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Scheduling in the Age of Complexity

If you don’t like change you are going to like irrelevance less.
Gen. Eric Shinseki (US Army)

Keywords: Scheduling, Complexity, Communications

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Scheduling in the Age of Complexity  [P089]

Scheduling was developed as a scientific computer based modelling process at a time when ‘command and control’ was the dominant management paradigm supported by the ideas of ‘scientific management’. Arguably, the development of scheduling as a discipline was the catalyst for the evolution of project management into its modern form.  The artefacts created by schedulers generated the impression that the mathematical certainties calculated by their leading edge computer tools somehow translated into certain project outcomes.

Fast forward 50 years and the certainties are no longer so apparent:
-    Most project run late
-    Knowledge workers cannot be effectively managed using ‘command and control’ paradigms
-    The ‘art’ of effective scheduling has largely disappeared from the project landscape
-    Uncertainty and complexity are starting to take centre stage

In response to these challenges, one approach has been to build ever greater sophistication into the basic CPM modelling process in an attempt to achieve certainty (or at least quantify the uncertainty).  This paper will argue the problem with these approaches lays in the uniqueness of each project. 

To take one example Monte Carlo analysis can be used to develop an appreciation of the degree of uncertainty in a project.  However, the basic assumption underlying the methodology is the presumption of a predictable distribution for the duration of a task (Triangular, Beta, Normal, etc) and as a consequence, the range of outcomes for whole project may be assessed with a degree of certainty. This fundamental assumption is based on a false premise. 

The ideas of a normal (Gaussian) distribution and the calculation of a standard deviation were based on measuring hundreds of similar events and the ‘standard deviation’ defines the degree of error within the data set; not the accuracy of ‘a single estimate’. A project is not part of a large ‘data set’ it is a unique entity. The difference is similar to car accidents – the insurance company can quietly calculate the accident rate per million kilometres driven and using statistical modelling determine its premiums for different classes of driver, based on the overall risk profile.  It is not worried who has an accident just how many accidents occur within each population of drivers.  However, if you are the driver of the car about to be involved in an accident the situation is rather more compelling: you are in a unique and somewhat challenging position.

Similar issues arise with adding additional layers of detail and complexity to the CPM model; the ‘extras’ do not prima facie improve the value of the CPM model.

This paper suggests that a radically different approach is needed to make scheduling relevant and useful in the 21st Century.  Starting with the ideas derived from Complexity Theory, Complex Responsive Processes of Relating (CRPR) and the concept of the project team as a ‘Temporary Knowledge Organization (TKO) one can see the delivery of the project being crafted by thousands of individual decisions and actions taken by people who are ‘actors’ within the social network of the project team and its immediate surrounds.  The role of ‘project management’ is to motivate, coordinate and lead the team towards the common objective of a successful project outcome.  To achieve real success, the team members need to understand and embrace the project’s objectives as their own and then work effectively towards their achievement.

In this environment the project schedule has two key roles to play, firstly as a tool to develop a common understanding of the optimum approach for achieving the project objectives and then as a flexible tool to measure the inevitable deviations from the plan and re-assess the best way forward. The rich symbolic language of a well constructed CPM is a far more effective way to communicate the complex ideas of timing, sequence and dependencies than words, provided the ‘project actors’ understand the value of the message and its limitations. Operating effectively in ‘the age of complexity’ will require many project schedulers to significantly expand their existing skill set.

This paper:

Author: Patrick Weaver

Revolutionary Scheduling
Sixth Annual PMI College of Scheduling Conference
Sunday, May 17 - Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Boston, MA, USA

Elements of paper previewed at:
- ProjectChat 2009, Hobart: 19th March
- AIPM Controls SIG, Melbourne 24th March
Download Paper.
 - Visit the conference web site


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