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Friday, February 19, 2010

Project Bifurcation: Are We There Yet?

Bifurcation is a sudden qualitative change in a system's behavior. The change can be for good or worse, and could be small or large. A subtle change in a project usually has negligible impact initially, however it could quickly multiply following some patterns such as period-doubling or subharmonic bifurcation. These developments in the magnitude of changes in a project could be devastating and lead to chaos and eventually total failure or collapse.

One key challenge is identifying these reflection points and be prepared to deal with them. However, fortunately there are signs that can help the project manager forecast and determine that the project is approaching one of these points that cause a huge negative impact on the project health.

A few examples of projects that are at a bifurcation point and approaching a chaotic state are:

  • Escalation of issues to upper management
  • Project documents not being baselined due to lack of agreement of stakeholders
  • Project documents changing too often
  • Teams not agreeing on technical approaches, processes or solution architectures

I have recently been asked to join one of my client's ailing projects. The day I joined the project there were over 300 technical issues logged, over 200 which were open issues. I quickly noticed that these issues are not being closed. The reason chaos. The project had reached a bifurcation point where closure of issues was not only a challenge due to the reasons listed above, but also the issues were becoming redundant, reproducing off-shoot issues, and duplicating as a result of bifurcation of problems, and the non-linear growth in issue dependencies.

Other symptoms of a project reaching a negative bifurcation point is sudden scope changes, descoping of work without having a clear documented baseline for the fear of not being able to meet deadlines. The project team's rework skyrockets, and effectiveness of team members drops to almost nil. This is a point of not only chaos but also paralysis. Paralysis could exhibit itself in paralysis of leadership decision making, paralysis of technical work productivity, and paralysis of stakeholder status reporting and performance assessment. Projects that reach this point will exhibit the following:
  • Work performed out of order resulting in errors and omissions
  • Large volumes of rework
  • Sudden decisions for scope change
  • Project teams on hold, awaiting for others to provide input
  • High rates of change in technical direction and documentation
  • Change requests out of order

Next week I will talk more about ways to mitigate the impact of a crisis on a project that has went beyond major negative bifurcation points as part of efforts to bring it back to order.

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