Can complex adaptive systems help

the wicked problem that is project management?



By Dr Michael Pace

Mays Business School
Texas A&M University

College Station, TX, USA




Wicked problems are among the most challenging and complex issues faced. They are often defined by the complexity, by the presence of contradictory information or knowledge, the network of opinions and stakeholders involved, and the interconnected, often interdisciplinary, nature of the problem.  Project management (PM) is the set of practices, procedures, and tools used to organize work and deliver unique results through group activities, within a specific time frame. The benefits of project management have been well documented over the past several decades; yet, the reality of project management maturity and adoption is that not every organization deploys PM practices and those that do so in an immature way. In fact, organizations continue to question the relevance and need for project management despite the empirical evidence of its effectiveness. In the context of a wicked problem, no two projects (or project environments) are the same, and the solution (often a project management methodology) deployed in one setting rarely is successful unilaterally. The resulting occurrence is what is currently seen – consistent project success remains just out of reach.  Using the perspective of complex adaptive systems (CAS) may provide a useful lens to bridge the dichotomy between project management benefit and project management methodology. At the base layer, CAS consist of agents who interact and learn from each and from the environment. These interactions are nonlinear. The interactions and evolutions, however, can generate emerging behaviors that are less non-linear (though still unpredictable). To illustrate this concept within project management, a case study of two project organizations within a decentralized setting is presented. The findings of inconsistent success within each organization, despite consistent methods deployed, support the assertion that project management as a complex adaptive system should be treated as a wicked problem

Keywords:  Complex Adaptive Systems; PM Methodology; Project Management; VUCA


A continuing conundrum persists regarding project management success.  Longitudinal analysis of projects that succeed, fail, or are considering challenged reveals decades of stagnation in spite of repeated attempts at improvement.  Even the tag of “challenged” carries a weight, as those involved in projects prefer not to admit failure but recognize the lack of success.  A new perspective on project management approaches is therefore warranted.

The intersection of complexity theory and wicked problems may provide one such avenue.  Projects exist in VUCA-environments – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.   The initiatives themselves are complex, difficult to predict, and lacking linearity.  Rationalistic attempts at resolution are met with futility (e.g. wicked problems).  Complex adaptive systems and wicked problems seem to synergistic suggest customization is required beyond contemporary project management approaches.

As illustration of this point, a case study is presented of a large, decentralized organization.  A cross-section of two organizations, each with a successful and a failed project, are discussed.  Rationalistic thinking would suggest success is repeatable within an organization charged with similar projects.  The present case study challenges this perspective, as success remains inconsistent.


To read entire paper, click here


Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally presented at the 13th Annual UT Dallas Project Management Symposium in May 2019.  It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

How to cite this paper: Pace, M. (2019). Can complex adaptive systems help the wicked problem that is project management? presented at the 13th Annual UT Dallas Project Management Symposium, Richardson, Texas, USA in May 2019; published in the PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue VII, August.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/pmwj84-Aug2019-Pace-can-complex-adaptive-systems-help-wicked-project-management.pdf



About the Author

Dr Michael Pace

Texas A&M University
College Station, TX, USA



Dr. Michael Pace currently serves Texas A&M University as Executive Professor within Mays Department of Management. As a practitioner, Dr. Pace has held various positions related to project, program and portfolio management across a broad variety of organizations and industries. Dr. Pace received his doctorate from Capella University in Business Management with a specialization in Project Management, Master’s degree from Sam Houston State in Forensic Science, and Bachelor’s degree from Baylor University in Forensic Science. In addition to his Mays appointment, he serves in adjunct roles with Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Texas A&M Energy Institute, and Texas A&M Engineering.

Dr. Pace’s research is focused on project management methodologies, especially the customization of a method to fit the project need. He teaches courses in project management, strategic management, and organizational behavior. He can be contacted at wpace@mays.tamu.edu