By Benedict Pinches

Project management is broken. The use of out-dated methodologies and techniques that were created to support machine-working has little relevance to the modern world of work, in which smart ‘phones link us instantly to immense stores of information. In this contemporary environment, events and ideas fluctuate with irritating frequency and ensure that schedules put together carefully at the beginning of a project are not worth the paper they’re printed on.
At a macro level there is evidence to suggest that the old bias towards project management being seen only as a ‘problem solving’ activity is giving way to a new perception of it being about ‘problem structuring’ as well. In project management online groups there is much discussion about ‘hard skills’ versus ‘soft skills’, and we see greater attendance at conferences and events that acknowledge this discussion. It is becoming clear that in order to deliver a successful project, a balanced combination of these two skill sets is required from the project manager. After all, she knows that delivery against time, cost and quality is not sufficient to guarantee project success, and only a stepping-stone on the way to greatness.

What makes a project great?
A recent academic paper decided to look into the concept of project ‘greatness’ and arrived at a useful definition in four parts:
– A project is considered great if it is a major undertaking of strategic importance to the initiating organisation.
– A project is considered great if it’s outcome contributes substantially, and for an extended period of time, to the performance of its organisation and the well-being of customers and users.
– A project is considered great if it is highly innovative from a scientific, design or operational perspective.
– A project is considered great if it’s outcome has had a major impact on its industry, and stimulated others to follow in its footsteps.
– The identification of strategic relevance, stakeholder welfare, innovation and organisational learning in addition to the traditional success factors adds more weight to the ‘soft’ argument and hints at a currently unavailable toolset.

Later in the paper, data from over 400 projects is analysed in a bid to identify a set of common characteristics for ‘great’ projects. The authors found seven, which can be listed as follows:
1. A great project involves creating a unique competitive advantage and/or an exceptional value for its stakeholders.
2. These projects begin with a long period of project definition that is dedicated to defining a powerful vision and clear need, and selecting the best execution approach.
3. Great projects create a revolutionary project culture.
4. A great project needs a highly qualified project leader who is unconditionally supported by top management.
5. Great projects maximise use of existing knowledge, often in cooperation with outside organizations.
6. These projects have integrated development teams with fast problem-solving capability and the ability to adapt to business, market and technology changes.
7. Great project teams have a strong sense of partnership and pride.

In this list of characteristics there is one explicit and three implied references to the culture surrounding a project. Culture is one of those ‘soft’ words with multiple meanings to different people, so it might be useful for me to take some time to define it before we go any further.

Cultural Musings, or the Culture Onion
Within any organisation there are common beliefs (“IT always screw up requirements gathering”), perceptions (“All anyone cares about here is return on investment”) and meanings (“If the car park is full it’s time for another round of job cuts”). These are arranged into patterns by individuals within the organisation, and shared so that collective sense can be made and unwelcome behaviour managed out. The system of pattern arranging has become known as organisational culture and applies equally to projects and companies. After all, a project is just an organisation defined by time.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Project culture is also influenced by the operating system of the organisation, the historical context in which it sits and the wider societal culture of the country or countries in which it is located. We know that culture in general has a significant part to play in making a project ‘great’, so let’s look at the different layers of the culture onion.

At the outermost layer, it has often been proposed that national culture has a direct effect on project success but evidence to support this proposition has proved to be frustratingly inconclusive. What can be shown, however, is that seven different cultural variables do have a direct influence on project management process, which is significant when you consider that many large projects span at least two national cultures. The seven cultural variables are:
– Power distance. How equally is power shared here?
– Uncertainty avoidance. How threatened does this society feel by uncertainty?
– Individualism/collectivism. Do people see themselves as individuals or part of a greater whole?
– Future orientation. Does this society encourage investing in the future and delaying gratification?
– Performance orientation. How much focus is there on achievement?
– Humane treatment. How much does this society reward considerate behaviour?
– Awareness of these variables and consideration of them in stakeholder engagement planning will be useful to a project manager and should enable her to make better decisions.

The next layer of the culture onion has a more definitive contribution to project success. A study of IT projects in the USA showed that organisational culture has a more direct influence on project success than either team management competency or team culture. Project sponsors and, to a lesser extent, project managers should be looking outside their project to see what influence they can bring on the wider environment, so as to help ensure successful delivery (and possibly even greatness).

 How do you make a team effective?

Although surprisingly less contributory to project greatness than organisational culture, team culture is still important to get right. There is a strong consensus in the literature pointing to three key factors which highly impact the effectiveness of team working. These factors are:
– Commitment – ensuring that your team are dedicated to the cause.
– Communication – ensuring that your team have the right information at the right time
– Reward for Performance – ensuring that your team are sufficiently rewarded for their efforts
– Lurking in the background of all these factors is the important concept of motivation. How do you ensure that the individuals making up your team are sufficiently motivated to do what you need them to do? How do
you deal with that central section of the culture onion?
– It is probably useful to think of work motivation as a set of energetic forces that originates both within as well as outside an individual’s being, to initiate work-related behaviour, and to determine its form, direction, intensity and duration.

How do you motivate individuals?
The concept of individual motivation has moved on considerably from the days of Maslow and his Needs hierarchy (sometimes cheekily amended these days to show Wi-Fi and batteries at the bottom of the pyramid). Self-determination theory has been making ground and is written about in a very accessible way by Daniel Pink. He outlines three core ingredients for intrinsic motivation; autonomy, mastery and purpose. People like to feel that they are in control of their own environment, and their destiny, even if this just means that they get to work from home on a Friday. Similarly, people like to imagine that they are becoming better at the skill or task that they are engaged in, and that there is further to go in their journey. Finally, there needs to be some point to the work activity, and the project should contribute to the greater good.

But does individual motivation have a direct influence on project performance? Studies show that as self-determination rises, job satisfaction and commitment to the project also increases. The flip side of the coin is that where there are lower levels of self-determination, work strain and turnover intentions increase. It is clearly in the project manager’s interest for her to encourage an autonomous team and benefit from the resulting increased motivation that such a team bring with them.

Of course, in some situations a motivated team is not enough. Some projects are so dynamic that monitoring behaviour, let alone controlling it, is expensive or difficult. The advice appears to be that output controls should be used in this situation – clearly defining the required result and associated reward but not stipulating how that result is achieved. This approach has been used successfully by military commanders for much of the twentieth century and is starting to gain favour in certain complex systems projects across the UK.
Output controls help with the cooperation required in managing great projects, in that dependency plans can be built off the back of them, but they do little to help with the coordination of tacit knowledge that a project manager is also responsible for. This key activity needs the assistance of rules, routines and group problem-solving to be managed effectively.

Sounds like another one of those ‘soft skills’ to me…