Over the past couple of years I have regularly heard companies, their portfolios and even individual projects referred to as Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). With a CAS, understanding of the individual components does not convey an understanding of the whole, and reductionist thinking which can work so well with simple or even complicated systems is of limited use.
Given this, I felt it was somewhat timely when I was invited to review Jonathan Sapir’s new book, Thriving at the Edge of Chaos – Managing Projects as Complex Adaptive Systems.
In the first half of the book, Jonathan does a good job of covering the challenges we face when trying to apply traditional planning approaches to complex projects. His differentiation between complicated and complex contexts, the importance of systems thinking and his walk through of the Cynefin framework make these sections a good primer on the subject.
Whether it is Ian Malcolm’s quote about non-linearity from Jurassic Park, the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys around a lamp post, or the analogy of a fence and treats for a dog as examples of boundaries and attractors, Jonathan provides many quotes, analogies and examples which all help to make a complex (no pun intended) topic approachable for most readers.
A number of the principles he covers in the first half of the book will resonate with both agilists and anti-fragilists including:
- Simple rules
- Encouraging emergence of solutions
- Preserving optionality
- Distributed control
- Rapid feedback
I liked his guidance that operating at the edge of chaos is where modern organizations should strive to be as excessive control leads to paralysis and eventual obsolescence whereas a lack of any guardrails will often result in chaos. Uber is frequently referenced in the book as almost a “poster child” for living on the edge, but I found the inclusion of Cemex and how they overcame the challenges they were facing in a traditional industry more appealing to me given that the majority of organizations are not founded to disrupt an existing business model.
The second half of the book covers Dr. Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (ToC) and focuses heavily on its application in Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM).
While CCPM provides good solutions for dealing with common scheduling issues, I did feel that the book could have delved deeper in terms of applying ToC and other models to addressing some of the non-scheduling concerns caused by CAS. There could have also been some guidance provided for leaders who face the challenge where there are multiple resources who are all equally constrained. ToC works well when there is a single bottleneck but with multiple equivalent bottlenecks what should we do?
The following qualifier from the Introduction also raised some concerns: “This book applies primarily to repetitive, as opposed to one-off, never-to-be-done-again projects. It does not apply to software development projects that use agile methodology.” I would argue that some of the most complex projects we have to deliver are highly unique. Also, while many of the ideas shared by Jonathan are already incorporated in agile methods, these approaches haven’t fully solved CAS challenges and the book could have addressed those.
If we accept that complexity is going to continue to increase in delivery, Jonathan’s book provides a solid grounding on the subject and I hope that a future revision will address some of the opportunities I’ve raised.