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Back to school - Project physics

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Physics is all about change. The universe, and everything within it, is evolving and in a state of constant flux. Projects are no different. Change, and our ability to adapt to it, is also at the heart of project management.

Modern physics is remarkable. We have learnt to see inside the atom and its constituent parts. The latest generation of space telescopes are staring further back in time, to an epoch not long after our universe came into being.

The major discoveries of physics are intellectual triumphs: Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics (statistical mechanics), electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, general relativity and the Standard Model – which sets out the plethora of particles detected in particle accelerators such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. They underpin the modern world and are a huge driver of development and economies. For example, the technology in your smartphone owes itself to many generations of scientists building on one another’s discoveries.

Technology is the product of the disciplined, but often serendipitous, process of discovery and scrutiny that is the foundation of science. Physics in particular uses an iterative cycle of theory and experiment, underpinned by a wide body of mathematical knowledge, which enables us to describe, model and predict new phenomena.

But what can physics teach us about project design and delivery? How can we transfer the knowledge of physics to help deliver the benefits our clients need?

Simple lessons

Let’s start with dynamics. You may be familiar with concepts of speed, velocity, mass and momentum from your school days. The faster and heavier something is, the more momentum it has. And the greater the momentum, the more difficult it is to counter, to change direction. The projects we work on, and the organisations we belong to, have a momentum of their own. Culture has inertia. How can we overcome inertia to bring about the change we wish to see?

A simple application of Newtonian mechanics would say: push harder. So we do, and the organisation pushes back. This is Newton’s third law of motion: to every force there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, we ask ourselves again: how can we accelerate something more quickly? From Newton’s second law, which states that the acceleration of an object depends on the net force acting on the object and its mass, we see that, if we want more acceleration, but have limited force at our disposal, we must reduce the mass. This is the same principle used in racing – the lighter the vehicle, the more quickly we can accelerate and brake.

Try this then: next time you are facing an obstacle, divide and conquer. Make it lighter. Reduce the mass you have to accelerate. But there’s more. Organisations and projects are people, not inert objects. If we have a system, make the system work for us. This is one of the key steps in the Kotter change process – build urgency around change. Get the constituent parts of the system working for you: commandeer more force to move the same mass faster.

You may also recall experiments with water: freezing and boiling it, observing the transitions from one state of matter to another. The thermodynamics behind this are described using statistical mechanics – ideas such as heat, entropy and work.

There is a connection between these and the notion of ‘tipping points’, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. We require a critical mass for a new idea to embed itself in our culture.

Similarly, inconsistencies in a piece of metal can become the seeds for metallic cracks and rapid failure. Entropy, a measure of disorder, can be a useful concept. Entropy quantifies the number of micro-states of a system that satisfy a given macro-state. The higher the number, the more possibilities there are – and the more chance something will go wrong. So, thermodynamics teaches us: try constraining your project, and you may find it easier to deliver. This would seem to go against the grain. However, in my experience, constraints such as deadlines also force the conversations that need to be had. Doing the hard, risky things early is a hallmark of the consummate professional. 

The Butterfly effect

Chaos theory is a key idea in physics, commonly understood through the ‘butterfly effect’ – the proverbial butterfly wing precipitating, through the complex weather systems of our planet, a storm on the other side of the world. A small change to an input leads to a large change in the output. Does this sound like your project? If it has chaotic tendencies, is there anything you can do to mitigate this? Why do you have such powerful non-linearities; is the project unconstrained, disordered and undocumented?

Information theory, meanwhile, is a fascinating area of research: there are defined limits to how much information can be conveyed using a sequence of numbers or sent down an internet connection (see Shannon’s information theory). Consider how your project communicates. The more people that need to share a common understanding, the more interfaces there are (the number of interfaces is proportional to the number of people squared). Have you got too many people in your meetings?

Another memory you may hold from your school days: using a magnet to pick up an iron nail. The permanent magnet induces magnetism in the iron of the nail, causing the fields to attract one another and the nail to seemingly defy gravity. This induction, or polarisation, is a common physical principle. How might it apply to projects and people? Consider the idea that ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’ – that is: behave as you wish others to behave. This is a form of polarisation or induction. The goal is to induct others to behave the way you would like them to behave. Who knew that leading by example and setting the vision have strong connections with fundamental physics?

Consider now the work of Einstein, two of his great achievements being the theories of special relativity and general relativity. The mathematics of these is considerable, but the ideas – frames of reference – are more readily absorbed. The next time you are stuck on a problem, try re-expressing the problem: give it a new frame of reference. You may then find the problem is solved more easily. 

Thinking differently

The latest thinking in physics is perhaps even more strange, including concepts such as the holographic universe (in which we are projections of information on an infinite sphere) and quantum loop gravity (which concludes space and time are themselves quantised – that is, lumpy – at unimaginably small scales). These ideas may seem far-fetched, but they presage a world where we must think about projects very differently. It is my belief that project science will develop and will drive a significant mathematical improvement in how we model and execute our work.

What can we do right now to actively benefit from physics?

  • Science thrives on ‘ecotones’, intersections of ideas. Actively seek out principles in science and other disciplines, and apply them in project management.
  • Projects – like physics – are about the dynamics of change. Do everything you can to tell stories of change as precisely as possible: there is a vast body of artistic, scientific and mathematical literature on how to tell stories – find it and try it out.
  • The universe is a laboratory, and physics seeks to understand the world at all scales. Try being a physicist on your project, and strive to understand how it, and the environment it functions in, works. Gain insights that help you work better.

As the world becomes more complex, the onus is on our profession to deliver change more effectively. Project physics signposts the way.

James Lea is a senior project manager at Jacobs


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