How to choose the right project management approach

When selecting a project management approach, the view of potential challenges is cleared and recommendations for the management concept to be applied are made immediately. This applies, for example, to Stacey's system and the Cynefin sensemaking framework. When it comes to deciding whether a project should be delivered using traditional or agile approaches and tools, both models can provide valuable guidance. But to what extent are the two models different and does it make sense to consider them separately?
A crossing.


Stacey Matrix

The Stacey Matrix, named after the British management professor Ralph Douglas Stacey, answers the question of how decisions can be made under uncertainty and then shows which action strategies can result. The Stacey Matrix is often used to select the appropriate project management approach for a project. Most common representations of the Stacey Matrix are essentially a cross between the original Stacey Matrix and the Cynefin Decision Framework, which is presented below.
The Stacey Matrix.
The Stacey Matrix is a two-dimensional coordinate system. On the x-axis, the implementation or solution - "how? - is plotted. The following question is answered: Is the technology or method that will achieve the goal known or unknown? On the y-axis is the customer requirement - "what?" - is plotted. The questions asked are: How much uncertainty is there in the requirements? Are they known or unknown? 
The field is divided into the following areas:
  • simple,
  • complicated,
  • complex and
  • chaotic. 
Based on the classifications, it can be clarified which type of project management - traditional or agile - is suitable for managing the project.
The Stacey Matrix does not take into account the project environment, nor is it based on measurable variables, nor is it based on sharp and clear ways of classifying a project, nor does it have clearly defined or neatly demarcated fields, and yet, in a simplified way, it can already be said:
  • If the assignment is clearly formulated and it is also known how the project will be delivered, then the project should be managed using traditional project management,
  • If, on the other hand, the customer's requirements and the implementation are unclear, it is better to use agile project management for the project.
While the Stacey Matrix is originally concerned with organisational complexity, the Cynefin Framework is a general description of environments and projects and derives appropriate alternative courses of action.

The 5 Domains of the Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin (Welsh for habitat) decision framework presents five domains in which the relationship between people, experience and environment can be examined. The focus is on analysis of the current situation and the results can be used by project managers to determine the most appropriate framework for action.

Domain Clear

In a simple, clear system, the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, there is a clear solution, and the solution path is easy to follow. 
This area can be illustrated with the following example:
You are driving your car down a narrow one-way street when the car in front of you slows down. You notice this (sense, in the sense of perception) because the car's brake lights flash and its speed decreases (categorise, in the sense of classification); you also brake to avoid hitting the back of the car (respond, in the sense of reaction). In order to avoid a collision, there is only one best solution, the so-called best practice.
The principle is therefore Sense - Categorise - Respond. The response is based on a tried-and-tested recipe for success, the best practice, which you know from similar situations.
The management concept applied in this domain is self-management or routine management.

Domain Complicated

In a complicated system, there is a clear relationship between cause and effect. However, there are several different, perhaps even hidden, cause-and-effect relationships that can only be identified through close examination and the use of expert knowledge.
To familiarise yourself with the Complicated domain, imagine the following situation:
Your car no longer accelerates as usual (sense, in the sense of perception). You take it to a specialist garage. In order to find out the individual cause-effect relationships, the problem is analysed by experts (analyse, in the sense of analysis by experts), and from several possible solutions, which have different advantages and disadvantages, the most suitable one is selected and implemented (respond). In order to repair the damage to the vehicle, there is not just one, but several suitable solutions, i.e. there is no best practice, but several good practices.
The principle is as follows Sense - Analyse - Respond. In the Complicated domain, there is no best practice, but several good practices from which to choose.
Traditional project management should be used in this area.

Domain Complex

In a complex system, there are too many variable and unknown influencing factors to identify the relationship between cause and effect in advance and to arrive at a correct solution.
The following example illustrates a complex system:
You read about government decisions in the daily press, and you know that the car of the future will no longer be powered by fossil fuels. But which engine will prevail? Because there are too many possible solutions today, and because unpredictable political decisions and unpredictable technological developments, for example in energy sources and storage media, have an impact on the system, this question can only be answered tomorrow (i.e. in retrospect). In terms of actively influencing the system, your ability to influence policy makers and technical developers is likely to be very limited. But what do engine developers do? They research and develop (probe, in the sense of exploration), recognize facts (sense, in the sense of perception) and adapt their processes, tools and raw materials used step by step (respond, in the sense of reaction). 
The procedure is as follows Probe - Sense - Respond. New practices that are in the process of being developed, so-called emergent practices, are applied. 
This is where the use of agile or hybrid project management makes sense.

Domain Chaotic

In a chaotic system, there is no relationship between cause and effect. Traditional structures and processes prove inadequate, and new ones have not yet been effectively put in place. Stability must be brought into the chaos with quick and effective action.
The following example will familiarise you with the Chaotic Domain:
Anyone who has ever let their three small children play unsupervised in their room for an hour knows what a chaotic system is. Toys and clothes, bedclothes and pieces of cake, with chocolate smeared on the floor and children screaming or shrieking with delight. The situation is far from clear, and it is impossible for children to make sense of the chaos. As a parent, irritated by the chaos, the first thing you do is to stop the hustle and bustle (act, in the sense of action). You provide an overview (sense, in the sense of perception). Then you bring order to the chaos (respond).
You follow the principle: Act - Sense - Respond. In this case, there are no best practices, no good practices, and no practices that are currently evolving; rather, new practices can be discovered and applied through the chaotic domain (Novel Practices).
The management concept that applies here is Crisis Management.

Domain Disorder

In the state of disorder, a clear assignment to one of the other domains cannot yet be made because it is not possible to say exactly what kind of relationship exists between cause and effect at the moment. Therefore, disorder is in the middle of the framework.
You should get involved in the disorder and not choose the easy solution. Instead, get more information about the unknown areas, look at the different patterns of action and try to find new ways.

Fluid boundaries and changing classification possibilities

The boundaries between the different domains of the Cynefin Framework may become blurred and initial classifications may prove to be incorrect. For example, an issue initially classified in the domain Complex may, after a thorough process analysis, evolve into another domain. Of course, the framework has to be adapted to the new situation and the appropriate management approach has to be applied.

Stacey Matrix and Cynefin Framework – a good combination

Whether traditional, hybrid or agile, not every project management approach is suitable for every project. The Stacey Matrix combined with the Cynefin Framework can help you to identify which approach is best suited to your project by assessing the environment in which you are working.

Choosing the right project management approach - The Author
Keywords: Project Management, Tips, Stacey, Cynefin

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