Thinking in Patterns: Problems, Solutions and Strategies


Advances in Project Management

By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire

United Kingdom

Humans have long been fascinated with patterns in nature and in socially constructed work and cultural environments. Consequently, the abilities to identify patterns and make sense of reality have been highly prized.

British philosopher, Social and political theorist, Sir Isaiah Berlin highlighted the central role of patterns:

The pattern, and it alone, brings into being and causes to pass away and confers purpose, that is to say, value and meaning, on all there is. To understand is to perceive patterns. (…) To make intelligible is to reveal the basic pattern.” (p. 129)

Patterns are regular and intelligible forms or sequences that are discernible in the way that events unfold, or that something happens or is done. Patterns can thus be described as perceptible regularities in nature or in manmade (artificial) designs.

The Pattern Movement

Christopher Alexander, an influential, albeit controversial, architect and design theorist advanced the study of patterns over a series of books documenting his observations on the relationship between form and function and the art of design.

In Notes on the Synthesis of the Form, Alexander defines the process of design as “the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function”. Alexander explains that form is adapted to the context of human needs and demands that has called it into being. However, the search is for creating a kind of harmony between a form, which is yet to be designed, and a context, which cannot be properly described. The adaptive process proceeds in a gradual, piecemeal fashion allowing an organic design. The form is moulded not by designers, but by the slow patterns of changes, which avoid the traps of premature preconception of ideas. This allows designers to create new concepts out of the structure of the problem, resulting in a form that is: well adapted to its context, non-arbitrary and correct. The book has proved influential in multiple disciplines including architectural design, civil engineering and software development: Industrial Design Magazine described it as “one of the most important contemporary books about the art of design, what it is, and how to go about it.”

Thirteen years later, Alexander, together with his team, released a book focused on architecture, urban design and community liveability, emphasising the role of patterns. The book remains a perennial best seller in architecture and has spawned research and new developments (including the WIKI architecture) in many other disciplines. A Pattern Language revolutionised the way problems are conceived and considered. The basic rationale asserts that users are more sensitive to their own personal context and needs than professional architects. Delivering a pattern language, encompassing timeless constructs in the form of 253 patterns, enables participants to develop a community and work with their neighbours to improve their context, or neighbourhood, design a house, or a wider community, and collaborate on bigger projects.

Combining different established patterns forms a kind of language, with each pattern offering a word, or thought, in the wider context needed to address a need and deliver a new solution. Sequences of individual patterns, akin to sentences, can deliver complete buildings and environments that work together. The pattern language can empower individuals to design relevant solutions that address their own concerns, reflecting the preferences of the relevant community.

The principles of employing a pattern language were documented in an earlier book

The Oregon Experiment, which records the experience of an environmentally active community engaged in shaping and constructing its own environment in a departure from a more centralised form of planning and control. The experiment carried out at a university in Oregon encouraged users to prioritise and develop their own community. Alexander and his colleagues identified the organic order needed to balance the needs of the part with the needs of the whole, so that both the importance of the part and the coherence of the environment as a whole are maintained. Growth and development, they reasoned, are often hampered by the inability to manage the subtle balance needed for maintaining this organic order.

This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

Christopher Alexander (1975)


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in the UK and now by Routledge. Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM. To learn more about the book series, go to https://www.routledge.com/Advances-in-Project-Management/book-series/APM. Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ.



About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire, UK



Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SFHEA is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK. He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London. Professor Dalcher has written over 150 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Software Process Improvement and Practice, an international journal focusing on capability, maturity, growth and improvement. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Gower Publishing of a new companion series Fundamentals of Project Management. Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond. He is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board. Prof Dalcher is an academic editorial advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at [email protected].

To see other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.