Characteristics and Consequences of the New Paradigm

What are the characteristics of the new paradigm?


This one is of primary importance. Emphasis shifts from the components of projects to their relationships among each other. Relationships require a look at interactions and interdependence .

This means that projects are about more than just building schedules or plans. They are not about purchasing silver bullets or secret weapons to increase productivity and involve more than quantification. They are more than about acquiring a methodology.

This insight relates to James Bailey's description of neural networks and what he refers to as "intermaths." He opens our eyes to what really happens on projects. Many activities occur in parallel. Each node influences others and, in turn , is influenced by others. Many factors are sprawling, that is, entailing more than a few variables . A different behavior then emerges. He further observes that additional values come from the relationships. [34]

To realize this requires the adoption of a multidisciplinary view of project management. This shift from specialization is a move towards holism, with a focus on relationships rather than parts , requiring a very different approach. Instead of striving for analytical predictability, project managers accept reality as they see it and experiment to see what happens, with the expressed purpose of interacting with the environment rather than imposing a contrived abstraction. That means recognizing a project as a dynamic interplay of the process, performance, product, and ” most importantly ” people. In fact, as proposed in my book, the constant emphasis is on people as playing the pivotal role in improving process, performance, and product.

Integration requires, therefore, that project managers truly become leaders . They must focus on results by recognizing that everything on a project must fit together to achieve goals and objectives. Some form of "relational holism" is sought, whereby all the elements are tied by some sort of connectedness. [35]

This insight does not mean, however, that individuals become subservient to the whole. Rather, an intricate relationship is engendered by project managers between the need to function as a whole while simultaneously allowing each component the opportunity for self-assertion. [36]

To do that, project managers must take a macroscopic view of their projects. They "look at the big picture." Looking at the big picture requires, however, more than just looking at the components of projects. It requires looking at their entire context, e.g., the context of an environment. It requires considering the external and internal environments of projects and not treating them as isolated entities. Project managers begin to see projects as open systems influenced by external and internal forces that can dramatically impact process, performance, product, and people. They become truly divergent as well as convergent thinkers.

This new paradigm requires that project managers become multidisciplinary. They must begin to view projects as a diverse group of people with a wide range of expertise, perspectives, working styles, and talents. Emphasis shifts from considering narrow aspects of projects by ensuring that one element, e.g., perspective, does not predominate at the expense of the others. This new orientation helps to preclude dysfunctional behavior, such as divisive power plays and Groupthink.

It also means that project managers start to recognize the importance of structure and the configuration of the basic elements of projects. In other words, viewing projects less as a means to impose an unrealistic organization and more of developing flexible and adaptable structures and configurations suitable to a changing environment. This new perspective is in line with the general systems theory, whereby reality is seen as one of highly integrated relationships. These relationships make it difficult to "explode" or break into smaller, or basic, elements.

The new paradigm means viewing projects as an effort to create what I refer to as "focused synergy." That is, looking at all the elements of a project and managing their relationships in such a way to ensure a greater likelihood of achieving desired results as opposed to treating a project as a mere assembly of the pieces. How do you know when that focused synergy exists? In the final analysis, it is whether projects achieve their goals and objectives in a manner that adds value to the larger organization.

Finally, the new paradigm takes a systemic view of project management. In order for project managers to look at their projects requires that they synthesize all the different elements in the most effective way via systems thinking. By viewing projects as systems, project managers have a more holistic perspective to identify the key elements of a project and how they interact with one another on micro and macro levels. Being systemic avoids the danger of falling into myopia and analysis paralysis by allowing project managers to adapt their projects to a dynamic environment. It also gives project managers the ability to effect change by manipulating the relationships among the elements, not just the elements themselves . A project is then viewed not as a machine but as a network of dynamic relationships.


The new paradigm recognizes that projects are systems where the relationships can become quite complex among all the elements. Under such a perspective, there is a need to acknowledge that predictability is very difficult. There are, for example, too many local and nonlocal variables that affect outcomes . The typical straight line, linear approach towards managing projects is viewed as too simplified because it is impossible to predict what will happen next due to the sheer number of variables with varying degrees of impact. For that reason, plans, like new cars driven off a lot, lose their value almost immediately. As mentioned earlier, the reason is that plans often reflect a static, linear view of a project.

Under the new paradigm, project managers recognize that projects exist in a dynamic rather than static environment that provides many implicit and explicit influences on process, performance, product, and people. Projects, therefore, go beyond a linear ” almost arithmetic ” view. They are a dynamic interplay of many factors, both quantitative and qualitative, with considerable integration.

Many project managers schooled in the prevailing paradigm view chaos as something to be tamed, even eliminated. Project managers go through unrelenting efforts to develop complex formulations and structures in the short run to help them gain control, only to find that these fail in the long run.

Under the new paradigm, project managers view change as neither positive nor negative. Rather, they see chaos as likely representing an underlying order that needs to be harnessed in such a way to achieve the goals and objectives of projects. In other words, change may mean opportunity as well as risk. Variances are seen less as something to eliminate and more as a challenge that requires further inquiry. Such a perspective enables greater flexibility and adaptability when managing projects.

A nonlinear perspective recognizes the importance of nonquantitative factors in addition to quantitative ones. It means accepting the fact that, for instance, a decision is more than just looking at an "S" curve or calculating earned value. It can also impact process, performance, product, and people in different ways and degrees. Hence, a project becomes a dynamic rather than static system.

The key for managing a project under a nonlinear perspective is to view a project as a system consisting of a complex interplay of many elements and relationships. Using a systemic approach, project managers can better ascertain the quantitative and qualitative impacts from a dynamic perspective. They can then identify key elements to manage and lead projects. By identifying key elements, often referred to as critical success factors, they can take responsive action. Rather than attempt to impose a one- size -fits-all approach towards their projects, they can identify what needs to change and then monitor the impact once modified.

Nonlinearity, ironically, requires viewing projects as a network of networks among elements and not in the typical analytical, top-down mechanical vantage point. That means foregoing the often simple deterministic, stimulus-response perspective and taking a non-Boolean, non-Euclidean approach. Perhaps, most importantly, it recognizes that projects are, by their very nature, unique.

The bottom line is that projects do not lend themselves to extensive linear analysis. The complexity is too great in many ways and circumstances will just not allow it. It is quite difficult, if not impossible, to determine what will happen next. We are too immersed in the world; hence, our interaction seems more ad hoc and less linear. [37]


If you subscribe to the notion that all projects operate in a dynamic environment and are themselves dynamic, precision is seen as futile. It is virtually impossible to predict the future quantitatively. Yet, as every project manager schooled in the prevailing paradigm knows , considerable effort is made to plan and manage projects according to some quantitative criteria. That is because neat formulas often do not adapt very well to dramatic changes to situations. [38] This effort is futile; the most seasoned project manager will admit that no or very few projects proceed according to plan, regardless of the precision of the numbers . There are too many variables and influences to consider. Even if project managers pursue precision, they find it virtually impossible to know whether it is based on accurate data and whether any calculations have reliability and validity.

Under the new paradigm, project managers can only hope for approximation at best. They know that it is fundamentally impossible to predict precisely what will happen. They also realize that projects and their environments are too dynamic to try to determine the perfect approach and execute that approach with precision. The best they can do is predict the odds about what the future will be and adjust accordingly while focusing on the goals and objectives of their projects.

They know that individual events cannot be determined at a precise time; only that they can occur at an approximate time. Much depends on the interplay of many discrete and continuous variables that enable an event to happen. The best that they can do is to predict the odds of an event happening under a given circumstance because of the ambiguity existing in a project environment. Any environment is constantly changing and nonlinear, replete with implicit and explicit influences. Besides, there are never enough data and information and, if available, they are often inaccurate.

Taking a probabilistic view of a project requires recognizing, therefore, that determinism on projects is impossible. Attempting such precision based on a deterministic view only increases the odds of failure, not success. About the best that project managers can do is treat plans and their executions as approximations to accomplish goals and objectives. That means, of course, recognizing the impact of nonmathematical influences and having a tolerance for risk and error.

Two key approaches to deal with the world of probability from a project management perspective are to apply ranges for estimates and to look for patterns.

Ranges are, by nature, approximations. They are admissions that precision is impossible. I liken them to the "bracketing" that I applied while in the army as an artillery officer. The idea is to shoot one or more rounds over the heads of the enemy and then several in front of it. Then, you select a middle point between the two positions and fire for effect, making adjustments according to the buffer that you established. Under the prevailing paradigm, many project managers act as if they can hit the target with the first shot. They seek precision, ironically, when working with estimates until they feel they are accurate, creating what is humorously and paradoxically called an "accurate estimate." Realistically, estimating is more of an effort to narrow down ranges and increase the probability of success being precise. It is more a matter of applying fuzzy mathematics and logic than calculating a precise value to predict the future.

Patterns also play an important role under the new paradigm. This requires not focusing on individual factors or events but rather looking at overall behavior from an "average" perspective. Average in this context means looking at what behavior was exhibited in the past and over time. A specific element is, of itself, insignificant. A general quality is then exhibited above and beyond a specific event or action. What is required is to look at the range of behavior over time. With this perspective, project managers avoid jumping to conclusions and stereotyping situations and events. They can also take a more integrated and macroscopic view of their projects, not treating variances and anomalies as something "bad" and reacting to specific situations.

The recognition of patterns is, however, no guarantee of predictability, only probability. Two patterns that are similar may, due to some seemingly innocuous action, have profound, unpredictable effects. However, overall similar patterns will likely produce similar results. [39] Pattern is also subjective because the human mind has a strong ability to develop a perception or pattern or order. [40]


Perhaps the most controversial characteristic of the new paradigm is this one ” objectivity is impossible on a project. Even quantification itself is a subjective act because it represents a belief or value system of what is and is not important to measure. Consider the constant tug of war that occurs under the prevailing paradigm over cost, schedule, scope, and quality. Which is more important? What is deemed important reflects more the values of a project manager.

Subjectivity, therefore, requires acceptance that an intimate relationship exists between participants and phenomena experienced on projects. A possibility exists that more than one perception of reality exists, posing profound implications for the choices while managing projects.

Hence, a project is less about achieving objectivity in measurement and more about leading people to achieve a common objective. As such, projects require thinking in ways that involve shades of gray rather than operating on a false pretense of facts and data. Selecting facts and data is, above all, an expression of subjectivity and can, and often does, reflect what is wanted rather than needed.

Subjectivity is often reflected in the actual act of measuring in itself. Observers cannot divorce themselves from their environments. The very act of attempting to know something interferes with what is being measured. Many status review meetings come up with the answer everyone wants to hear, but not necessarily what they need to hear.

In an unprecedented age of having too much data and information, subjectivity may play an even more important role, particularly in regards to having the ability to see projects differently rather than seeking to find the right answer; sheer volume of data in today's environment makes thinking and viewing reality differently more important than computing power to process it all. [41]

By recognizing that projects are exercises in subjectivity rather than objectivity, project managers can become more tolerant of diversity that exists on many projects. This diversity, of course, goes beyond race, religion, and sex. It also includes differences in thinking and working styles.

Recognizing the prominence of subjectivity on a project requires having a greater level of tolerance for such differences. Since there is less emphasis on finding a "right, precise" way of doing business and recognizing that there is more than one perception of reality, managing projects becomes less of a Win-Lose scenario and more of a Win-Win scenario.

Also by recognizing the subjectivity and diversity involved with managing projects, project managers understand the need to take an integrated perspective of projects. From a people perspective, that means involving different stakeholders in a way that generates commitment and ownership rather than forcing compliance via command and control. The goal becomes having people involved and focused on the end results rather than bickering over the details of a given process or procedure that often occurs under the prevailing paradigm. Once that happens, to use a jaded and often euphemistic term in Fortune 500 firms, empowerment becomes possible. Even prescriptive and normative considerations play a prominent role in the management of projects; perhaps more so than descriptive ones.

By acknowledging the subjective nature of projects, project managers can more easily identify and address qualitative factors (e.g., morale , esprit de corps) and balance them with quantifiable ones. They can also concentrate on inculcating a focused, balanced synergy by capitalizing on people's strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. Projects then become ways of meaning and teaming while simultaneously providing flexibility and adaptability.

[34] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 133.

[35] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 118.

[36] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point , Bantam Books, Toronto, 1988, p. 43.

[37] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, pp. 173 “174.

[38] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 187.

[39] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 146.

[40] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point , Bantam Books, Toronto, 1988, p. 95.

[41] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 203.

Leading High Performance Projects
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