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A Tale of Two CPMs

Lynda Bourne
September 17, 2013

(with apologies to Charles Dickens)

It was is the best of times, it was is the worst of times: project management knowledge, understanding and use is expanding worldwide but project failure rates are increasing or at best static. One of the likely causes of this is the two CPMs!

The ‘old CPM’ has been around for the last 55 years; arguably, the invention of the Critical Path Method of scheduling (old CPM) was the catalyst for the emergence of the discipline of project management. The approach to managing work ‘as a project’, and the concepts embedded in ‘old CPM’ is firmly rooted in the concepts of scientific management and the Newtonian concept of the ‘clockwork universe’ where understanding and control are achieved by breaking complicated entities into their component parts and carefully observing how each piece functions. (See: The Origins of Modern Project Management)

While the ideas embedded in scientific management are useful, they are limited, as author Douglas Adams succinctly pointed out several years ago: if I try to understand how my cat Tottie works by breaking her into her component parts, the only thing you get is a non-working cat!

Tottie is not up for experimentation

The core element of every project is not the technology or equipment; it is the network of people, the stakeholders, responsible for making the technology or equipment work or creating the new ‘product, service or result’ the project team was assembled to deliver. This network of human relationships introduces a degree of complexity into every project.

Adding complexity

Enter the ‘new CPM’, Complex Project Management. I don’t know why the project management community is so keen on duplicating TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) but the new CPM is almost the antithesis of the ‘old CPM’. The ‘new CPM is derived from the ideas embedded in ‘complexity theory’ (see: A Simple View of ‘Complexity’ in Project Management).

Some of the key concepts include:
Non-linearity: Just because 2 + 2 added up to 4 last time, there is no guarantee the outcome won’t be 3 or 7 this time. The foundation of the ‘old CPM’ is an assumption that durations and the associated resource requirements for each activity is reasonably predictable and the schedule is a ‘control tool’.

The ‘new CPM’ changes this concept from control to communication and suggests the schedule’s primary use is communicating mutually agreed objectives to the team, offering a framework for decentralised decision making and offering a mechanism for measuring variance and re-planning to achieve the ultimate objectives of the project.

Bifurcation and the ‘tipping point’:
Most systems can absorb stimuli and pressure up to a point with predictable (linear) change. When the ‘tipping point’ is reached, the system undergoes a fundamental change into something different.

The problem is you cannot predict the tipping point in advance and once a system has ‘tipped’ it cannot revert to its old state and there is no way of predicting what the new system will look like, or how it will function. Observing similar systems ‘tip’ can provide some insight but only for relatively simple systems.

: Many characteristics of a complex system emerge as a consequence of the interactions within the system. These emergent characteristics cannot be controlled but they can be influenced. The emergence of a high performance team (or a dysfunctional team) can be influenced but there are no guarantees the influencing will be effective, or how much effect is achieved.

While there is still no unifying theory of ‘complex project management’, ‘new CPM’ has started to emerge as a key discipline within project and program management and many of the damaging paradigms are starting to fade away. Probably the most useful shift has been the emergence of a general consensus that complexity is a continuum; every project has a degree of complexity associated with its delivery (because every project has stakeholders), somewhere along this continuum the project ‘tips’ from being one that is best managed using traditional project management processes to one that needs managing as a truly ‘complex’ endeavour.

Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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