The assumption that a project can easily be planned down to the last detail and that the project manager’s job after the planning phase is completed is the foundation of traditional project management processes. Without surprises, the project manager’s job it to execute the project according to the plan. Modern reality is very different.
Any task that involves human beings working together over a long period of time and limited resources is subject to some unpredictability. Things often happen in a different order than expected. This is something that successful project managers are able to see intuitively and adapt to the events as they unfold. They know how to make the most out of a different type of order.
There are two types of orders
Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, explored the nature of creativity and its relationship to order in his 1907 book Creative Evolution. Bergson defines order as a predetermined, mechanistic, linear relationship between things. Event A leads into Event B; Event C leads directly to Event C; and so forth, without the possibility of adaptation or variation. Creativity is also something we tend to view as something that only arises in a state where there is no order. This way of thinking is the basis for the stereotype of the free-thinking artist. Bergson argued, however, that creativity is a disorder.
Alexander Laufer has taken inspiration from Bergson’s work to develop powerful insights into project management. In Mastering the Leadership Role of Project Management, Laufer summarized his ideas.
Bergson claimed that disorder is not possible, but that there are two types of order: living order and geometric. Bergson used the term “geometric order” to refer to the old concept of order. However, he used the term “living order” to describe a phenomenon such the creativity of an individual or the mess in [someone]’s] office.
Project management is based on traditional managerial thinking. This idea of order is associated to linear development, where each stage leads to the next. This is the type of project progression project managers have always admired and it is what drives the process-oriented approach to managing projects that organizations often focus on. Project management is incomplete without the use of geometric order. Inexperienced project managers should learn how to use a geometric approach to their work. Geometric-order thinking can result in inefficient and ineffective results if it is used exclusively.
Living-order thinking, on the other hand, recognizes that a system can be in a constant state of remaking itself and that every system is at some level in a state of uncertainty. This means that projects are often in dynamic environments and unexpected events should be considered part a project’s life cycle. This is something that project managers who are experienced have learned over time. Even inexperienced project managers can attempt to incorporate a sense of living order into their work.
Figure 1 shows the characteristics of living and geometric order.
Figure 1: Characteristics and characteristics of the living order and the geometric order
Living and Geometric Order Practices can coexist
Remember that a project can have both living and geometric order qualities. While geometric order methods may be more appropriate in some situations, living order methods are more effective in others. Making a peanut butter sandwich for lunch is an easy, straightforward task of geometric order. Contrast this with preparing a five-course meal for a group of people whose arrival time is unknown, using recipes that you have never tried before, which is a difficult task.