Posted on 18/02/2011 · Posted in Change, Projects

Because we have brains that are hardwired to think linearly – but live in a world that can change exponentially…

I attended a great seminar yesterday at the City Business Library in London presented by Peter Duschinsky and titled “How to manage complex change projects”.   As well as being interesting and thought provoking it was free!

Much of what Peter said is described on his website and in his book “The Change Equation” (available from Amazon – and plugged several times during the session! ) so I am not going to reproduce it here.  However, the reason for this post is to share a key moment for me, which I found quite disturbing.

During the session Peter was describing some examples of complex projects that failed catastrophically, both in the public and private sectors.  The common factor in all of them was lots of small errors, that on their own would not have caused the project to fail, but when combined caused an exponential rise in complexity.  In these situations traditional management techniques fail to rectify the situation.

What really struck me was the graph below showing world population growth at an exponential rate:

… and consumption of resources is following close behind i.e. our energy use is depleting the earth’s natural resources exponentially.   Climate change is also following an exponential profile.

This is scary stuff!

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. We live in a world that can change exponentially – but we have brains that are hardwired to plot things out linearly – the software in our brains compels us to think about progressions as being simple arithmetic ones

So as a species, and a society, we deal poorly with uncertainty in non-linear domains.”

Professor Albert Bartlett, emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Colorado.

So where does this leave us?

As a human race – I don’t know!

As a Change Manager it is a lot simpler.  The complexity of a project is usually UNDERESTIMATED, therefore we can use some of the techniques in Peter’s book to help understand and quantify this complexity and then we can take the appropriate course of action to deliver our change.  This will usually be to break it down into smaller less complex projects.

This is great when you have the time or opportunity to think about this before the project has started, but not so helpful when you are already at the point of being overwhelmed!  For more help with managing change why not check out my website for some tips and guidance.

Unfortunately it may be too late for some of the complex problems we are currently facing…