The Gradient of Terror – Project management and non-linear forces

by | Sep 16, 2021 | Gradient of Terror | 0 comments

Non-linear dynamics and project management is a recurring topic for me, e.g. Project management uses linear tools for non-linear situations and Linear and Non-Linear Thinking in Project Management.

But the Covid-19 pandemic underscored the inability of many people to handle non-linear dynamics. Large sections of the community were patently unable to understand the implications of the exponential growth of Covid cases. See this yarn on for my thoughts.

An article in HBR looked at this issue generically, and noted:

“Decades of research in cognitive psychology show that the human mind struggles to understand nonlinear relationships. Our brain wants to make simple straight lines.” – de Langhe Puntoni and Larrick in “Linear thinking in a nonlinear world” Harvard Business Review 2017]

Since writing those pieces, I’ve been reading more about the cognitive and psychological basis for how and why we create and react to non-linear dynamics. Why we don’t handle non-linear dynamics very well.

I am developing more concrete views on how this applies to managing projects.

There are many questions to answer, some of which I pose below. But before I start writing about those, I’m writing this belated apex category yarn for all past and future posts about non-linear project management.

Many questions to answer

Some of the questions I want to answer are:

Why do we instinctively solve some complex problems instantly but get bogged down on relatively simple ones? How do our human characteristics, e.g. the structure of our brains or our group social behaviour, contribute to these situations?

Why do we mischaracterise non-linear data and try to fit this to linear patterns mentally?

Why is it so hard to get teams to react in time to meet crises that evolve non-linearly? There are times in those situations, where even someone saying “But …” can delay your response.

What can we learn from other professional and occupational domains that might help us handle these situations?

Do we contribute to these problems? No fads, trends, and buzzwords set simplistic expectations about how the world works around us?

Does preparation help? In the form of planning, training, or experience?

How does this relate to projects?

Projects are human endeavours under constraints. Human activities are capable of extreme non-linear progressions. Projects often have more complex technology plots, which also often have non-linear dynamics.

And even more so, understanding the interplay and reinforcement of multiple non-linear forces again appears beyond most people’s comprehension.

It’s like a 3-car pile-up: the collision of individual and group cognitive processes, the dynamics of complex systems and the interplay between those systems with each other and with human capabilities.

If we want to get better at project management, we will have to get better at handling these dynamics.

We need to get better at dealing with high rates of change from multiple causal factors. The largest is often the incomplete and imperfect formulation of the “as-is” and “to-be” environments. In other words, we don’t know where we’re going to or from where we’re coming.

The Bottom Line

Emotionally or cognitively, people don’t “get” the dynamics in the sense of recognising and taking corrective action. Mentally modelling the mathematics of exponential appears beyond most people’s skills.

We can draw curves and gradients on charts and graphs, but the import of this data seems beyond us. A rapidly rising gradient doesn’t seem to generate the sense of urgency that it should.

Linear relationships that we can understand, measure and predict give us “Gradients of comfort”.

The gradients of comfort can be plotted neatly on charts and explained.

We don’t have to spend our established habits and processes. They mean we can continue to work on predictable pathways towards understood outcomes. They give us a “false concreteness” on a potentially uncertain world.

But non-linear relationships and forces give us the other extreme: unpredictable pathways, unknown outcomes, and complete impotence in our ability to intervene and manage them.

These forces give us the “Gradients of terror”.

The gradients of terror await anyone who is not prepared to detect and manage non-linear forces. Relying on linear tools and concepts is no way to prepare.

But all is not lost. There are things we can do and learn and apply to our everyday project management practice.

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.