Newtonian Project Management

Communications Satellite EVXX needs to get into a higher orbit in order to reach more people. You’ve been tasked with imparting 100 Joules of energy to the satellite, which is what is required to get to the higher orbit.

Joules are an interesting thing. They are Physics’ way of describing energy, and Work. They are one and the same. I’ll do my best to spare us of specific units going forward, but Joules are very important to understand.

You can think of Joules (and the other units of energy) as nature’s LOE; it’s both what’s required to do the work and the description of the Work itself. Just like project LOEs, we’ve come to this number irrespective of amount of resources or runway available, and just like projects themselves, we can satisfy the LOE via multiple routes.

Physics defines Work (and energy) as Force times Distance, or simply w=f•d

This allows for multiple ways to get our 100 joules satisfied. We could apply 50 “Force” over 2 “Distance”:

50f•2d=100 Joules

Or we could lower the amount of force, but that will require a longer distance:

10f•10d=100 Joules

Since we’re not actually talking about physics, we can go ahead and come up with a new, completely random unit of measure instead of Joules.

Let’s call them “Points.” So we could say that the orbit change of EVXX is a 100 point story.

Let’s dive a little further into what makes up a single point.

Just like above, we can arrive at a single point of delivered work multiple ways: 0.5f•2d = 1 point. 2f•0.5d=1 point.

The math above shows that distance is really dependent on force. How long it takes for one point of work to be delivered depends on force- we could describe the same equations above like this:

1 point / 0.5 force = 2 distance

1 point / 2 force = 0.5 distance

And this follows traditional project management and planning concepts also, work harder and you can get done sooner. If we’re talking physics, it would be more correct to say if you apply more force, the energy required will be transferred to satellite EVXX  within a shorter distance.

Einstein said that time and distance are the same thing. They could be in this case, but it’s long and boring to explain (and if you’ve read this far I don’t want to bore you with it). So let’s just take it on faith that distance is time. After all, a gantt chart which takes longer to execute has longer lines on it.

So if distance is reliant on force, in order to be effective managers of this project we need to deeply understand the ways of the force.

In many ways, force is the only variable we can manipulate- the story will always be 100 points, and since LOE is both energy and the work required to meet the LOE, there’s no way to get around that fact.

100 points of work will have to be performed else the satellite will not reach it’s new orbit.

Force is defined as mass times acceleration, or f=m•a. We can use that to expand the definition of Work; w=m•a•d.

So figuring out our project is as simple as working out (and manipulating) this equation: m•a•d = 100 points


We’ve defined distance as time. If we’re lucky, the client has left the timeline up to us- but it’s more likely this is a variable that will be filled out for us.


We can make a correlation between mass and resources available to the project- zero mass zeros out the points delivered. With a small mass, the other variables must be large to deliver significant amounts of points. With a large mass, the other variables can be smaller – and just like the ideal project, all of these adjustments are linear.


Exactly what is acceleration?

Many people would place Velocity in this category. That’s wrong. Acceleration is not Velocity, acceleration is change in velocity. 

This implies something very, very interesting- a project producing a stable velocity (a goal of many projects) is actually producing Zero Work. There are resources available (mass). There’s time and runway to get something done (distance). Yet somehow, those 100 story points never get completed.

Resources maintaining velocity – those not finding ways to improve – will never deliver a single point. The only way to deliver work is to change velocity.

The most valuable resources are always finding ways to do their work better. Since they are accelerating, they deliver useful work. The least valuable resources are constantly trying to minimize what is required of them. They are decelerating, and therefore actually delivering negative work- placing the goals further away.

Many projects undergo an effort to increase velocity, and these efforts result in increased point delivery. However, the maths show that it is the acceleration itself, not the new higher velocity, that produces the increase in point delivery.

This is why the effects of an improvement effort taper off after the improvement effort has concluded- when acceleration stops, the delivery stops.

This is also why small, young efforts are able to deliver more than established projects. With the field open, there are many opportunities for improvement and therefore acceleration, in fact many of them occur organically. When the project is large and established, the opportunities for improvement fade and acceleration – and therefore work delivery – taper off. The response to this is typically to add resources, and adding mass can counteract the drop in acceleration- but as acceleration approaches zero, adding mass no longer helps, and a restructure is required.

Current velocity has nothing to do with a project’s ability to deliver. Change in velocity does.

Other things we learn:

We can apply other equations and arrive at other truths through Newtonian project management- for instance, momentum.

Unless acted upon by an outside force, momentum is conserved. Momentum is defined as mass•velocity.

Momentum being conserved, an addition of mass must result in a loss of velocity, which is a deceleration. As shown above, pure velocity does not affect work delivery, but deceleration certainly does.

Therefore, as all project managers know, adding resources does not automatically produce more work output- in fact it can, and often does- decrease the project’s overall output.

The only way to avoid this is to couple a resource surge with an acceleration effort. This is why there are advanced on-boarding training programs, because the effort to bring someone up to speed just may enable them to contribute via a positive acceleration, and therefore positive work output of the project.


2 thoughts on “Newtonian Project Management”

  1. I feel you have made some good points which get us thinking in the right direction. There is an old saying, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.”

    However I would have to disagree with your descriptions on a few points. First off, plenty of work can and is done with a constant speed. Acceleration is most certainly not required to perform work. A car traveling 70mph is moving at a constant speed, yet the engine is most certainly doing work…and lots of it. The work done in this instance is not accelerating the car. It’s counteracting the forces of drag and friction working against it. So from the perspective of the car’s kinetic energy, you are correct. The car is not increasing in kinetic energy. But distance is being traversed. We are moving the occupants across many miles, for a long time.

    Corporations, projects, and tasks have the same properties. They can be doing lots of meaningful work, but not improving. Their processes and ways of doing things can fall behind the times, or worse yet, start a negative feedback loop where process becomes only a means of protecting the existing way of doing things.

    Innovation is perhaps a better descriptor of the acceleration I hear you talking about. Innovation results in actual improvement to process flows. Unless you are improving a process flow, that process doesn’t live up to its potential. But I believe that such a process, and the team which preserves it, still is valuable and does work.

    For those of us in the workforce whose job it is to promote innovation and make product improvements, I would say that for us, from our frame of reference, no work is truly done unless a process somewhere is improved. We live in the world of the 2nd derivative. Position…speed…acceleration (2nd derivative). For us, without acceleration, there is stagnation. But this is not the case for the rest of the world.

    I also think we should take into account that plenty of meaningful work must be done simply to counteract the forces of drag and friction inherent in any process. Even a lead-acid battery has an internal resistance, and will self-discharge over the course of time. The above article is written from a perspective of a flat, frictionless plane in a vacuum. But the world is none of these.

  2. The things you bring up were going to be the subject of post two on this subject. Or perhaps a later revision of this post.

    The goal is to impart more energy to the system. The goal isn’t for your car to cover miles – it’s to go from 70 miles per hour to 72. Maintaining 70 for another mile isn’t a project; a project is changing something for increased benefit (the benefit, in this case, being mph)- which means adding energy.

    The car that doesn’t accelerate isn’t doing any work, and isn’t making progress towards the real goal. Sure, there are forces that must be overcome to maintain a speed, and the ground is going by under the car. So things are going on, but that does not mean work is being done. If the system as a whole is not gaining energy, that means project isn’t working.

    Drag and friction can simply be seen as resources causing deceleration, which I do mention in the post. They are causing negative work which must be overcome, but unless these demands are exceeded the system as a whole does not gain energy, and the goal will never be met.

    With the decelerating resources identified, it’s possible (even easy!) to accelerate simply by mitigating them. The math, of course, supports this situation too. Reduce drag, and the elements that were creating the drag actually produce an acceleration and the net is an increase of energy of the entire system.

    Unfortunately as the project matures these opportunities typically get harder to identify and implement.

    In any case, the end result is the same. There is no work being done at a constant velocity, and current velocity is completely irrelevant and should be ignored. The only time work gets done, and a project moves towards it’s goals, is when things are improved, and a system wide acceleration is made.

    Improvement isn’t a means to achieve better results, improvement is what brings the results. Therefore, continued results require continued improvement- getting to a certain level and “going on autopilot” is a concept that mathematically cannot work.

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