What can Physics teach us about Agile Project Management? We can learn a lot from how the science of physics has evolved. I think there are a number of interesting similarities the way that Agile Project Management is evolving.
How Has the Science of Physics Evolved?
For many years until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, physics was based on what is called “Classical Physics”.
What is Classical Physics?
“Classical physics is the physics of everyday phenomena of nature, those we can observe with our unaided senses. It deals primarily with mass, force and motion. While its roots go back to the earliest times, to the Ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Archimedes, it later developed into a cohesive system with the contributions of Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Classical physics achieved phenomenal success, as the Calculus of Newton and Leibniz gave it the tools to tackle even problems not imagined by its pioneers.”
“Around 1900, give or take a decade, surprising new experimental evidence, primarily about atoms and molecules, showed us that these small-scale phenomena behave in ways not anticipated by classical theory. This ushered in a new era called “modern” physics. New laws and methodology were developed to deal with the rapidly expanding experimental evidence. Relativity and quantum mechanics added new tools to the study of nature.”
“These did not make classical physics “wrong”, for the old laws were working just as they always had, within their limited scope—which was the study of large objects (not atomic scale ones) moving relatively slowly (not near the speed of light). “
“So classical physics is still the starting point for learning about physics, and constitutes the bulk of the material in most introductory textbooks.
Simanek, Donald E., What’s Physics All About?, https://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/ideas/allabout.htm
- Classical Physics is the theory underlying the natural processes we observe everyday.
- It is the key to understanding the motion of pulleys, machines, projectiles and planets.
- It helps us understand geology, chemistry, astronomy, weather, tides and other natural phenomena”
What Happened to Cause People to Rethink Classical Physics?
That notion of physics that was intended to define how the entire universe worked held together for a long time; however, serious weaknesses began to appear around the early 1900’s:
“By the end of the nineteenth century, most physicists were feeling quite smug. They seemed to have theories in place that would explain all physical phenomena. There was clearly a lot of cleaning up to do, but it looked like a fairly mechanical job: turn the crank on the calculator until the results come out. Apart from a few niggling problems like those lines in the light emitted by gas discharges, and the apparent dependence of the mass of high-speed electrons on their velocity”
“Twenty-five years later, this complacency had been completely destroyed by the invention of three entirely new theories: special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. The outstanding figure of this period was Albert Einstein. His name became a household word for his development, virtually single-handedly, of the theory of relativity, and he made a major contribution to the development of quantum mechanics in his explanation of the photoelectric effect. “
Slavin, Alan J., “A Brief History and Philosophy of Physics”, Trent University
How is This Transformation Related to Project Management?
Classical Physics is analogous to traditional, plan-driven project management. Similar to the laws of classical physics,
- The traditional, plan-driven project management approach has been widely accepted as the only way to do project management for a long time
- The way traditional, plan-driven project management is done hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s
- It assumes a very predictable view of the world where it was possible to completely define a project plan with a fairly high level of certainty prior to the start of a project
That is similar to classical physicists. For many years, physicists believed that a model of the universe could be completely predicted based on some relatively simple and well-defined laws of classical physics. In recent years; however, it is apparent that we are in a much more dynamic and more complex universe with much higher levels of uncertainty. In that environment, the traditional, plan-driven approach to project management no longer works well at all.
What Can We Learn from This Similarity?
Traditional, plan-driven project management (just like Classical Physics) will never be totally obsolete and will continue to be a foundation for many areas of project management:
“…classical physics retains considerable utility as an excellent approximation in most situations of practical interest. Neither relativity nor quantum theory is required to build bridges or design cellphone antennas.”
The never-ending conundrums of classical physics, Trent University
Limitations of Classical Physics
However, it is important to recognize and not ignore the limitations that are inherent in a traditional, plan-driven project management approach. Experienced physicists have learned to recognize the limitations of classical physics that it only works reliably in a certain range of situations as shown in the figure below:
“Classical Physics is usually concerned with everyday conditions: speeds much lower than the speed of light, and sizes much greater than that of atoms. Modern physics is usually concerned with high velocities and small distances.”
Limitations of Traditional Plan-driven Project Management
Similarly, project managers also need to recognize that a traditional, plan-driven approach only works reliably in a limited set of situations. In the project management world, this can be expressed with the Stacey Complexity Model:
In this model, there are two primary dimensions – one is requirements complexity and the other is technology complexity.
- Traditional, plan-driven project management still works in areas of low complexity such as some construction projects. However, even in some of those areas, project managers have recognized a need for a somewhat more adaptive approach
- As you get further out on either complexity axis, there is typically a need for more of an adaptive Agile approach. In that area, Agile is better suited for dealing with uncertainty but this is not a binary and mutually-exclusive proposition. There is a need to blend both approaches in the right proportions to fit the situation
What’s the Impact on Project Managers?
Just as new theories about Physics have significantly extended the notion of what “Physics” is beyond the Classical Physics, Agile will have a similar impact on project management. The way this will probably evolve is very likely similar to the way that Physics has evolved:
- In today’s world, there are people who specialize in Classical Physics. There are also people who specialize in the more esoteric areas of Modern Physics. However, neither one of those areas can ignore the existence of the other area. A truly broad-based Physicist has a fairly solid knowledge of both of those areas
- I believe that a similar thing is likely to happen in Project Management. There will be project managers who continue to specialize in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management. There will also be project managers who specialize in Agile. However, just as in Physics, neither one of those areas can ignore the existence of the other area. A truly broad-based Agile Project Manager has a solid knowledge of both of those areas
An Agile Project Manager is not a project manager who only works in an Agile environment. It is someone who has a broad-based knowledge of both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management. He/she should know how to blend those two approaches in the right proportions to fit any given situation.
You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.