Talking (Project Systems) Blues: A Foundation for a General Theory

As with those of you who observe the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I find myself suddenly in a state of non-motion and, as a result, with feet firmly on the ground, able to write a post.  This is preface to pointing out that the last couple of weeks have been both busy and productive in a positive way.

Among the events of the last two weeks was the meeting of project management professionals focused on the discipline of aerospace and defense at the Integrated Program Management Workshop.  This vertical, unlike other areas of project management, is characterized by applying a highly structured approach that involves a great deal of standardization.  Most often, people involved in this area tend to engage in an area where the public sector plays a strong role in defining the environment in which the market operates.  Furthermore, the major suppliers tend to be limited, and so both oligopolistic and monopolistic market competition defines the market space.

Within this larger framework, however, is a set of mid-level and small firms engaged in intense competition to provide both supplies and services to the limited set of large suppliers.  As such, they operate within the general framework of the larger environment defined by public sector procedures, laws, and systems, but within those constraints act with a great deal of freedom, especially in acting as a conduit to commercial and innovative developments from the private sector.

Furthermore, since many technologies originate within the public sector (as in the internet, microchips, etc. among other examples since the middle of the 20th century), the layer of major suppliers, and mid-level to small businesses also act as a conduit to introducing such technologies to the larger private sector.  Thus, the relationship is a mutually reinforcing one.

Given the nature of this vertical and its various actors, I’ve come upon the common refrain that it is unique in its characteristics and, as such, acts as a poor analogue of other project management systems.  Dave Gordon, for example, who is a well-respected expert in IT projects in commenting on previous posts, has expressed some skepticism in my suggestion that there may be commonalities across the project management discipline regardless of vertical or end-item development.  I have promised a response and a dialogue and, given recent discussions, I think I have a path forward.

I would argue, instead, that the nature of the aerospace and defense (A&D) vertical provides a perfect control for determining the strength of commonalities.  My contention is that because larger and less structured economic verticals do not have the same ability to control the market environment and mechanisms that they provide barriers to identifying possible commonalities due to their largely chaotic condition.  Thus, unlike in other social sciences, we are not left with real time experimentation absent a control group.  Both non-A&D and A&D verticals provide the basis to provide controls for the other, given enough precision in identifying the characteristics being identified and measured.

But we need a basis, a framework for identifying commonalities.  As such our answers will be found in systems theory.  This is not a unique or new observation, but for the basis of outlining our structure it is useful to state the basis of the approach.  For those of you playing along at home, the seminal works in this area are Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), and Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968).

But we must go beyond basic systems theory in its formative stage.  Project are a particular type of system, a complex system.  Even beyond that they must go one more step, because they are human systems that both individually in its parts and in aggregate displays learning.  As such these are complex adaptive systems or CAS.  They exist in a deterministic universe, as all CAS do, but are non-deterministic within the general boundaries of that larger physical world.

The main thought leaders of CAS are John H. Holland, as in this 1992 paper in Daedalus, and Murray Gell-Mann with his work at the Santa Fe Institute.  The literature is extensive and this is just the start, including taking into account the work of Kristo Ivanov from the concepts coming out of his work, Hypersystems: A Base for Specification of Computer-Supported Self-Learning Social Systems.

It is upon this basis, especially in the manner in which the behavior that CAS can be traced and predicted, where will be able to establish the foundation of a general theory of project management systems.  I’ll be vetting ideas over the coming weeks regarding this approach, with some suggestions on real world applicability and methodologies across project domains.

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