Large IT Projects as Complex Adaptive Systems – Manage More Control Less

We talked about how large IT projects qualify as complex adaptive systems in part 1. Appreciating our systems, acknowledging and understanding that these are systems in the complex problem domain is the first big step in coming up with the right solutions.

The insights and research tell us one thing loud and clear – trying to force control on complex system is challenging. We need to manage the system. To be able to do that, first we must know the difference between manage and control.

A quick google search throws up these definitions:

Control: 1) the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events, 2) a person or thing used as a standard of comparison for checking the results of a survey or experiment.

Manage: 1) be in charge of (a business, organization, or undertaking); run. 2) succeed in surviving or in achieving something despite difficult circumstances; cope.

A larger degree of control essentially entails adding new structures, processes and systems for greater control that in turn complicates our complex problem. In the context of a complex system, it’s not a surprise to decipher why control could be difficult. We are working with a larger set of stakeholders and ability to influence directly is pretty limited. Adding new structures and processes is also not trivial – given the complex nature of interactions between the sub systems. About the comparison, things are pretty dynamic and fast changing in a complex system, so past results may not necessarily be an indicator of the future. Not just the results, the methods of comparison and measurements may become irrelevant pretty fast too or atleast they need to adapt.

A bit deeper thought on both these meanings also suggests the following:

  • You could have some level of control without any management.
  • Having control by itself does not necessarily mean management.
  • It takes more knowledge and skill to manage something than control something.
  • Manage is more outcome oriented with an inherent assumption that things change, where as control fundamentally expects things to be more or less static.

The following quote from Days of Thunder perfectly illustrates what control is – in a complex system. A bit exaggerated probably, but not far from the reality

Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with 40 other infantile egomaniacs.

So manage we must, let’s see what that entails.

Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman in their book: Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated outline six simple rules to manage better in a complex environment. The rules Morieux and Tollman outline are based on the idea that the key to managing complexity is a combination of autonomy and organisational cooperation. People need autonomy to rely on and exercise their judgement in a complex system, The problems they face on the ground need fast solutions and no amount of procedures or rules can predict what is really going to happen out there. Beyond the autonomy, the ecosystem needs to also have a conducive environment for organizational cooperation. Sub systems are interconnected and the success of the “other” has a direct bearing on sub system success as well as the success of the overall system.

Creating this culture of autonomy and organizational co-operation is not a trivial exercise and there are no quick solutions or 1-2-3 steps to do that. This is fundamentally needed though given the situation.The leaders of the Agile Manifesto also captured this fundamental trait beautifully when they said “Individuals and interactions” over “Processes and Tools”
Leaders of complex systems need to always bear in mind these two fundamental traits and constantly observe where their system stands with respect to these and steer the sub systems towards more autonomy and organizational cooperation.

At the same time (and as the agile manifesto also points out), this does not necessarily mean systems have no control mechanisms (or we should not have procedures and tools), It’s not wild wild west out there. Control mechanisms  should exist in the rightful measure with the fundamental assumption that they must be constantly adapting and evolving.

Manage a complex system more we must, less control, respond as things evolve, forever dynamic, forever adaptive.

Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..