Project management uses linear tools for non-linear situations

by | Dec 13, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

In my last post, I covered the lack of trust in organisations and how none of the tools or processes in project management addresses this problem.

In this post, I’m looking at the inability of project management practice to deal with non-linear dynamics.

We plan and execute projects linearly, but we experience our project tasks non-linearly. This paradox exists in every project and causes endless conflict amongst the stakeholders.

Projects are full of non-linear relationships and processes. Project management does little to address such scenarios. Are there knowledge, concepts or tools to describe, recognise and influence such scenarios?

Non-linear scenarios are common in projects

Common examples of non-linear situations include:

1. Human cognition and emotion, such as emotional activation in individuals and groups, e.g. from calmness to anger. Another example is pattern recognition.

2. Human social and communication processes, such as the process of forming a team or bonding between people. Or developing aligned mental models. And creativity and problem-solving.

3. Characteristics of technology, such as event storms (operational alerts or test defects) and system instability.

Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) operate non-linearly. Nonlinearity leads to “emergence” in which a system of objects spontaneously develops attributes not present in any of its parts.  Projects are systems of people and there’s solid argument that projects are CAS.

Without doubt, all these scenarios are present in projects. But how do we treat these non-linear scenarios? What is the project management response? We deploy:

  1. Sequential life-cycle phases;
  2. Gantt charts of linear task durations and relationships;
  3. Average-based plans and estimates;
  4. Step-by-step processes and methodologies;
  5. Fixed length processes and ceremonies: meetings, stand-ups, sprints;
  6. Lists, lists and more lists

Problems in MS Project Land

Consider a common situation for a project manager: developing and maintaining a schedule. I use Microsoft Project but this scenario works for any tool. You’re working on the relationship between tasks and you can’t get it working the way you want it. And the way you want it is to match reality.

You have dependencies like “10FS+10days;21FF-12days;5

Every time you touch one dependency or task structure, some other part of the schedule becomes inconsistent. And as the project unfolds, the project schedule doesn’t represent what’s happening on the ground. You try again with complex relationships or task structures and round we go. It never resolves itself.

Do you ever find yourself in this situation?

This happens when you try to represent a non-linear situation in a linear tool.

Isn’t Agile a Solution?

I’ll bet you were thinking about traditional project management when you to this point. But didn’t agile fixed all this?

In theory, Agile was to fix most of these problems. For example, its use of people-focused processes and emphasis on conversations. Or, the ability of a project to pivot in a new direction at any point, if required. And the repeated focus on stakeholder validation to determine value.

Each agile methodology can deal with non-linear scenarios to varying degrees.  Agile promises more than different methods. Agile promises people thinking and working together in natural human ways.  But not all agile runs as intended.

Many agile implementations wrap linear execution in agile ceremonies and processes. The cadence of same-duration sprints can devolve into simple feature releases.

Kanban is best set up to operate in a non-linear way. Kanban responds to non-linear changes such as unexpected progress in story implementation.


We cannot continue to avoid this problem: it pervades every aspect of our projects. Emotionally and cognitively, people show non-linearity at almost every stage of the project.

Emotional and cognitive processes compete for the same neural resources, according to research. Heightened emotional responses such as anger, stress or fear have a non-linear impact on cognition. This effect is invisible and rapid.

Problems with seating arrangements, environmental conditions or excessive bureaucracy can trigger unforeseen impacts in the core of the project.

Traditional ways of measuring progress (which don’t account for non-linearity) do not represent the actual state of projects. They misrepresent what is happening and must be replaced by measures that work.

Project managers must find different ways to get project information or exert influence (or control).

I’ll be looking at these tools and other responses to non-linear scenarios in future posts.

Stay tuned.

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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.