexity?
2. What kind of leader is able to address a more systems-based, holistic, approach successfully? Which skills are paramount?
What is Complexity?
When discussing complexity, what do we mean? I have compiled some generally accepted characteristics of Complex Adaptive Systems and then we will see how they relate to projects.
Complex Adaptive System (CAS)
A Complex Adaptive System (CAS) is composed of multiple elements interacting with each other. These are typically called agents. Agents (e.g., people buying or selling stocks) in a CAS (i.e., the stock market) do not only interact with each other, but they learn as they interact, from each other and from the interaction. A CAS is in fact a network of adaptive agents that compete and adapt to each other. Adaptation happens when agents learn from each other or change strategies as they gain experience.
Because of this state of constant flux, in a CAS there is no universal competitor or global optimum. If an optimum was reached, it would degenerate into stability: no change, no CAS, no innovation, and no development, which, by contrast, means that innovation is a regular feature of a CAS, whereas equilibrium is rare and temporary. This same state of constant innovation, (e.g., typical of a well-known case of CAS, namely the Rain Forest) creates great diversity with many niches, each occupied by different kinds of agents. Agents change the course of the system by assuming possible developments, which is known as anticipation. Anticipation will introduce change even if the anticipation does not come true.
A group of agents combined, which can be seen as a unit, are called an aggregate agent (e.g., a stock index). Aggregate agents, affect the individuals involved and are influenced by the individual agents involved. Interaction between agents is often conditional (if the stock index goes down, then sell). Because there are many of these if/then relationships (the conditional interactions), interactions between agents are non linear (because of this, several mathematical tools, such as statistics or differential equations, do not work well in a CAS), and because they are non linear, they are much harder to predict, and predictability is only possible with the understanding of the whole, yet impossible when analyzing only one relationship.
Exhibit 2 – Individual vs Aggregate Agents .look familiar?
This looks very similar to one of the prior arguments against MBO; however, let's proceed with CAS.
Any complex system tends to become more predictable the more you step away from it and observe it within its broader picture; however, in order to understand and influence a CAS, we need to figure out its building blocks and, mainly, its lever points. All CAS have lever points, in which an intervention causes a lasting effect.
Edge of Chaos
If we assume that in a CAS we oscillate, coming close at times to a structured system and at times nearly degenerating into chaos, we should ask ourselves: Where is the most efficient status? If total stability and lack of change would mean a fossilized system, total chaos would mean an ungovernable mess within which no objective could ever be met. The most efficient status is, therefore, when there is just enough structure to permit some order, but without reducing flexibility and innovation. Such a state is called the Edge of Chaos. (Edge of Chaos, 2011) Life itself can only exist on the Edge of Chaos. Unfortunately, this fertile state does not hold itself because it is not a stable balance point. In order to maintain this dynamic balance point, effort and energy must be applied.
In CAS, new behaviors emerge, which would not have been foreseeable by observing only the single agents. It is at the Edge of Chaos, that these emergent behaviors can occur.
CAS and Projects
Alright, but how is all this relevant to projects? Very simply put, I am convinced that complex projects are examples of Complex Adaptive Systems. If this is indeed the case, we will need to review our tools and project management approaches from this new, fertile, point of view.
I will try to summarize the points made so far to characterize the CAS and the Edge of Chaos and verify their meanings in the context of project management:
Multiple elements interacting with each other: this cannot be overlooked in any team that needs to deliver results.
A network of adaptive agents that compete and adapt to each other: project stakeholders are constantly developing their understanding of their needs, priorities, how these changes impact the project scope, and determine scope creep if changes and stakeholder expectations are not well managed.
No global optimum: If an optimum was reached, it would degenerate into stability: A project does reach an optimum… when the closing phase is complete, when customer acceptance has been signed, and lessons learned have been discussed and archived for future reference (i.e., when the project is over: stability (until the customer kicks off the next change request or new project).
Innovation is a regular feature of a CAS, whereas equilibrium is rare and temporary: I would simply reword this sentence to: “Change” is a regular feature of a “project,” whereas a “stabile defined scope” is rare and temporary.
Great diversity with many niches, each occupied by different kinds of agents: Project roles and responsibilities are flexibly moving based on experience, trust, customer perception… in spite of predefined job titles. Team members and stakeholders are more and more commonly working together virtually—introducing cultural, social, professional, and diverse issues, not to mention differences derived from working in different time zones and being part of different, sometimes competing, organizations.
So, if complex projects are comparable with a CAS, their management must also keep this aspect in mind. We should be expecting non-linear interactions and disproportion between change and its consequences. Because we work in a dynamic system, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, these parts and their analyses will not necessarily give us solutions for the future. In fact, more often than not, solutions arise from circumstances.
The past is integrated with the present. Elements evolve. Evolution is not reversible. External conditions and systems change. Customer's needs evolve and a subcontractor's experience develops. Internal support and priorities are in constant flux. Therefore, analysis of the past cannot by itself lead to forecasts, we need to be mindful of all developments that have occurred (stakeholder expectation management… anyone?). Hindsight does not lead to foresight: why things happen is clear only in retrospect.
As in a natural CAS, and also in a project, the Edge of Chaos is the most fertile environment. This is the explanation to what every project manager knows instinctively: too much structure kills the project, just as too much chaos does. This is the reason why in some industries such as IT, in which projects are run under constant change, agile methodologies have emerged (the “emergent behavior”) in order to move the project status further toward the Edge of Chaos.
Maintaining this delicate balance is an art, however, and the art has a name: leadership.
Reducing structure means getting the teams to collaborate more. In complex cases, trust, readiness to fail or to make mistakes, and elimination of fear, are all musts. Otherwise, the project manager will necessarily have to introduce more structure, moving away from the Edge of Chaos. This movement away from the most fertile equilibrium is noticeable every time a project manager has trouble meeting customer expectations or getting backing from management, support from the business and commercial departments.
In order to influence a CAS toward creating an Edge of Chaos that we can maintain, lever points need to be identified and understood. Most of these are not constant across all projects: we know well that each project is unique… and so are its lever points; however, we can identify some aspects of projects that more often than others tend to act as lever points. Every experienced project manager will not be surprised to hear that running a project becomes much easier when: customer relationship is good, when the project team is motivated and dedicated, when the skills are in line with expectations, and when a subcontractor is accustomed to working with you and with your processes. These are all elements that are not simply “nice-to-haves” but ones that will create a cascade of long-lasting effects on the overall project system, which is exactly what a lever does.
Keep in mind that levers are different from reducing complexity (which obviously also helps!). Having a team co-located and composed of people who already know and trust each other are examples of reducing complexity, not of levers.
Jean-Philippe Deschamps (IMD), in his book on Innovation Leaders, defines the six key traits of innovation leaders, among which I want to underline trait number three:
- The tolerance for failure,
- The ability to motivate teams, and
- The ability to balance both creativity and discipline. This last trait may be summarized graphically as follows (Exhibit 3):
Exhibit 3 – Balance of Creativity and Discipline
In my opinion, these key skills can be considered levers in the ever-changing/innovative project context; However, these skills are not always easy to come by. In particular, being able to truly and lastingly motivate people is a skill few have. Understanding the basic, highest motivations that make us dedicate time and effort to a task or to a job, is the object of Spiritual Intelligence (SQ). However, before we reach SQ, I want to mention its relevance in the context of Emotional and Cultural Intelligence.
What is Intelligence?
Given what has been discussed so far: our current and predominant management mentality, the challenges derived from using MBO, the opportunities arising from placing our projects not in a linear, simple system context but within that of a CAS: the conclusion I have always come back to is the challenge facing our leadership skills.
What we are missing is not another project management tool. We have plenty of tools: good ones, bad ones, and useless and useful ones. What we are missing is the right people skills: the leadership abilities.
Real leadership, however, is not found in knowing all the moves and counter-moves in a negotiation or all the tricks necessary to wining a conflict. These are all useful, but they are management skills, which are necessary “to getting things done.” Leadership, on the other hand, comes from within the leader, what the leader really has inside is what makes the leader. This is the reason for which we often hear the question: “Is a leader born, or can one learn it?” Leadership seems to be something intangible rather than a set of learnable tools. It is true—leadership is not a bag of tricks one can learn and then apply. Leadership is something that is born from within the leader, not from the books he or she has read; however, so often it happens that a 45-year-old great leader was “just a nerd” when he was 20. Leadership is learnable; it is just not a set of tools, or a bag of tricks: Leadership derives from a person's intelligence.
So what is intelligence? Our rational intelligence, our ability to think logically and create strings of interconnected thoughts, typically measured with IQ, is certainly relevant; however, great leaders are not always those with the highest IQ. Emotional Intelligence (EQ), our ability to be aware of our own feelings and of the feelings of others, seems to have an even greater role. What is EQ?
Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
“The [EQ] model introduced by Daniel Goleman (1995)focuses on EI as a wide array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance. Goleman's model outlines four main EI constructs:
Self-awareness – the ability to read one's emotions and recognize their impact while using gut feelings to guide decisions.
Self-management – involves controlling one's emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.
Social awareness – the abilities to sense, understand, and react to others’ emotions while comprehending social networks.
Relationship management – the abilities to inspire, influence, and develop others while managing conflict.
Goleman includes a set of emotional competencies within each construct of EI. Emotional competencies are not innate talents, but rather learned capabilities that must be worked on and can be developed to achieve outstanding performance. Goleman posits that individuals are born with a general emotional intelligence that determines their potential for learning emotional competencies.” (Emotional Intelligence, 2012)
In my opinion, the relevance of this model is in the way it immediately makes obvious, even for the those of us who (like me) are “less spiritually talented,” how the ancient tradition of “knowing thyself” is clearly relevant and is the necessary first step before any of the further developments can occur, as shown in the diagram below (Exhibit 4):
Exhibit 4- Know Thyself
(presumed to have been inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi)
Understanding and recognizing that “I am annoyed”/“I tend to easily get annoyed” (self awareness), is the first step in getting out of such a mood and into a more constructive state of mind (self management). It is also the first step in noticing what is going on around me: “When I am annoyed, I interpret my colleague's silence as disinterest, whereas he might simply be put off by my annoyance (social awareness).” I can then act to influence those around me, “If I can control my annoyance (self management), and because I know what is going on with those around me (social awareness), I can then focus on explaining my annoyance, if still necessary, and showing that, in reality, I am interested in finding a solution, So, for example, I could propose that we do… (e.g., relationship management).” The real tough step is really the first one… just as ancient wisdom said!
Cultural Intelligence (CQ)
We used to evaluate complexity in projects as derived from elements such as project size, novel technical solutions, number of stakeholders, subcontractors, or communication channels. More and more, however, cultural diversity is becoming an important element of project complexity. Being able to move correctly in a culturally diverse, complex setting is a sign of a high level of cultural intelligence (CQ). “Within any culture, intelligence can be defined as the possession of key valued skills and behaviours in the eyes of the members of that culture. […] cultural intelligence is what allows us to transcend our cultural programming and function effectively in cross-cultural situations.” (Klenke, n.d.) CQ therefore rests on EQ and makes EQ possible across different cultures. CQ is necessary for EQ to be useful in a cross-cultural context.
According to Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski (2004, p 141), there are “three components of cultural intelligence: the cognitive, the physical, and the emotional/motivational. Cultural intelligence resides in the body and the heart, as well as the head. Although most managers are not equally strong in all three areas, each faculty is seriously hampered without the other two:”
- Cognitive: The actual knowledge about cultural differences. Earley and Mosakowski call this the “head” of CQ.
- Physical: Skills at using the right gestures, the right body language, adopting the right habits and mannerisms.
- Emotional/Motivational: The self confidence that will bring success; the knowledge that one can be successful in overcoming challenges. Although a person convinced of failure in communicating in a difficult context will bring the feared reactions and the defeat onto the situation, “a person with high motivation will, upon confronting obstacles, setbacks, or even failure, reengage with greater vigor. To stay motivated, highly efficacious people do not depend on obtaining rewards, which may be unconventional or long delayed.” (p. 142)
CQ, on top of EQ, is the second key skill needed to lead a team in a complex, Edge of Chaos type of context successfully. The key, however, to developing real and lasting leadership skills is Spiritual Intelligence (SQ).
Spiritual Intelligence (SQ)
Spiritual Intelligence, is “the intelligence with which we access our deepest meanings, values, purposes, and highest motivations” (Zohar &Marshall, 2004, p. 3).
A team cannot be successful if the team members do not know why they are investing their time and effort, and sometimes their health and livelihoods, into common objectives. A project manager with enough SQ can lead them to understanding why they are working so hard, help them look for fundamentally better ways of doing their jobs, and structure their working environment so that their efforts can visibly have meaning to them, and possibly, help them understand that their lives are making a difference. Only in this way are people with the alternatives and desire to deliver value, ready to participate actively in the efforts ahead.
It is by understanding motives, that we can really understand why someone behaves the way he or she does. Motives drive behavior; therefore, if we want to change behavior, it is the motives we need to work on. A shift in motives will induce a shift in behavior. This will in turn create cultural shift, which solidifies the motivations, empowering a cycle of improvement. Therefore, “the dynamic of lasting shift is from motivational shift to behavioral shift to cultural shift.” (Zohar & Marshall, 2004, p. 126) (Exhibit 5)
Exhibit 5 – Dynamic of Lasting Shift (adapted from Zohar & Marshall, 2004)
The best way to understand motivation is to figure out what it is that would satisfy one's needs. Marshall's correlation of motivators with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, visible in the diagram below (Exhibit 6), creates a scale of motivations, which are useful to understanding why we often have trouble addressing the right issues.
For example: if project team members need to satisfy their basic need for self-esteem (see Exhibit 6), a factor that could motivate them, is letting them test different solutions and finding the best approach for their specific jobs; in Marshall's scale, this is the motivator of Exploration. Zohar connects this motivator with the SQ strategy, or “process of change” of Spontaneity, (i.e., letting them find their own solutions and approaches). However, let's assume that the project manager adopts a different approach: he or she promises a bonus for the team member who most exceeds the quantitative targets he or she is setting. How will the team members react? There are several possibilities:
- The team members are simply not motivated by the bonus; therefore, they will be more interested in finding their own solutions to their challenges, rather than meeting their set targets.
- The team members are “put off” by the prospect of competing with each other and move down on the hierarchy of needs to belongingness and try to become motivated by re-asserting themselves.
- The team gets frustrated and concerned that the manager will react poorly to them missing the expectations. Some of them will move even further down on the hierarchy of needs to a need for safety, where the motivator could be fear or craving. A bonus would make them focus on meeting the specific result measured and they lose interest in seeing the full picture.
- Some other non-successful result…
Exhibit 6 – Comparison on Motivations (adapted from Zohar & Marshall, 2000)
In the rather common case of a team member who tends to react aggressively and in an angry manner, it is reasonable to assume (see the chart) that they are responding to a need for belongingness, in this case, a sense of holism (being able to see the deeper pattern, to be initiated to all the interconnections), which could shift a person's motive from anger to cooperation.
In these examples, we see that motives that drive human action are correlated (see Exhibit 6), with SQ processes of change, which may enable a behavioral shift. Learning to use this wisdom is, in my opinion, the real secret behind becoming a skillful leader. All other leadership skills can be built on top of a high level of spiritual intelligence. SQ is therefore the basis on which both EQ and CQ can be built.
Conclusions and Final Words
A project does not need to strive for stability within predefined processes in order to succeed in complex contexts. On the contrary, when comparing with the natural environment, we learn that only in a relatively unstable context can we change and improve. The equilibrium, necessary to managing complex projects, can only be reached if we give up managing by short-term objectives and let our actions be guided by: trust, service, respect (for ourselves and for all other stakeholders), and letting effort, energy, and information flow freely. This is achievable only through the constant improvement of our leadership skills, and, in particular, of our emotional, cultural, and spiritual intelligence, without which real leadership is not achievable.
“I believe that the prevailing system of management is, at its core, dedicated to mediocrity. It forces people to work harder and harder to compensate for failing to tap the spirit and collective intelligence that characterizes working together at their best.” (Senge)
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© 2012, Max Langosco
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France