By Benedict Pinches

Have you ever played creative games with metaphors? My teenage son is going through the grunting phase at the moment, and I read somewhere that a good way to engage adolescents is to make your questioning more creative.

Instead of “how was your day?” you should ask “if your day was a film, what film would it be?” I tried this approach for a few days with varying degrees of success until, on the third day I asked him; “if your day was a river, what river would it be?” He responded by saying, “your mum”, which I took to mean that our session of creative play with metaphors was over.

But it got me thinking about projects, and being creative about the way we view them. If a project has its own culture and identity, then we can clearly imagine it having it’s own personality. If your project was a tree, what kind of tree would it be? If your project was a book, what kind of book would it be? Would the ending be a happy or sad one, and what pointers along the way might hint at the ending before you get there?

If your project was a mood, what mood would it be?

I became interested in the idea of measuring the mood of projects while I was studying at the University of Oxford. There, we were taught to view major programmes as temporary organisations, with their own particular organisation, hierarchy and power dynamics. I found this break from the traditional orthodoxy of PRINCE2 both exciting and liberating, and started studying systems theory as a way to map these distinct entities. I began to realise that most large projects were complex adaptive systems composed of multiple, interconnected elements, and containing the capacity to learn from experience.

Of course, the reason that most projects are complex and contain the capacity to learn is that they are composed of many people as well as processes and things. It is People who really determine a project’s mood and, just as these people come and go and bring different emotions to play, this mood will change and flex over time. Inevitably there will be measured periods, followed by wildly out of control moments. Optimism followed by disaster. Despondency followed by rebirth.
Trying to get your arms around the changing moods of a project, and use these moods to predict what may happen around the corner, highlights the idiocy of only tracking time, cost and quality. We don’t work in isolation of individuals and can’t ignore the human impact on the work that we do. How lovely it would be if we could deliver successful projects using simple metrics and an engineer’s dashboard… Unfortunately, more than fifty years of data shows that our performance in managing projects is not improving, despite the increasing number we initiate.

Changing moods on projects

Thankfully, other issues are starting to be raised when we discuss project performance and ‘mood measurement’. Despite appalling statistics from Qatar’s 2022 World Cup infrastructure programme, health and safety is now taken extremely seriously by all credible project leaders, with clear metrics and a strong H&S vision being part of start-up. The increased global attention on environmental factors is starting to make sustainability more of a key performance indicator, and stakeholder theory is being used to identify the wider project stakeholder group as opposed to just the shareholders in a venture. We are starting to value the organisational learning that even a failed project can bring, and the impact that this knowledge can have on a company’s bottom line. And ethics is starting to be discussed in Project Board meetings as well as in philosophy lectures, to the benefit of all us.

These wider factors are all very well, but for me they don’t capture the real ‘project mood’ completely because they focus on the whole entity as opposed to the component parts. To really determine the mood, you have to look at more granular issues, such as how motivated are the individuals in your project team. There is a good body of work on how motivation improves team performance, and yet we rarely see consistent management attention being paid to this mood factor.
Arguably even more important are the social factors that have been proved to be primary needs for all of us. A measure of how socially connected our project team feels is an extremely useful indicator of project mood, yet how often do we see such a measure being implemented? We know that feel-good factors like the Olympics helps to bind a team of volunteers to work wonderfully well together, but we often ignore this knowledge as not appropriate to an enterprise IT project.

I haven’t come to the end of my journey in exploring Project Mood, but from where I’m sitting at the moment I think we need to be matching individual internal factors concerning motivation and social connection, with external facing personal qualities. Then we need to use stakeholder mapping to keep tabs on the flux over time. Linking this type of information with metrics on health and safety, environmental impact, knowledge generation and ethical conduct could really help us to develop a theory of project mood.

And let’s not forget time, cost and quality…