Creation Myths, Chaos Theory and Project Management
23/07/19 12:01 Filed in: Project Management
One of the things I enjoy is noticing parallels between seemingly disparate spheres of activity or knowledge. I believe they expose similar underlying principles which can help our understanding of the dynamics in each system. In this vein, it’s a fun exercise to look at the links between creation myths, chaos theory and projects.
Almost every culture on this planet believes the world was created at some point. We therefore have stories to explain how it was created; our creation myths (interestingly, the Amazonian tribe Piraha have no notion of time, little oral history and, possibly as a result, no creation myth. They are an, possibly the, exception).
Many creation myths tell the story of how a perfect goal was aimed for but a small detail that was overlooked at the beginning ended up destroying this vision and caused events that took the world in a very different direction. The end result being the imperfect world we live in today. Sometimes the ‘overlooked detail’ is another god, a demon or some other force; ie an external agent to the creator god. Sometimes it’s us; we are the ‘overlooked detail’ who do something unexpected and cause things to turn out very differently. It’s a common mythological theme in current and past mythologies around the world; Christian mythology, Norse mythology, Inuit and North American Indian mythologies for example all tell a similar tale. The story of how small overlooked details at the beginning end up making a huge difference later on is clearly one we relate to.
Chaos theory is a mathematical description of the behaviour of complex systems. It tells the tale of systems that seem entirely predictable at the outset yet are thrown in an entirely unpredictable direction due to tiny differences in initial conditions having a huge impact later on. If these small details are overlooked, things often end up very differently to what we expected or intended. Yes, that does sound very familiar.
If we take a system that has a variety of active elements and want to predict how it will behave in the future, then to a degree, the more we know about the initial conditions the more accurate our predictions will be. But only to a point. Perfection isn’t possible. In complex systems, tiny differences can have huge effects and the more these tiny differences are glossed over, the less accurate our understanding of a system and our ability to control or predict its behaviour becomes. Whether this is a universe, a weather system or a project team, the same principles apply.
The most we can do is to make sure our initial knowledge of the system conditions is as good as we can possibly make it by understanding the individual parts of a system and how they interact and by keeping things as simple as we can. The more we can achieve this, the more control we will have and the more accurate our predictions are likely to be. In other words, pay attention to the beginning or those ‘little details’ will end up grabbing the steering wheel instead of just nudging it.
It is widely reported that most projects fail to wholly meet their goals although a majority report they are ‘mostly successful’(which seems entirely realistic given the dynamics we are grappling with). What does industry literature have to say about those projects that are mostly successful?
The APM’s 'Conditions for Project Success’ report gives 12 factors for project success. Each of them was identified as playing a crucial role in the formation of a project. These 12 factors were distilled to just five. Number one was ‘project planning’; getting the foundation as right as possible to reduce the number of unexpected events further down the line.
Stories, Layers and Dynamics
Projects are an attempt to create something new and their mode of work is through world building. Each project becomes its own temporary cosmos with its own way of working, its own rules and populated by a unique group of people. It may even develop its own sub-culture for a time. It is a mini-world within the wider cosmos of the host organisation. Projects clearly come under the archetype of creation myths.
Both creation myths and chaos theory tell us that seemingly insignificant aspects of initial conditions can become hugely influential post birth. The lesson being that to maximise our chances of success in project management (or any creative exercise), we need to be giving the majority of our energy not to the vision or the end result, but to the nascent, the primordial, the pre-conceptual stages of set up, initiation and foundation building, before anything tangibly starts. Once something becomes manifest and begins, the ability to control hitherto unforeseen influences diminishes rapidly but the better our foundation the more flexibility we will have to deal with these unexpected events.
It might seem odd to be invoking mythology as a guide to project management. Mythology isn’t a module on any courses taught by the APM. It’s not part of Scrum ceremonies and it appears nowhere in the Agile Manifesto. Yet it informs all of these.
Mythology is about the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world. These stories inform, albeit unconsciously, everything else that we create. Even the creator gods clearly overlooked things all the time which came back to bite them and project managers and organisations often feel the pressure to be ‘doing something’; rushing in instead of working on the foundations first. This is the lesson of both mythology and chaos theory, where similar dynamics are at play. Perhaps mythology should be on the syllabus of project management courses after all.