The Gradients of Terror — Project management and non-linear dynamics

If we want to be better at project management, we must handle the impacts of non-linear dynamics in our projects. Non-linearity is unavoidable at multiple levels: cognitive, human interaction, and technology.

Right now, we don’t do a good job. In fact, we often make things worse.

But there are ways to improve.

The Covid-19 pandemic underscored (to me at least) the social danger created by the inability of many people to handle non-linear dynamics. Large sections of the global community were patently unable to understand the implications of the exponential growth of Covid cases.

We saw that someone (especially prominent influencers) saying “But …” delayed the initial response. That delay is enough to render that initial response worthless. And so we need a new response, which takes time … and so on … scrambling not just to catch up but to understand.

See this yarn on for my thoughts.

HBR (pre-Covid) noted:

“Decades of research in cognitive psychology show that the human mind struggles to understand nonlinear relationships. Our brain wants to make simple straight lines.” — de Langhe Puntoni and Larrick in “ Linear thinking in a nonlinear world “ Harvard Business Review 2017

We have a big paradox.

Dealing with non-linearity is a big part of successfully managing projects, and yet both our natural way of thinking and most of our commonly used tools are all focused on linear dynamics.

Even when we are offered tools based on non-linearity, it's very common for us to spend time and cognitive resources making them more linear.

For example, many agile tools and models address non-linearity. But alas, many practitioners (or their organisations) diligently rip out or suppress the non-linear parts and replace them with nice, pseudo-predictable linear elements.

Emotionally or cognitively, people don’t “get” the dynamics to recognise and take corrective action. Mentally modelling the mathematics of exponential appears beyond most people’s skills.

We can draw curves and gradients on charts and graphs, but the import of this data seems beyond us. A rapidly rising gradient doesn’t seem to generate the sense of urgency that it should.

Linear relationships that we can understand, measure and predict give us “Gradients of comfort “.

The gradients of comfort can be plotted neatly on charts and explained.

We don’t have to revise or alter our established habits and processes. They mean we can continue to work on predictable pathways towards understood outcomes.

They give us a “false concreteness” of an uncertain world.

But non-linear relationships and forces give us the other extreme: unpredictable pathways, unknown outcomes, and complete impotence in our ability to intervene and manage them.

These forces give us the “Gradients of terror”.

When I see people dealing with the unexpected results of non-linearity, it often reminds me of the look on people’s faces on a roller coaster fairground rid. Everyone in the carriage is sitting quietly, going up a nice straight slope to begin the ride.

And then … the drop! The terror.

I see the same looks on people’s faces during project crises. They are riding the gradients of terror.

The gradients of terror await anyone who is not prepared to detect and manage non-linear forces. Relying on linear tools and concepts is no way to prepare.

In the context of managing projects in our current crazy world, every project management practitioner needs to find their own answers to these questions:

  • Why do we instinctively solve some complex problems instantly but get bogged down on relatively simple ones?
  • How do our human characteristics, e.g. the structure of our brains or our group social behaviour, contribute to these situations?
  • Why do we mischaracterise non-linear data and mentally fit this to linear patterns?
  • Why is it so hard to get teams to react in time to meet crises that evolve non-linearly?
  • What can we learn from other professional and occupational domains that might help us handle these situations?
  • Do we contribute to these problems? No fads, trends, and buzzwords set simplistic expectations about how the world works around us?
  • Does preparation help? In the form of planning, training, or experience?

Projects are human endeavours under constraints.

Human activities are capable of extreme non-linear progressions. Projects often have more complex technology plots, which also often have non-linear dynamics.

It’s like a 3-car pile-up: the collision of individual and group cognitive processes, the dynamics of complex systems and the interplay between those systems with each other and with human capabilities.

We need to get better at dealing with high rates of change from multiple causal factors.

The biggest issue is often our own approach to projects. For example, an incomplete and imperfect formulation of the “as-is” and “to-be” environments. In other words, we don’t know where we’re going to or from where we’re coming.

But all is not lost. There are things we can do and learn and apply to our everyday project management practice.

I will be looking at those in future posts.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, you can check out some earlier thinking on this subject. Non-linear dynamics and project management is a recurring topic for me, e.g. Project management uses linear tools for non-linear situations and Linear and Non-Linear Thinking in Project Management.

Originally published at



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