Review of Complexity Theory and Project Management by Drs. Curlee & Gordon

As a systems analyst, project manager and feral philosopher of science over the past 20+ years, I’ve followed the exciting developments which are now considered foundations of complexity theory.  I had the good fortune to work at IBM during Benoit Mandelbrot’s last years there.  Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractal geometry and the Mandelbrot Set, died last month after an astounding life.  Underlying chaos theory and complex systems ideas, Mandelbrot’s discoveries are well recognized to have incredibly broad application, but to me one of the most revealing realizations of his work is the relationship between the standards and methods of measurement selected, and the results obtained relative to natural structures.

Complexity theory, which could not have been developed without such concepts, deals with complex systems which come in three types: non-linear systems, chaotic, and complex adaptive.  Complexity theory evolved largely in an effort to explain recognizable structures and predictable patterns which emerged, but seemed impossible to understand in terms of the operations of the simple, component parts comprising the systems being studied.

Creation of Complexity Theory and Project Management (CTPM) was based on the author’s perception that “current management practices require adherence to rigid, global responses unsuitable for addressing the changing needs of most projects”.  The number one target of the author’s criticism is PMI’s PMBOK Guide, which is assessed on page 17 of “clearly” being “a completely linear tome”.  In contrast, the authors perceive that the Christian Bible embraces complexity, offering delegation of responsibility by Moses “to enforce and keep the law of the land” and the "detailed plans" for construction of King Solomon's palace as examples.

Crafted as a textbook, the published description of CTPM promises an instructor's companion website, teaching notes, PowerPoint slides, a solutions manual, and a tool box of solutions to common project management problems.  I was able to find some illustrations in the book that may have been copied from PowerPoint slides, but the other components eluded me.

Overview of CTPM’s Structure

The 400 pages of CTPM are divided into five parts: complexity theory itself, how to deploy it, case studies, creating successful communities, and advanced tools.

“Part I - Complexity Theory” comprises an introduction to complexity theory with chapters entitled: “Going Beyond Project Management”, “Virtual Leadership and Complexity”, and “Successful Virtual Projects”.

“Part II – How to Deploy Complexity Theory” is described in its introduction as including review of effective use of complexity, with chapters on strategies, virtual leadership, organizational culture, conflict and resolution, and risk management.

“Part III – Case Studies of Applied Complexity” starts with one of my favorite examples of participatory management: SEMCO, a democratically run company based on mutual respect and equality.  Following chapters include case study chapters of online universities and small teams.

“Part IV – Create Successful Project Communities” reviews the relationship of complexity to leadership, teams, and change. 

First: the Positives

The attempt to use complex systems and complexity theory to better understand projects and improve their performance first struck me as a noble and intriguing goal.  Social interactions are complex and chaotic, much like weather patterns.  if complexity theory could be applied not merely to atmospheric measurements, but to measurements of much more complex human interactions, it would be a revolutionary advance in social sciences, whose effects would certainly transform not just project management, but also cognitive psychology, philosophy of science and even cognitive and behavioral neuroscience.

I was delighted to read the authors’ positional stance regarding academic work, also.  I strongly agree with the value expressed that project management research should be directed toward increasing the available knowledge of the profession.  This stands in contrast to the Project Management Institute’s revised mission statement, which focuses not on creating value and advancing human knowledge as in the past but now, is rather more focused on encouraging forms of dependency on project management, generally for maximizing profits – described in the official wording of PMI's public relations “to make project management indispensable for business results”; Readers will draw their own conclusions on PMI but for me, Curlee & Gordon’s stance is a refreshing example of not constantly "reaching for new ideas to be successful".

Another positive is that Complexity Theory and Project Management cites an impressive list of references for many of its ideas.  While some source authors’ conclusions may appear to stand at odds with those in CTPM, it is reassuring and helpful for readers to be able to review the original work and assess the reliability of conclusions and recommendations for themselves. 

I was also pleased to see the inclusion of an entire chapter focused on SEMCO, one of my favorite examples of participatory economics and worker management based on anarchist principles.  In CTPM’s discussion of SEMCO, sentences like “Everybody is treated equally, from high-ranking executives to the lowest-ranked employees” appear to convey a self contradictory message, since at SEMCO, “equality” is taken to mean that no one has a title, there are no “high executives”, nor is any employee regarded as “lowest” in any way.  This is perhaps a good point to segue to…

Reality Sets In: The Negatives

I would recommend the authors set more modest goals for their book, stick to writing about what they know and understand, and study critical thinking, logic and philosophy.  Because of their obvious passion for the possibilities of CT to assist projects, especially virtual projects in which they specialize, it seems they make a doomed attempt like that of the Joshua tree in Fig. 1.1, which is called: "like a hand reaching for the sky".  A basic rule of risk management is to avoid "reaching for the sky" in favor of balanced, reasonable, and appropriate ideas and goals.  Overreaching introduces sufficient risk to virtually guarantee failure.  As we might predict, the tree and the authors both fail to grasp their respective goals by similar margins.

On every page, this book indicates lack of understanding the basics of modern scientific inquiry appropriate for constructing, developing, and analyzing hypotheses and theories.  Even basic rules for productive discussion appear unknown, including 2000 year old topics explicitly integrated throughout project management literature, such as clearly defining your terms.   Knowledge of what constitutes an "explanation", a "cause", the properties of valid  support, deduction and inference are clearly missing.  We are never told what is “complexity”, a “linear” approach, or distinguishes “sacred” information, which I found frustrating.

The first thing I looked for in the book was a definition of what the authors specifically meant by the main subject of the title: “complexity theory”.  This would give readers an initial scope and understanding of the authors’ approach to the material.  According to the book’s index, there are 95 pages explicitly referencing “complexity” and yet, despite repeated readings of the chapters ostensibly focusing on that attribute, no clear, usable definition is presented.  Meaningless statements that “complexity involves X”, “complexity may be used for Y”, “complexity is a complete system to leverage interactions” and so on suggest the authors possess only a vague conceptualization of their core topic, and much of that appears mistaken.  While alluding to the existence of specific “criteria for complexity”, readers are never given sufficiently clear criteria and definitions to make rational sense of the material. 

This defect is pervasive, rendering much of the book meaningless.  Continuous presentation of dubious platitudes, non-sequitur fallacies, and unsupported claims made me unwilling to invest the time to completely read the last 100 pages.  Random sample turning to any page seems to confirm this.  As a live experiment now, I flip to p119.  Here is the highlighted recommendation on that page:”Be a leader who is serious about trust by talking frequently about trust.”  Talking about trust is not “being serious about trust,” especially when one has not studied to gain understanding of trust.  Frauds and con-men talk about trust quite convincingly.  The way to “be serious about trust” is to study, learn, and make sure one’s behavior is honorable and trustworthy: a polar opposite of CTPM's recommendation. 

Next random flip: p175, where a tyrannosaur skull illustrates a metaphor that “the PM must learn to deal [with conflict] …or suffer a tragic fate at the hands of a cultural T-rex”.  The hands of a T-rex are extraordinarily small, its skull is very lightweight and its nasal cavity is huge.  What does this tell us? T-rex would be in great danger to its jaws trying to hold struggling prey, whereas its roar, teeth and towering size could easily scare off others from a kill, the way lions get most of their calories today.  T-rex’s extraordinary sense of smell enabled location of the kill just like as the similar ability of the turkey vulture today.  Clearly, the authors used poor judgment in their choice of a predatory icon.  What about their core claim that tragedy will befall the PM who does not learn to deal with "conflict".  Several other problems with CTPM's claim arise fairly obviously: one is that "conflict" is never properly defined; It is like a mountain lion, say Drs. Curlee and Gordon.  Conflict, they say : "can happen at any time", "can happen to any team", "can be destructive", "can be constructive" and so on.  The next is the claim that the PM must learn to deal with the conflict.  Unless interpersonal friction adversely affects the project, it may be a very very good idea not to get involved, especially if one is impatient, like me.  The next problem is the prediction of a threat regarded as culturally similar to being ripped apart by a predator.  Such a metaphor is childish, inappropriate for a serious work.  The publisher also should answer for items such as the caption to another black and white illustration, which directs us to “Note the depth and variety of color”.  For hundreds of pages, CTPM continues in this manner.

While we know projects can be “complex” in the everyday sense of the word, the authors never provide sufficiently rigorous criteria that enable us to identify emergent patterns, unexpected structure, and surprising order from complex adaptive systems or other types of complex systems.  What emergent “order” is being explained?  Without adequate definitions or a coherent theoretical structure, such a question is also meaningless and the material is a jumble.

Definitions of foundational concepts are difficult and philosophers of science are working to develop them in what we project managers would consider a scoping effort.  But regardless of inadequacies, we must have some clear rules to guide and govern our passions, whether they are writing or research.  Without a coherent framework, we cast to and fro without any net progress as the authors do, for example by claiming on p194 that people are not generally worried about basics like survival and perpetuating the species because “the human race has reached a higher level on Maslow’s scale of needs.”  One hundred pages later the opposite claim is made, that “the family is focused on survival…when one focuses upon what is essential…it is all about survival.”  While contextual rules could distinguish why one or another standard for analysis is appropriate, as far as I can tell, these are never adequately provided, leaving readers with a stream of random, often conflicting, unwise, or mistaken platitudes and assertions.

Who Might Benefit from Complexity Theory and Project Management?

I believe the primary audiences for this book are students in the authors’ classes, who seem likely to be presented with this as the required text.  The content strikes me overall as a collection of thoughts, concepts and ideas collected by the authors over the course of their own educations without a well-formed plan and packaged into book form.  Complexity may provide a thread that connects the topics covered by its applicability to all project activities, especially when shifting liberties are taken with its meaning.  It is possible that this may help with presentation in a course format; I would guess that will depend on the instructor.


In all, I was obviously and profoundly disappointed with CTPM’s lack of intellectual maturity and rigor in dealing with complexity theory and project management.  The PMBoK criticisms typically seem biased, petulant and sophomoric, without evidence or even a reasonable definition of defects which authors presented as “always” occurring, or as in the example mentioned above as being “totally linear”, etc.  It is reasonable to provide good evidence whenever such broad and strong claims are made, and explain the defects in conflicting views. 

Regrettably, I’m unable to recommend this book as anything other than a cautionary example: the result of drive, ambition, and passion moving ahead without sufficient education, understanding, or preparation.  How did this occur?  A root problem with religious faith is that it makes a virtue of not thinking critically, and the lack of critical thinking alongside religious references within CTPM does not strike me as an accident.  Faith in  mythologies, whether based on stone-age deities or modern free-market fantasies seem to present impediments to serious scholarship because the tools of scientific inquiry make rejection of irrational beliefs almost mandatory in some ways.

Alas, for everyone interested in complexity theory and how it might relate to projects, it seems our ability to obtain necessary metrics for good analysis will remain beyond any reasonable expectations for the foreseeable future.  Serious study of complexity in projects needs data on a statistically significant volume of agents (project team members and the greater group of stakeholders generally), and with sufficient detail on each agent.  If it is possible to get such data for enough people on enough projects to make reasonably reliable predictions on recurring phenomena and emergent properties, we would seem to need a massive amount of additional research in several fields.
Final Score: 1.0 / 5.0


Anonymous said…
Very interesting post. I am an Italian manager and I found some interesting books on this topic, but they are in Italian. Two famous Italian authors on the topic have just translated a very short successful Italian book that is a very useful introduction to theory of complexity and management. I think every PM should read it. The book is Journey into Complexoty by De Toni and Comello.
Kylie Wilson said…
Organizations need to be assured the individuals that manage their projects can integrate methods to achieve sustainability goals and still achieve project specific objectives. Project Managers need credentials that validate their proficiency with these specialized qualities. PMP Certified and scrum certified project managers can learn, apply, and validate mastery of sustainability based project methods to meet these demands.

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