Linear and Non-Linear Thinking in Project Management

by | May 14, 2017 | Agile Concepts, Principle-based Project Management | 0 comments

Since I put down my thoughts on Principle-based Project Management and the Project Action Principles some time back, I’ve been thinking and researching endlessly about the interplay between linear and non-linear cognition in the practice of Project Management, and how this interacts with our project context. I’ve been trying to “get under” this subject matter, by digging deeper and deeper, but have been struggling to produce any coherent writing.

Human cognition and behaviour is the core of what we do. But we seem to have spent most of the 20th century driving this out of our day to day business lives. The effects and influences of 100 years of Taylorian management thinking, and the apparent ease with which human beings lock themselves into hierarchical power structures, are hard to undo. Even in some of the most progressive enterprises, these themes run deep, and they are counter to natural human behaviour.

But, beyond what I wrote some time ago now, I haven’t been able to formulate my thinking out of the numerous book and article notes, other research, and many, many drafts and diagrams sketches and so forth.

It dawned on me only recently that this is a great example of the core issue: the linear part of me has been struggling to find the right sequence of topics (and therefore posts) with which to cover and expand on the subject. And so I have lurched and stumbled through the source material to try and find the “bedrock” upon which to base, if not my propositions, then at least the sequence of how they would be expounded. But the non-linear part of me says “there is no ‘bedrock’ – at least not one that matters to you. It’s all connected so it doesn’t really matter where you start: just start!

The reality is both are true, but practically speaking, for a part-time writer like myself, I have to write something that is distilled down into more bite-sized chunks, not so much for the reader as myself. Long articles are fine, if you can get them out. But there is an exponential relationship between article length and editorial overhead. Steve Jobs said “Real Programmers Ship!” and the message in that for me is that “Real Writers Publish”.

So I’m kicking off with the coverage of linear/non-linear thinking by outlining some starting propositions. In essence, I’m beginning just by beginning!

  1. We plan linearly, but we execute non-linearly: all our tools and models in the Project Management world are based on linear progressions and relationships, but the plans are executed by people, who vary infinitely in the way they think. Our environment doesn’t operate in a predictable modality either, so the combining forces can produce enormous and unpredictable swings of fortune and outcome.
  2. Humans have fairly well-understood strengths and weakness based on these types of thinking (and others): better we understand more precisely how we bring our brains to the practice of Project Management so that we can leverage all our resources. We have almost hard-wired biases as humans and many variable biases based on culture, education, experience and many other inputs.
  3. Neither way of thinking is sufficient to be successful in our projects: Barry Boehm and Richard Turner wrote in their book “Balancing Agility and Discipline: A Guide for the Perplexed” about the paradoxes involved in successfully running software projects, and how unnecessary and destructive the clash between the Agile worlds and the Plan-based (aka “Waterfall”) worlds has been. There is no “either / or”, no “one pure way” that will produce magical results. There is most definitely no “silver bullet”.
  4. Principle-based approaches work better for this very reason: a principle-based approach taps into the non-linear and unconscious capacities of human minds and allows this to operate within the linear structures of the plan. By constructing guiding principles that influence our way of thinking, we can harness significant power to help orchestrate multiple activities to achieve stated goals.
  5. The promise of Agile is not of more or different methods; it’s the promise of people thinking and working together in natural human ways: although there are many techniques and technological enablers to the practice of Agile, these are incidental and insufficient to produce the Agile transformation. We can reframe our understanding of Agile in these terms and make it work more to our benefit.

In summary, and based on my experience, the problems that we see in project execution, the real reason for “Cobbs Paradox”, is the failure to embrace both forms of thinking in our project management practices. And there is no worse failure than to sublimate that wondrous non-linear cognitive capability to the ponderous linear structures of PM methodologies and/or computer-based tools.

In the posts to follow (and I’m not sure in which order they’ll come out), we’ll look at these propositions and their connected ideas. It will be a wonderful journey.

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Each week Adam writes about interesting and varied topics for Project Managers everywhere and curates useful articles, books and papers from other sources.