IPMA International Project Management Association
12 November 2018 / 9:00

The organizational physics of project implementation

After returning from a business trip to China, supporting Automotive Suppliers in improving their project business, it seems obvious to me that the challenges of implementing projects are almost the same all over the world. The focus is too often on methodologies, strong line functions in the matrix protect their resources from being dragged into the projects, project managers fight like Don Quixote against – sometimes invisible – powers and often enough give in. In addition, KPIs let functional managers focus on performance in their limited part of the organization, an overall, holistic and strategy-driven optimization is missing. A reflex of top management often is to ask for training of project managers, they needed to know more and apply state-of-the-art project management processes, methods and tools. However, this is like a lumberjack with a blunt ax. There needs to be a change of perspective, from the micro-perspective of projects to a macro-perspective of an organization. And by the way: this applies for traditionally managed projects as well as for agile ones.

In 2012, Lex Sisney published his best-selling book “Organizational Physics – The Science of Growing a Business”. Like in nature, there are hidden laws at work in every aspect of business operations and organizations. Therefore it seems to be inevitable to understand the laws or underlying principles that govern project implementation in complex organizational settings, achieving better performance as well as reducing the risk of failure.

According to Sisney, there are Six Laws of Organizational Physics: “These laws determine an organization’s performance and can help you improve it. They can be found within core branches of physics, including systems theory, thermodynamics, and motion, as well as the most fundamental principle of evolution: adaptation. Think of it this way: If you want your organization to thrive rather than fail, move swiftly in a chosen direction, adapt successfully to change, and behave in a certain way, then the answers all reside within these laws.

  1.   An organization is a complex adaptive system.
  2.   An organization is subject to the first law of thermodynamics.
  3.   An organization is subject to the second law of thermodynamics.
  4.   An organization must shape and respond to its environment and do so as a whole system, including its parts and sub-parts.
  5.   An organization is subject to the conditions in its environment.
  6.  An organization is subject to the laws of motion.

As you deepen your understanding of each law, you’ll be able to spot it everywhere around you – your family, your social circle, your community, your government, and beyond. In other words, you’ll find that these laws hold true regardless of the time, place, or type of organization. Too often, management theory presupposes that work and life are separate things. They’re not! Soon you’ll become skilled at quickly spotting the principles everywhere – and when you can do that, you’ll be able to see them at work in your business too.”

Looking from a systemic perspective into an organization and the performance of projects, we may understand why things too often don´t work. Like described in the IPMA OCB, everything is connected, projects need to be aligned with the organization´s overall vision, mission and strategy, with the embedding organizational processes, structures and cultures, and even the external interfaces, such as client, supplier and partner organiations. The application of agile project management practices will fail, if the embedding organization is not ready for performing agile practices. It may be the leadership style of top or line managers, micro-managing into the project context, or a mindset that is opposed to agile practices, or the hierarchical, mainly self-centric organisational structures that prevent a project from being successful.

Instead of optimizing processes, methods and tools of project management, we need to learn the art of intervention. I mean working with the system of the organization, fostering co-operation and alignment, internally and externally. It requires a dynamic organization as well as leadership with the ability of flexible response to external and internal challenges. Furthermore, it requires all people in the context of such an organization to understand the basic physics of organizing and how to make best use of them for getting things done. This may be different to what is being taught at many Business Schools or on Management Trainings, but if you accepted the nature of Organizational Physics, you just need to make use of it!





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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.