Living Projects


Larry Peterson


(Original Version January 2003

Revised March 2004)

© Larry Peterson


Successful projects are a critical part of our work together, and we have learned much over the last years about establishing clear objectives and managing deliverables, quality, costs and schedules.  Linear planning has given us some useful approaches but we are now faced with more difficult challenges as both the complexity of the outcomes and the number of partnerships continues to increase.


Complex projects often do not achieve the success that we want in the time frames we plan.  Organizational or IT change projects that involve multiple organizations and stakeholders are often more complex than we expect them to be.  Those projects seem to take on a life of their own, frustrating those trying to “leverage” success.  By a “complex” project, I mean one where independent agents are interacting with each other in a variety of ways (Waldrop. 1992, p. 11).  This is more than producing a widget.  Such projects often involve new information management and personal or cultural change.  The establishing of a centralized financial system with new business processes, the development of electronic service delivery between government and business or real community economic and social development are all complex projects.


For example, Starfield Consulting’s recent review of electronic collaboration options for government service delivery stated it this way:


“Given these new levels of access and expectations, effective service provision requires partnerships and alliances that span the new service domains.  No one enterprise can do it all and keep up with the changes.  Partnerships and alliances that provide such services are necessarily complex, often involving multiple providers, stakeholders and clients, sometimes across the whole domain, in order to develop and sustain effective responses.  Given the pace of change they must also be agile and adaptive.” (Peterson. 2001, p. 1)


One effort to clarify such change projects was the development of “re-engineering” by Hammer and Champy.  When they recanted a few years later, they recognized that most re-engineering projects had failed to achieve their main objectives largely due to “people” issues.  Most project teams and managers that I have encountered, however, still rely primarily on the best of linear planning and engineering to try to “manage” the change.  This is largely because the linear paradigm has served us well for developing materials or products.  Many are still trying to articulate and improve on that approach. 


When projects get stuck or it becomes clear that the current approach will not produce the intended results there is a tendency to adjust by narrowing the scope or redefining success.  In a complex project it is often impossible to know how much time it will really take or how much it will really cost to get it done.  As the project grows, one then gets a better sense of what can be done, by when.  If this does not fit the expectations of the sponsors or the contract for deliverables, then the negotiations (or deceptions) begin.  Either the scope has to be narrowed or what constitutes success rethought. 


Sometimes this is accompanied by finding someone to blame.  Project sponsors or managers would prefer not to blame themselves, so they often blame the people who were supposed to carry out or implement the changes associated with the project.  For example, I have heard “the existing group did not have the new capabilities required by the software or could not change or learn fast enough” or that “the planning team did not really understand what they were asking for in the Request for Proposal, so how could the developer actually build it in the time required.” 


The linear planning process is very useful for some aspects of projects.  This is especially true for building a physical unit from component parts where the task is straight forward.  Many engineering tasks can be successful in this way.  However, the same linear planning process does not work well when “people” have to change their thinking or behavior in order to achieve success or when communities of organizations must collaborate to reach the projects goals.


Thomas Kuhn developed the concept of “paradigm” in relation to changes in scientific research and learning. (Kuhn, 1970)  He saw “scientific paradigm” as set of practices or as an exemplar that leads to certain results.  If you follow a certain paradigm’s steps, then you will get certain results.  This is a different meaning for the term than what has often been emphasized.  It is about practice or processes that create theory, not the worldview itself (Wilbur. 2002).  A shift in paradigm or a transformation is required when you no longer regularly get the results that you expect from the processes you are using.  Discovering that the Newtonian physics paradigm would not lead to accurate description of quantum phenomena was part of the development of a new paradigm. 


The motivation for next paradigm for project “management” is emerging from practices that do not give us the results we expect.  We have learned much from strategic planning and scientific project management.  Becoming clearer about the quality of the outcomes we seek, our assumptions about the context, the costs involved, the steps in our strategy or how we will measure success are critical skills.  Identifying problems and finding solutions seems logical, given our worldviews.  We now require another perspective and a shift in our set of practices to better understand and lead complex projects.


A real paradigm shift or a transformative change transcends and includes the previous paradigm or worldview.  To shift toward more effective projects or organizations requires new perspectives on how human systems work.  We now know that human organizations are not mechanical systems even though they have some mechanical components.  The mechanical or physical components sometimes provide the spine or the frameworks that support the living system or organism.  The next paradigm for successful projects incorporates recent learning on projects as complex adaptive systems.

Complex Adaptive and Living Systems

Complex adaptive systems theory has been developing for the last 30 years and is beginning to inform most of the literature on organizations and change.  Since the work of Ludwig von Bertalanfy in the 1960’s to describe a “general systems theory”, scientists have been exploring the relationships between the components of complex systems, including living organisms (von Bertalanfy. 1968).  They have discovered that living systems have certain characteristics that differentiate them from mechanisms.  In living systems, the ongoing order or patterns emerges from the interaction among the parts.  It is through the “self-organization” of the components that life emerges and becomes self-replicating. 


I believe that successful complex projects become living systems; they take on a life of their own.  The “new science” of the Santa Fe Institute and others gives us some clues as to how to maximize the conditions for that life to emerge and be productive.  According to Stewart Kauffman, there are five conditions that enable self-organization that relate directly to what a complex project needs to be vital (Kauffman. 1995). 


Conditions for Self-Organization

Examples of What Living Projects Then Need

A relatively safe and nutrient environment

Sufficient financial resources and political support or a fertile “skunk works” culture. This means support for learning, mistakes and growth and sponsors and leaders who can enable that environment. 

High level diversity of the elements with the potential for complex relationships

Complex multi-stakeholder projects have the diversity, but project teams often do not engage the complex relationships in ways that enable self-organization. A project team with enough diversity to reflect both the systems and the skills involved or a clear strategy to engage the diversity is required. 

A drive for change or a search for fitness in its environment

Commitment and drive are a requirement, but an ability to perceive and agilely respond to changes in the social, political and technical environment are keys to success in projects. This means a balancing of results with the acceptance of change.  Measurements of that are transparent to all involved enables self-organizing agility.

Relatively sparse prior connection of the components

The ability to generate new connections between the components of a system.  A “hard wired” set of unchanging relationships can create stale or ponderous projects.  Engaging new people or changing the relationships is required for vitality.

Functioning at the edge of chaos

When things get confusing because of changes in the environment or unexpected situations, the chaos can be an opportunity to find the next level of project life or energy.  The challenge for project managers is to allow the new to emerge rather than shut it down out of fear.  It is possible to intentionally allow the pattern of project development to emerge, within boundaries, toward a clear and compelling goal, rather than be prescribed from the beginning. 


If everything in a project is neat and orderly, and running like a clock, it will likely stay as a clock and not live.  If the changes are substantial or transformative, requiring people to learn and do new things, then applying what we are learning about complex systems, chaos and the emergence of life could be the difference between real success and window dressing. 

Appreciating our Social Constructions

Over the last 30 years we have also been learning how humans construct their view of the world and how that social construction influences what actually happens.  Traditional organizational change theory has focused on identifying problems and then trying to fix the problems.  This perspective works well in mechanical systems.  If you fix a broken wheel then the car will run better.  There is growing evidence that if you focus on the problem in human systems you can decrease the energy for bringing about change.  Focusing on what has worked in the past and extending that learning to the present can create more energy for a living system to move toward growth and positive change.  Focusing on the problems often leads to finding someone to blame rather than finding ways to move forward toward solutions. 


David Cooperrider was one of the first to apply “post-modern” thought to organizational development and change.  At Case Western University he challenged the traditional Action-Research paradigm developed by Kurt Lewin and others which focused on identifying problems in a “force field” and then overcoming them or going around them.  For Action Research, problem or barrier identification is the primary starting point.  Much effort is spent in researching and diagnosing the “problem” and then developing a solution.  In many circumstances that approach was not working, in fact fixing one problem just led to another.  People were using the “problems or blocks” as excuses for not acting (Cooperrider. 2001)


Cooperrider, Jane Magruder-Watkins and other appreciative thinkers believe that this creates less energy for change than looking first at what is working.  Appreciative Inquiry is a reframing of the proactive planning process, an innovation in action/research.  It follows a similar pattern by gathering information (data or stories) and collective interpretation of that information to develop propositions, drawing conclusions and developing actions.  It does it quite differently than traditional action research because it has re-framed (or socially constructed) the process “appreciatively”.  It engages a system in appreciating what has worked and what gives energy for positive change and then articulating provocative propositions that clarify what is to be done next.  Propositions that are grounded in the life-force or energy of a system provide a stimulus for positive growth and self-organization (Magruder Watson. 2001)


Appreciative Inquiry is a less linear approach to change than action/research.  It requires intuition as well as real information from those involved.  That “information” is embedded in the “stories” of what works.  Inquiry into the stories of where there has been energy in the past taps into the current energy for change of the organization or project.  Stories provide much more information about human systems and people’s experience then do independent lists of information or data.  Stories integrate experience at the individual, social and concrete levels.  It is an intentional way of grounding the vision of what is next in the life-force or energy that is present in the living system.  Articulating the values behind the story clarifies what has worked in the past.  Constructing provocative statements in the present tense gives light or energy to actions that can be taken now and tomorrow.  The approach seems to enables a system to find a better fit with its environment and use and build upon the capabilities and assets that it has already. 


Projects that require the active engagement of people must pay attention to the energy or life-force for change that is present with those people.  Some projects prefer not to ground themselves in the realities of their related systems for fear that the lack of skill or commitment will bring down the project or mean that it will take longer than projected. Unless the plan is to fire all staff and start again the project at some point will still need to build on the strengths and successes of the people who are there.  Those people will need to learn the new approaches and culture required by a new technology or business process.


These issues are also often faced by the project team itself.  Teams have their own ups and downs as they find ways to work together and accomplish their goals, particularly if they reflect any of the diversity of the complex systems in which the project is embedded.  When something is not working as hoped or planned then the team often loses energy and the ability to “fit” with its changing environment.  It can stagnate or fall into divisive conflicts.  Thus, project teams also need to discover how to build, sustain or renew the energy or life-force to make it through the normal ups and downs of living systems.

The Space to Become Lively

It is not possible to “control” lively self-organizing processes.  It is possible to enhance Kauffman’s conditions and intentionally create a focused “space” within which self-organization flourishes and enables a project or change to develop and grow effectiveness. 


Open Space Technology does just that.  Discovered by Harrison Owen, this approach is partly rooted in the new science of complex adaptive systems but also incorporates a deep understanding of what enables spirited dialogue, performance and appropriate structure to emerge.  Owen describes it as a way to practice navigating at the edge of chaos, the place where life or renewed life emerges (Owen. 2001)


Open Space Technology creates the conditions for emergent self-organization around a theme or topic of the meeting, be that the development of the elements of a new corporate strategy or a project to re-design airplane doors.  The sponsor and the facilitator co-construct a real and positive theme related to the task at hand.  The sponsor invites an appropriate diversity of participants and informs them as to the context and anything that must be taken as given for there to be a successful outcome.  Sponsors also decide how many resources they will commit to the “nutrient environment” of the meeting and the ongoing work. 


When the group gathers, however, the sponsor becomes a participant in the self-organization related to the theme.  Participants sit in a circle to suggest that new relationship patterns can and must emerge to find new approaches.  The agenda topics are created by the participants and the work groups are self-selected.  Open Space Technology operates on four principles and one law.  These reinforce the conditions for leadership to emerge from the group and for participants to take responsibility for the nature of their participation.  The following table gives some examples as to how the principles of Open Space Technology enable lively and productive self-organization during the session.


Open Space Principle

Living Project Practice

Whoever comes is the right people

After the invitation is given, it is the people who care enough and can show up who are the ones to take the conversation, or project, forward in a given time and space.  That could be one person or a 100.  If they care about the topic they can move it forward.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

Conversations, people and projects will get as far as they can in a given time frame.  To worry about what might or should have been prevents doing what is possible in the moment.  Being so attached to particular outcomes, particularly those that are not based in what can really happen now, is debilitating for projects or teams.  Taking full advantage of what is possible now often leads to surprising results in a short time frame.

Whenever it starts is the right time

This may seem to be an anathema to PERT charts and engineering plans.  Just-in-time delivery of resources for manufacturing or road construction is not what we are talking about here.  When “it” is real dialogue, clear thinking, new strategy or spirited commitment, then it starts when it starts.  Making this assumption reduces performance stress.

Whenever it’s over it’s over

In any given meeting or event (whether part of a project or not), a time will come when it is no longer productive or meaningful, when the energy for “it” dissipates.  As human systems there are limits to attention and connection.  When a group reaches that point, it is better to say, it’s over, at least for now.  Trying to continue on takes too much energy.  If it’s not over, it is better to keep going rather than let the artificial time frames of a meeting prevent going forward.


In Open Space meetings, the participants practice being fully responsible for their use of time and space to find the energy or spirit to move forward on the topic.  This is further aided by the “Law of Two Feet”.  Individuals in Open Space meetings who are neither learning nor contributing in a work group or discussion are encouraged to move on, to go do something else where they can learn or contribute.  This freedom of motion enables the behavior of bumble bees and butterflies (back to our living systems metaphor).  Bumble bees go from group to group and cross pollinate ideas and butterflies stand at the coffee pot and attract others into connections and conversations.  This creates a flow to open space events.  Like any good self-organizing process, the event allows “components” to find each other and connect in ways that often enable new insights or personal connections that can serve the interests of the theme or project.  Many participants also talk about a connection to the whole, the spirit of the organization that energizes and informs new thinking and behavior.


Using Open Space Technology, project work groups can emerge with people who have a passion for their part of the project.  Some of the energy and commitment from such groups can carry on until the task is completed, when the conditions are right.  Intentionally and appropriately connecting the emergent energy with the often required accountability hierarchy cans sustain the momentum and the performance.  If people are overloaded with other work, have few resources to carry out the effort or the context changes then sustaining a particular group’s energy may be more difficult.  There are a variety of ways to support and re-invigorate such groups.


Open Space Technology can also be seen as a way to navigate between letting go of things that cannot work and finding what can.  A key component of Open Space theory is that living systems do “grieve” when a loss is substantial, when an idea doesn’t work or a part of a project fails, and that can block moving forward.  Complex human systems become attached to ways of doing things or ideas that they “are sure” will work.  As Harrison Owen states in his new and yet to be published book, “It is only when we fully appreciate what we have lost that we can fully release our attachment” (Owen. 2002). It is surprising how Open Space Technology meetings can often create a safe space for dealing with the attachment and moving on.


For the time of an Open Space event, participants can practice being a spirited living system and can achieve substantial results in a short period of time.  By creating the conditions for the interests and passions of the participants to emerge in addressing the task at hand, this approach can accelerate the learning and the growth in effectiveness of projects. 

Transcend and Include

We are going through a shift in our view of what practices or processes are required to get the results we want and expect.  If we agree that complex systems are better understood as living systems (with some mechanical parts) than as mechanisms, then our understanding of how to foster change or reach goals must also change from the mechanical images we for the most part hold.  


Common “project manager” language belies our current understanding.  For example, you cannot “leverage” an amoeba or tiger the way you can a financial position or a large rock.  “Aligning” wheels on a car is certainly possible.  We can cage tigers to “align” their behavior.  We can get our spine “aligned” so that our posture is better and that we have a good frame for our body system.  We cannot “align” all the components of a living system without reducing its ability to adapt to the next change that comes along. 


We can attract commitment and energy through good leadership, rewards and good ideas.  We can prod or disturb a living thing so that is gets moving and begins to discover what is needed to find its “fit” with its environment.  It is amazing what simple communication between living components can do. Some of the most complex engineering projects are carried out by ants that live for one day each, have no command and control hierarchy (it is a myth that the queen gives instructions, only baby ants) and have a surprising communication process.  We are learning that our brains, the cities that work and the best of current software have emergent properties that no one can or should try to control. (Johnson. 2001)  Living projects have to engage those emergent processes if they are to survive let alone be successful or thrive.  Life is a state of continuous change and development. 


As I stated before, a shift to a new paradigm or set of practices transcends and includes the previous one.  Recognizing that we need a new perspective on projects does not negate the need to use and improve upon what we have learned over the last 100 years in developing effective project management.  It does not negate the need to set target outcomes.  It just puts them in a new, more complex and reality based context.  It requires that we know and understand the implications of the fact that living systems take on a life of their own.  Aspects of those outcomes will likely have to change as the project grows into what is possible in its context or environment.  Being too attached to particular outcomes is not healthy.  Anyone who has raised children or cats knows this.  Being able to both provide focus and to flow with what emerges is a different set of skills than management by objectives.


The next “project management” set of practices are emerging.  Those who effectively sponsor and lead projects already have changed some of their behavior and are following their intuitions as to how to create success.  I have talked with facilitators and consultants around the world who are trying new practices like Open Space Technology to accelerate the growth of projects.  Starfield Consulting is now applying its “Project Accelerator” approach in a variety of organizations, using living system engagement with Appreciative Inquiry insights as part of the practice.  Becoming aware of the full implications that complex projects are living realities will come as we experiment with new practices and develop new theory based on what we learn.


There is much more to be learned as we translate our current experience and practice into the new perspective.  We need to clarify the roles, tasks and capabilities needed for sponsors, for project managers or a PMO, to effectively enable a self-organizing, successful living project.  The nature of the governance processes for such a project also require much more thought, especially when a community of organizations must form partnerships to sponsor and support a project.  There are, however, quite a few of us now on this journey and the learning is just beginning.



Cooperrider, Sorensen, Yaeger & Witney. 2001. Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organizational Development. Stipes Publishing.

Johnson, Steven. 2001. Emergence. Scribner. New York.

Kauffman, Stuart. 1995 At Home in the Universe. New York. Oxford University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Magruder Watkins & Mohr. 2001. Appreciative Inquiry. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Owen, Harrison. 1997. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

Owen, Harrison. The Practice of Peace. Unpublished. September 2002.

Peterson, Panchyshyn & King. 2001. eCollaboration in Complex Communities. Starfield Consulting. 2001.

Von Bertalanfy, Ludwig. 1968. General Systems Theory. Braziller. New York

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. 1992. Complexity. New York. Simon & Shuster

Wilbur, Ken. 2002. “Kosmos Trilogy”. Unpublished.