Acknowledging The Planned, Embracing The Emergent

For some years now, the work I have done as a consultant has consciously tried to help customers recognize the difference between ‘planned’ and ’emergent’ in the work that they do, and particularly in the projects that they undertake. While the ideas have resonance, and people quickly appreciate the differences, gaining acceptance that they require different approaches has been more than challenging.

Much of the work of organizations is planned, as well as many of the projects that we undertake. As ‘planned’, they are subject to being able to be clearly defined, managed and controlled. An essential principle of managing a planned project is that we plan the work, and work the plan; we know exactly what we are producing, how we are doing it and exactly what it will take to get it done. Planned projects lend themselves incredibly well to the traditional tools of project management, and a view that the work can be planned, executed and controlled with a fairly high degree of precision.

An ’emergent’ project, by contrast, is one that is anything but clear. When we face an emergent project, we often have only a generalized idea of what the project is supposed to do and how it should be delivered. The actual work required, and any understanding of what that work will involve, is extremely unclear. The idea of planning an emergent project, or attempting to control it, becomes an exceedingly complex and difficult one.

Emergent projects are not often undertaken, but when they are they often have an outsized degree of strategic importance. They are projects that are by their nature unfamiliar and uncertain. Complex R&D projects, large-scale organizational changes, cultural transformations and entries into new markets or technologies are all often more emergent in nature. We cannot clearly define the finish line, specify the finished product or the activities required to deliver the project up front. We learn by doing over time.

I first encountered the idea of ‘planned’ vs. ’emergent’ in an article in the Academy of Management Journal, written by Marianne Lewis, Ann Welsh, Gordon Dehler and Stephen Green. The same concepts have been referred to in other papers and books as ‘newtonian’ vs. ‘quantum’, ‘funnel’ vs. ‘ferment’, ‘runner’ vs. ‘renegade’ and no doubt many other terms. Why the distinction is being made in the first place is an important one: there are very different management challenges in managing one than there are in managing the other.

The tools of project management are really the tools of managing planned projects; traditional project management approaches presume a planned approach. They start with a clearly defined objective and scope, break that down into identifiable and estimable activities and result in a plan that can be clearly executed and controlled. All very good when you know where you are going and how to get there, but far less helpful when you have only a general direction as a goal and some preliminary thoughts on where to go next.

The challenge, therefore, is how to approach managing emergent projects. And for all that people can recognize and appreciate that emergent projects exist, the strong temptation is still to try to wedge them into a planned approach. As human beings, we like certainty, and typically prefer a management approach that is clear and well defined. The problem is that trying to adopt a planned approach to managing an emergent project is likely to make it fail faster, findings that have been reinforced by Terry Williams in research.

A big first step to managing an emergent project is recognizing that it is emergent. If we know that at the start, then our expectations can shift: it will have a general objective, ill-defined specification and a less clear path forward. If we can shift our expectation, then our management approach also has an opportunity to evolve. The next challenge, however, is knowing what an emergent management approach looks like. While the tools of project management allow for how to deliver planned projects, they don’t make it clear how to adapt them to emergent approaches.

Adaptation is key, however. Some of the same tools can be applied, but in different ways. We are not dealing with precision, but with approximation. We are not defining activities with clarity, but we are providing general guidance. We are not fully defining scope, but we are committed to filling in the blanks as we move forward. Much of the difference in managing an emergent project is a shift in thinking, but it is this shift that is perhaps the challenge – it means giving up the black-and-white clarity of concrete projects for admittedly much more fuzzy shades of grey.

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