A chaordic leadership model for a virtual project management environment


Project Management (PM), in comparison to other disciplines such as engineering, the medical profession, and teaching, is a relatively young discipline. The Project Management Institute (PMI®) was organized in 1969 and, at present, is the largest accrediting project management organization. PMI has fostered, nurtured, and been instrumental in establishing Project Management as a recognized discipline.

Project Management, today, is an art that combines the skills and knowledge of the project manager with the tools and techniques within the project management profession to deliver a product within the specifications required of the sponsor (Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 1996). Initially, project management was viewed as a means to track the cost and schedule of a project. Project management has evolved as a discipline that incorporates technology as a means to continue to provide the necessary skills needed by project sponsors.

A virtual project management environment or organization would consist of the project team members not being resident in the same physical location. While this is not unusual for one or two of the team members, it is more unusual to have most members relying on technology to communicate with each other, the customer, and the project manager in order to get the job done. It is important for the corporation to ensure that technology is in place to aid this process and that the processes and procedures are resilient to the dynamic and ever-changing virtual organization (Reinsch, 1999).

With the ever-evolving discipline of project management and the environment around it, how does the project manager adapt his or her leadership role to address these changes? This paper looks more closely at the chaordic principles of leadership as they relate to a virtual project management environment. Key points and their applications are discussed as well as issues the author believes should be examined further.

The Learning Organization

The learning organization as described by Senge (1990) is “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” This is opposed to “survival learning” (Senge, 1990) that is described as adapting to one's environment. This type of learning is needed, but must be taken one step further. This one step may be viewed as the organization creating its own future. Senge (1990) views this as the marriage between generative and adaptive learning.

A learning organization that is responsive to the project should be creative and responsive, but should have the checks and balances to continually assess for Senge's (1990) seven deadly sins or learning disabilities that are listed below with a brief description. They are as follows:

•  “I am my position”—Individuals see themselves as part of their job, not as part of the overall organization.

•  “The enemy is out there”—Individuals tend to blame someone or something else for failure. This is also true for organizations and/or companies.

•  The illusion of taking charge—Proactiveness today, in reality, is reactiveness. To truly take charge one must see how the organization/company is its worst enemy.

•  The fixation of events—Our society wants instant gratification and we tend not to look at history. We must realize that major threats to the organization/company's survival come from slow, gradual processes.

•  The Parable of the boiled frog—We must be able to slow down long enough and learn to analyze the slow, gradual processes that may proclaim need for change.

•  The delusion of learning from experience—We cannot learn from our mistakes because we normally are not around long enough in business to see the consequences. Companies should study complex issues that cross-functional lines.

•  The myth of the management team—The management team should be advocating collective inquiry, engaging in heated discussions, admitting the answer is not known, and attacking the issues across functionality (Senge, 1990).

The organization must have checkpoints, processes and procedures, and formal and informal means to counter the above dilemmas. The chaordic paradigm provides a method of balancing the natural chaos of an organization with the minimal order needed to create the organizations own future.

The Chaordic Principles

Would you ever imagine the fishing industry, including the fisherman, in the northeastern part of the United States and the environmentalists and conservationists ever coming to agreement on how to preserve an abundance of marine life and still keep everyone happy? It occurred with the organization of NAMA, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, and the help of the chaordic alliance. This diverse and self-organized alliance resolved the continuous hostilities with the chaordic principles.

Exhibit 1. Six Lenses

Six Lenses

Dee Hock (1999) coined the chaordic concept. He is the founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA. His contention is that organizations, just as other living systems in our environment, live on the border of chaos and order. Hence, the term chaordic was coined. The definition established by Hock is as follows:

(kay'ordic) 1: anything simultaneously orderly and chaotic. 2: patterned in a way dominated neither by order nor chaos. 3: existing in the phase between order and chaos (1999).

Actual organizations within a chaordic system were defined by Hock as follows:

(kay'ord) 1: any autocatalytic, self-regulating, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organism, organization, or system, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously exhibits characteristics of both order and chaos. 2: an entity whose behavior exhibits patterns and probabilities not governed or explained by the behavior of its parts. 3: the fundamental organizing principle of nature and evolution (1999).

The chaordic organization or system is one that is ever learning and adjusting to the environment and, therefore, it is flexible. A minimal set of rules and processes are established to ensure the appropriate amount of order. This is overarched with a common sense of purpose and a set of principles that are shared by the chaord (http://www.chaordic.org/res_char.html). There is no apparent centralized command or headquarters, but the chaord continues to achieve success, as demonstrated by VISA (Meadows, 1999).

Hock (1999) believes the current command and control structure of leadership “is a deadly means to rob self and others of the joys of living.” Joel Getzendanner (2001), who originally assisted Hock in establishing the organization, named the Chaordic commons, views a chaord's social purpose as “being a trusted conduit for the custody and exchange of value.”

The challenge to establish a chaordic organization in a traditional command and control environment was succinctly described by Long (2001). She states, “What would be the best way to credibly present the truth, if we could imagine anything as possible, what would truly meet the purpose and needs? It would seem that as soon as one organization claims to be the central body … motives could and should be scrutinized” (Long, 2001). Trust is a key element to develop a chaord.

There are six lenses to view the organization (see Exhibit 1) and to determine the need to change or design a new system. The lenses begin with defining purpose and end with practice. It must be understood that this is a continuous process with limited rules. The six lenses, in order and with a brief description, are as follows:

•  Purpose: A statement of purpose about the community or organization. The final result should give the owning members a sense that their life has meaning. This is very similar to the Scope Statement within project management.

•  Principles: The principles normally are of high ethical and moral content and should drive toward the core meaning of the organization. It must bind the whole community behind the purpose. The project manager would view this as the requirements analysis.

•  Identify all participants: This must include all members that contribute or are affected by the organization. This lens is very similar to identifying the project resources.

•  Create a new organizational concept: An innovative organization must be created that is trustworthy to treat everyone equitably. This normally does not exist and something totally new must be created. The team structure is unique for each project, as it is for each chaord.

•  Write a constitution: The constitution describes the organizational structure and its functions. It will clearly delineate the rights and obligations of all parties. Within the project management environment, this may be equivalent to the statement of work and contract.

•  Foster innovative practice: When the previous five steps are clearly delineated, innovative practice will be a natural development. There should be a blend of cooperation and competition, where trust is paramount. Risk management within project management expects the project manager to be flexible, but still ensure some control by creatively working with the project environment (Hock, 1999).

The six lenses are unique in the chaordic organization because management or leadership does not dictate the principles. The owning members of the organization conceive the six lenses. Common issues that may arise during the process are a need for perfection and starting the next step too soon. The owning members have to ensure that persistent and underlying differences are truly sought out and resolved. Another issue, which Senge (1990) described as the seven learning disabilities, is that we are our own enemy. We establish paradigms of organizations and have a difficult time breaking the thought pattern. Each of these disabilities revolves around each of our preconceived notions and our inability to understand something unique and different. We are the enemy (Senge, Carstedt, & Porter, 2001).

Applications of Findings

The project management environment is changing and adapting as quickly as technology. Many companies, as well as the Project Management Institute, are acutely aware that technology must be made available to project managers in order to accommodate the rapidly changing environment on information technology (IT) projects. Managers do not have months for planning to meet these needs. Many software companies are addressing this tangible area now, and these tools should be evaluated to determine the advantage of their use.

Senge (1990) points out that organizations must realize that systems thinking requires the ability to understand that “faster is slower” and “you can have your cake and eat it too—but not at once.” Organizations must respond to stockholders, but have to stop expecting to meet every whim that Wall Street promotes. Senior Management can succeed, but must understand that success is not a knee-jerk reaction, but a slow process of change that in all likelihood depends on investing money and time.

The chaordic leadership principles, where each member is an owner, may be the next step that allows project managers the freedom to execute projects in a timely fashion, with the minimal amount of oversight. Most project management environments are extremely process-oriented.

Project management organizations vary from company to company and even may vary within a company's infrastructure. In theory, the chaordic model would allow the project manager the freedom to do what is necessary to be successful on a project and still deliver within the constitution established by the chaord. The chaord must establish an organization that allows failure with learning. While not expressly advocated by Hock (1990) when describing the chaord, he did advocate that learning is by trial and error and this must be accepted.

The Model

The major issue is taking the chaordic principles and putting them into practice for the project manager. There is no evidence that this step has been taken. To date, there have not been any for-profit organizations that have ventured into the realm of the chaord, except for the VISA organization that was established from the beginning as a chaord. The leader of the project management organization must remember the six lenses when pursuing the chaordic organization. The leader must have a deep understanding of the types of projects and a mutual trusting relationship with the project managers. These are a must or the foundations of the chaordic principles will not become the culture of the organization.

The leader then must prepare the organization for a culture shift, which may take years for the new culture to imbed within the organization. However, evidence does suggest that a certain amount of chaos enhanced the success of a project, especially in a product development environment (Lewis, Welch, & Dehler, 2000). Therefore, the culture change, if perceived as positive, may enhance the performance of projects. The leadership should be responsible for ensuring a positive tone regarding the shift.

The first organization within the project management environment to start the shift should be the project management organization or the core leadership that oversees the methodology, establishes the metrics, and provides the care and nurturing of the project managers. This entity must embrace and understand the six lenses so that men-torship can be provided to other chaords as each is established.

The lenses need to be followed in sequential order. The first order is to determine the purpose of the project management office. The leaders must take into account that the fundamentals of the chaordic principles are stewardship. Therefore, the leaders must determine how the PMO will serve the members of the organization and all those that “touch” the project management community. However, at the same time the owning members of the chaord must be able to be satisfied with the end result. The final result should be a one-sentence statement. An example is: The project management office will provide mentorship to its membership, and will only implement and enforce rules/regulations and process/procedures as defined by law and/or the corporation. This is much like the Scope Statement of a project.

The next lens is defining the principles of the organization that will drive the organization toward the purpose. The principles must have an underlying ethical and moral tone. All decisions and conduct will be guided by the principles and should create a culture shift that connects the organization and its membership to a common goal and understanding, and how the organization will be measured. The Chaordic Commons, an overarching chaord, with the intent of furthering the chaordic process, notes eight major principles that are common within chaordic organizations. The eight principles have been adapted for the project management organization as follows:

1. The organization is open to any individual within the company that subscribes to the project management disciplines and policies in a manner prescribed by the organization's activities, and in pursuit of these activities each member shall

2. May create a new organization that further the principles and purposes of the PMO

3. Will make decisions in accordance with the principles advocated by the PMO that represent the membership and is not dominated by one interest or individual

4. The field project manager (whether internal or client focused) has full project accountability, responsibility, and fiscal authority on his or her project, within the bounds established by the PMO chaord and the project manager will always be involved in decision making for any area that may affect his or her authority or ability to perform duties

5. All information will be made available to all members unless there is a violation of confidentiality or legal implications

6. Conflict will occur but will be resolved with open minds, using creative and cooperative means to ensure principle three is not violated and profitability is still maintained

7. Train and educate project management members to behave in accordance with the principles, with minimal mandates

8. Project management members will respect and encourage the diversity of all personnel and will creatively mentor project managers to further the discipline of project management and the longevity of the corporation. Requirements analysis would be the nomenclature used by the project manager.

All participants must also be identified. However, a participant is defined as everyone affected by the PMO chaord. Each PMO's participants will vary, but it would be reasonable to expect to have human resources, the project managers, the sales group, functional organizations, the procurement group, the legal department and the contracting organization. This is critical, because this will define how to create the new organization or team structure.

When creating the new organization, remember the chaordic principles are not about control, but about trust and pushing down responsibility and authority to the lowest level. The PMO should consider chartering chaords for different types of projects and allow those within the chaord determine the appropriate structure and the means to develop the business, while living within the minimal constraints developed by the PMO chaord. Examples of chaords within the PMO may be hardware rollout projects, software development projects, and so forth. There is no right or wrong answer; it is a matter of being creative and functioning with creative thoughts and ideas.

The contract and the statement of work would encompass the next lens. As mentioned before, there should be a minimum of processes/procedures and rules, but this is where those should be documented. For example, an overarching project management methodology would be part of the constitution, as well as the structure of the organization. Nevertheless, one of the most important attributes of the constitution is that it must identify the rights, obligations, and the relationships between all the outside organizations and the chaords.

Risk management or fostering innovation is the last of the six lenses. The chaordic principles work under the assumption that the environment we live in is in a constant state of flux, with some overarching control. As in the case of an ant colony, should a human decide to destroy the visible portion of the ant hill, the ants respond to the situation with chaos, but there is some sense of order. The ants respond to the stimulus and work with the environment presented. This is the core of the chaordic discipline, being able to respond to the environment at the lowest level to ensure proper harmony and success.

The PMO chaord is now established and is still ever evolving. Now it is time for the chaords identified in the organizational structure to be trained in the thought process of the chaordic principles. The chaords then must follow the six lenses understanding that they have responsibilities to the PMO chaord, to each other, the company, and the client.


Cultural paradigms are difficult to change and the chaordic process is much different than the normal hierarchical organization seen within many Western business environments. When implementing the chaordic principles, the participants must understand that the process is constantly undergoing change. While the participants must complete each of the six lenses, the participants must appreciate that each lens’ content will never be complete or perfect. As the environment is ever changing so will the six lenses.

On occasion, when the purpose and principles are being drafted, the participants come to consensus at a superficial level to ensure harmony. This is not the purpose of the chaordic process. The participants must get to the root cause of disagreements and from here “find richer and more meaningful understanding and agreement” (http://www.chaordic.org/what_des.html). As Dee Hock and the chaordic commons advise, “If anything imaginable were possible, if there were no constraints whatever, what would be the nature of an ideal institution to accomplish our purpose?”


“Prisoners of the system, or prisoners of our own thinking” (Senge, 1990) is a representative thought that demonstrates the resistance to chaords. Senge (1990) attacks the system theory from the perspective of the central focus of organizational systems, the human element. Unlike many other cultures, especially Native Americans or Eastern, Western children are taught to “break apart problems.” This has forced the individual not to see the whole, but only the pieces. Other cultures understand how the effects of one part will affect other parts of the system. This is intuitive, but those in the Western world have to relearn this concept.

Project management leaders must recognize the needs of the virtual environment and the project manager. The project management skills in the traditional environment, exhibited by onsite project management teams, do not necessarily transfer transparently to the virtual environment. Leadership has an element of trust and relies on visual clues in the traditional project management setting. These elements are not easily transferred to the virtual environment. Technology continues to evolve and penetrate the project management discipline at a rapid rate, but there is a lack of understanding as to how to transfer the soft skills of leadership into the highly technical field of virtual project management.

Those who understand management realize that practical advice is needed. Management needs practical theories that may be applied with consistent results. Studies done in a controlled environment that prove one aspect of a theory do not provide the hands-on information needed. The learning organization along with a chaordic structure may assist the organization to develop the required culture shift for success.

Block (1993) equates leadership to stewardship. He defines stewardship as the ability “to hold something in trust for another.” He further emphasizes that stewardship “is accountability without control or compliance” and “the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control.” The chaord looks for its members to be stewards to each other and to the whole. Is corporate America ready for this paradigm shift?


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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA