Getting a Grip on Chaos, Part 1: It Takes a Quantum Mindset to Lead an Extreme Project

Катерина Булатова

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you.’ In between, the leader is a servant.” - Max De Pree

In today’s increasingly complex project world, more and more project managers are finding themselves riding an extreme project. Yet few possess the leadership skills, mindset and temperament to succeed. In this article, I’ll outline what it takes in my experience to be a successful eXtreme project leader.

My conclusions are based on training and coaching 275-plus teams over the last 20 years across a wide range of projects. These have included bio-tech, IT implementations, new product development, new product launches and others. About two out of three were extreme projects, a term that I’ll define in a moment.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I’ll cover the quantum mindset and contrast it with the opposite (Newtonian) mindset. In Part 2, I’ll present nine core practices for leading an extreme project.

The Big Picture

The successful eXtreme project leader possesses a world view that is compatible with change and uncertainty. I refer to this world view as the quantum mindset: a forward-looking temperament that feeds on change and thrives on new possibilities. This is in contrast to the Newtonian or stabilizer mindset, which I’ll explain shortly.

When faced with an eXtreme project, a quantum mindset is a prerequisite for success. But that’s not enough. The quantum mindset needs to be operationalized by applying supporting leadership practices. I’ve extracted nine such practices over the years, and these will be outlined in Part 2 of this article as they relate to eXtreme projects.

An eXtreme Project Defined

Here’s my definition:

An extreme project is a complex, high-speed, self-correcting venture in search of a desirable result under conditions of high uncertainty, high change and high stress.

When I say “complex,” it can mean technical, organizational, political and/or geographical complexity, as well as complexity caused by project interdependencies.

By “self-correcting,” I mean that control is distributed throughout the project body in a way that subproject teams in the line of action are empowered to both respond to change and to create change. They do this out of a shared consciousness, and in service to the project’s purpose, product vision, success criteria and metrics. Importantly, the shared consciousness is energized and informed through the nine leadership practices I will outline in Part 2.

The Context: eXtreme Projects live in the Chaordic Zone

The term “chaordic” was coined by Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa credit cards. It’s the territory between order and unbounded chaos (see Figure 1). Here, projects look like squiggly lines rather than a nice waterfall. They are jazz-like rather than prescriptive such as classical music. For extreme projects, speed is often at a premium compounded by many interconnected parts and handoffs, lots of surprises and stakeholder conflicts. Teamwork--mutual accountability for success--is at a premium in the chaordic zone.
Complexity and uncertainty in the chaordic zone can be thought of as the weather that surrounds the extreme project. Call it the project context: In the chaordic zone, context is king and reality eats project plans for breakfast. It’s futile to try to change the weather, i.e., to alter reality to fit one’s plan; yet sophomoric project managers can be observed attempting to do this. Although good project leaders will proactively identify and monitor uncertainties, there are always those unknowables.

Extreme projects live in the chaordic zone for most of their lifecycle. Successful eXtreme project managers/leaders have learned to dance with reality; the unspoken motto is “Realty rules.” And since (at best) you can only influence the dynamics in the chaordic zone, eXtreme project leaders are really navigators and facilitators of disorder.

The Quantum Mindset

By quantum mindset, I mean a worldview that is compatible with high change and thrives on new possibilities. In my experience, most project managers possess a Newtonian or stabilizer mindset (see Table 1)--and rightfully so, for those situations where obedience to the initial plan is the right thing to do (e.g., the shutdown plan for a nuclear power plant. Not a good idea for team members to experiment by yanking on that blue lever just for kicks to see what will happen).

Another difference between a Newtonian- and quantum-oriented project manager is that the Newtonian believes (consciously or unconsciously) that if you do enough research, you can outguess reality by creating a thoughtfully constructed project plan. In the chaordic zone, that’s like trying to stop a hurricane by desperately waving a printout of your project plan in front of it. The quantum approach says that reality is the plan. So, does the plan give birth to reality? Or does reality give birth to our plan? Short answer: Reality is the mother of all plans. Reality rules.

Newtonian mindset (left brain dominant)
Linear, logical, analytical, facts, past focus
Quantum mindset (right brain dominant)
Intuitive, creative, feelings, future focus
Stabilizer Change agent
Keep score Win the game
Keep bad from happening Make good happen
Discipline and control Freedom with responsibility
Aim, aim, aim, fire Point, fire. Redirect bullet
Intellect over instinct Instinct over intellect
Deliver planned result Deliver desired result
Objectives drive perfomance Purpose drives performance
Do things right Do the right things
Task master Relationship manager
Expect compliance Expect intelligent disobedience
Forceful: get more out of people

Empowering: make it possible for people to do more

Table 1: Newtonian and Quantum Mindsets Compared

Extreme project management is predominately a right-brain effort, requiring a high level of comfort with change and ambiguity. Whereas the nine leadership practices (Part 2 of this article) can be learned, it is hard to fake the pre-requisite quantum mindset. The Newtonian mindset reflects the traditional management mentality. In stark contrast, the quantum mindset is the leadership mindset.

Theory X, Y and Z Management Styles

Another difference between the Newtonian and quantum folks is that the latter match up with the Theory Y and Z temperaments. In very short form, Theory X folks believe people by nature dislike work and need to be managed accordingly. Theory Y folks believe that people inherently want to do good work and are self-motivated. Theory Z takes Y a step further, postulating that people are motivated not only by the opportunity to do good work, but also by giving them boundaries within in which to make a difference and to be self-generative; call this freedom with responsibility. Extreme project leaders are Theory Y and Z folks.

So if having a quantum mindset were a crime, would there enough evidence to convict you? That is, would they have enough data to lock you up in the Theory Y/Z jailhouse?

Stay tuned for Part 2, when I will outline nine leadership practices for succeeding on eXtreme Projects.