No matter how good you are at managing projects, life happens; suppliers fail to deliver, people get sick, and resources may not meet your specification.

Good project planning is an obvious part of the solution, says Kerry Swan, author of Heartfelt Leadership, but what about the chaos that these problems create? Could this be a good thing?

The best project managers understand that project management is both an art and a science. You can manage a project effectively with good analytical controls like a budget, schedule, or resource plan, but you can manage a project to success if you also utilise a range of soft skills like emotional intelligence, adult learning, and facilitation skills.

Tightly controlled environments do not encourage innovation

Better projects happen when creativity, change, and innovation are actively encouraged. Generally, the best teams, projects, and businesses are all built in the middle of chaos – not inside a tight structure.

Consider the chaos and changes that you have accommodated during the COVID-19 pandemic. You have changed the way you work, managed a range of uncertainties, and continue to deliver your projects.

If you reflect on the last two years, you might find, despite the uncertainty, that some of your projects are actually stronger, and have performed better because you had to get creative in the way that you managed them.

Imagine if you had delivered your projects, as planned. They may have worked according to time, scope, and cost, but you would have missed out on the good stuff. And, even if you ‘had to’ respond to the uncertainty, the chaos did force you to be more innovative in your project delivery.

The importance of chaos

Conventional leadership wisdom suggests that a strong and good leader creates everyday habits to make sure things happen, or, as the planners amongst us believe, that good leadership is all about planning and control. Whereas, author David Deida contends that, “The way of man or woman is control. The way of the universe is chaos.”

A sense of control can make us feel organised and in charge, and, that you might even believe that you can bend the universe to your will. However, if you explore chaos theory, you begin to understand that small and insignificant changes can impact complex environments. In more practical terms, the concept of chaos theory is based on the reality that the longer the project, the more difficult it becomes to predict what will happen.

Consider working from home: what impact has that had on project delivery? Communication patterns have changed, work happens at different time, and misunderstandings might have increased, but what if, in the increasing chaos, the reverse is also true? That working from home also increases your attention span, your research time, and your pace. Chaos, therefore, is not necessarily bad, or necessarily good. Chaos exists in all projects, the workplace, and life. Chaos is therefore, a learning opportunity for you as a project manager.

Lean into your own discomfort

Leaning into project chaos, and building a system for responding to change, can be a terrifying prospect for some project managers, but the best project managers plan for chaos, expect chaos, and lean into the discomfort that it creates.

It will take more courage to sit with the chaos and consider what you are learning both personally, and from a project performance, but I guarantee that it will sharpen your delivery over the life of your project.

Actively encourage change

If you want to manage your discomfort, you can build an active change management process into your project. You can start by simply listing all of the things that are outside of scope, budget, or time and then attack them in a brainstorming session with your team. This analytical approach (creating a list and then assessing it) allows you to add some logic and science to your project, but, facilitating the meeting, from your heart, will allow you to create a range of innovative solutions. A courageous project manager will actively encourage change and welcome the discomfort.

Leaning into chaos will build better projects

You will miss out on all the opportunities that chaos presents if you are too rigid and too reliant on your project logic, rules, and authority. In my experience, the best project managers, and leaders, are those who lean into the chaos and confusion, because that is where the gold is, in the opportunities for change and reform.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Paradigm Shift magazine. Find out more about the AIPM digital magazine and take a look at the full edition.