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What Is the Relationship of Physics and Agile Project Management?

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.”

How Has Classical Physics Evolved?

“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

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”

Slavin, Alan J., “A Brief History and Philosophy of Physics”, Trent University

How is This Transformation Related to Agile Project Management?

Classical Physics Is Analogous to Traditional Plan-driven 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

Recognizing the Limitations

Physicists recognized the limitations of Classical Physics just as we are beginning to recognize the limitations of traditional plan-driven project management. The table below shows a comparison of how these two areas have evolved:

PhysicsProject Management
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 physicsFor a long time, we assumed that traditional plan-driven project management was the only way to do project management and that approach would work in any project
Beginning in the early 1900’s, modern physics began to evolve and the limitations in Classical Physics began to be much more apparentIn recent years, it is apparent that we are in a much more dynamic and more complex universe with much higher levels of uncertainty
In this new environment, Classical Physics still provides a foundation however, it is no longer a universal view of how the world worksIn today’s world, we are beginning to recognize that a traditional plan-driven approach to project management is not the only way to do project management and it doesn’t work well in a very uncertain environment

What Are the Limitations of Physics and Project Management?

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 the limitations that are inherent in a traditional, plan-driven project management approach. Experienced physicists have learned to recognize the limitations of classical physics. 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 project management 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

Overall Summary

The way that the science of Physics has evolved has some strong similarities to the evolution of Agile Project Management.

Classical Physics Is Like Traditional, Plan-driven Project Management

The foundation of Physics today is still Classical Physics, just as traditional plan-driven project management is still a foundation of project management today:

  • 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”

Evolution of New Ways of Thinking

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:

Physics EvolutionProject Management Evolution
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
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, neither one of those areas can ignore the existence of the other areaJust as in Physics, 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 Classical and Modern PhysicsA truly broad-based Agile Project Manager has a solid knowledge of both traditional plan-driven project management and Agile

Overall Summary

There is a definite relationship between the way the science of Physics has evolved and the way that Agile Project Management is currently evolving. An understanding of how Physics has evolved will help us understand how Agile Project Management is likely to evolve.

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Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.