Rethinking Project Management

The systemic models show behaviour arising from the complex interactions of the various parts of the project; they demonstrate how behaviour arises that would not be predicted from an analysis of the individual parts of the project and thus show how the traditional decomposition models in some circumstances can be inadequate. The project behaviour shown in this body of work is complex and non-intuitive. It shows causal feed-back, leading to nonlinear behaviour, and produces e? ects which can sometimes manifest themselves after sign? cant time-delays; and the behaviour of such systems is difficult for the human brain to predict and understand intuitively. Furthermore, the models di? er from the bodies of knowledge in their emphases- is on ‘‘soft’’ factors; the factors within the feedback loops are not only hard ‘‘concrete’’ factors: ‘‘soft’’ variables are often important links in the chains of causality and are thus critical in determining the project behaviour; such variables might include morale, schedule pressure, client changing his mind and so on; in addition, there is a recognition that the models need to incorporate not only ‘‘real’’ data but management perceptions of data. ‘‘Systemic’’ models have been used to explain failures occurring in projects which might have been well-managed by traditional project-management methods. The failures analysed by these methods are in complex projects subject to uncertainty.

Conventional techniques are designed for projects with large numbers of elements, but the assumed structures are subject to very limited types of interdependence, and conventional methods are even more unsuited to projects under high uncertainty. It is when uncertainty a? ects a traditionally-managed project that is structurally complex that the systemic e? ects discussed above start to occur. But the systemic models demonstrated an important aspect: it is management actions to accelerate perturbed projects which particularly exacerbate the feedback; when the project is heavily time-constrained, so the project manager feels forced to take acceleration actions, and this produces the problems from feedback.

Thus we have identi? ed the three compounding factors which come together in complex structures of positive feedback to cause extreme over-runs when projects are managed conventionally: structural complexity, uncertainty and a tight time-constraint. Recognition of the problems inherent in conventional prescriptive procedures has led to the development of contrasting project management methodologies. While being within a strategic framework, these methodologies are usually identi? ed by words such as ‘‘lean’’ or ‘‘agile’’, and are particularly prevalent in the software industry [55] (perhaps due to the particular goal-uncertainties of such projects).

These methods contradict the underlying emphases of conventional approaches: the project emerges rather than being entirely pre-planned; the management style is much more co-operative, recognising that the Plan prepared pre-project is fallible and incomplete, and there is acceptance that the plan cannot be fully prepared because of the in? uence of the external environment. The systemic modelling work analysed the reasons for project over-runs for many seriously over-run project, giving explanations in terms of positive feedback, often exacerbated by management actions, and importantly including both ‘‘hard’’ and ‘‘soft’’ factors in the causal analysis; the analysis shows that conventional methods can be inappropriate and potentially disadvantageous for projects that are structurally complex, uncertain, and heavily time-limited.

Projects which exhibit these three characteristics would appear to lend themselves less to conventional methods and newer methods might be more appropriate, such as ‘‘agile’’/’’lean’’ methods often called ‘‘agile’’ or ‘‘lean’’. However, the thesis of Williams [54] is not that we should simply ignore conventional project 684 S. Cicmil et al. / International Journal of Project Management 24 (2006) 675–686 management methods and move to these opposing techniques. Rather, with the understanding gained from this analysis of the systemic modelling work, we need to move our discourse to take account of the e? ects encompassed in this work; then we need to categorise projects according to the dimensions which give projects a propensity for the type of systemic e? ects, so that an appropriate management style can be speci? d, in particular an appropriate balance between conventional methods as espoused in the bodies of knowledge and these contrasting methods. This work suggests that once a project is subject to disruptions and delays dynamics then the traditional project management tools are probably inappropriate for managing the project. The use of traditional tools is likely to unintentionally exacerbate the undesirable consequences and lead to greater overruns than need be the case. Even the nature of the agenda at project progress meetings needs to have a di? erent focus and emphasis. Awareness of the potential consequences of mitigation becomes important as possible traditionally ‘obvious’ actions are proposed. 7.

Conclusions, implications and the way forward Our aim in this paper has been to discuss critically the nature of knowledge that could be created about the actuality of projects and how it contributes to our understanding of project environments, to improvements in practice, and to educational and developmental e? orts. We attempted to shed some light on the assumptions behind theoretical and methodological approaches to researching the actuality of projects and project management that, in our view, can be helpful in broadening the boundaries of the project management body of thought and contributing to more satisfactory processes and outcomes of contemporary projects.

Researching the actuality of projects, as presented in this article, draws on: – a combination of practical philosophical considerations and concrete empirical analyses towards understanding human action, and for that matter, managerial action in the concrete situation and – requires a theoretical shift from more common normative rational approaches to individual and project performance towards a more developmental one which focuses on practical action, lived experience, quality of social interaction and communicative relating, operations of power in context, identity, and the relationship between agency and structure in project environments.

The research presented in this paper as exemplars of actuality research provide some compelling and interesting insights into the actuality of managing projects addressing on-going gaps in our knowledge of how to e? ectively manage complex undertakings. Cicmil and Marshall develop an empirically grounded understanding of project complexity that incorporates processes of communicative and power relating among project actors dealing with ambiguity and equivocality related to project performance criteria (success/failure) over time that is in constant ? ux. Cicmil and Hodgson’s work casts light on the traditional foundations of project management practitioner development and demonstrates the need for developing both instrumental and value rationality as the basis for project management practice.

The research by Thomas and Buckle questions the underlying assumptions embedded in traditional project management discourse and explores the impact of these embedded assumptions on the practice and practical discourse of practitioners. The Strathclyde research team’s work on understanding complex project failures contributes signi? cantly to our understanding of the complex interactions between the actuality of projects and the unintentional consequences of applying traditional ‘‘best practice’’ control oriented project management to complete projects under extreme time pressures. All of these research studies make signi? cant contributions to an understanding of the actuality of projects and provide insights into how project management practitioner development needs to change to address these project realities.

Methodological issues (epistemology, ontology, and representation) are also of dominant concern in these studies. The argument is that theory and empirical research must proceed simultaneously on micro and macro levels of analysis and within both objective and subjective methodological traditions, focusing on action which is habituated, practical, tacit, dispositional, and at the same time structured. From this perspective, it is important not only to explore or explain what is but also to examine why it is as it is and what activities are encouraged or discouraged by this focus, and how it comes to be. The recommended methodological approaches are capable of addressing a much wider range of mportant project issues such as: the social responsibility of management, ethical conduct, bounded rationality, anxiety, emotions, the operation of dominant discourses, power/knowledge relationship, culture, and identity. Despite this, we do not promote ‘actuality research’ as a competing or privileged stream of thought to the more mainstream ones. We argue for it as an alternative lens through which new insights into projects and project management practice can be generated. One of the key assertions is that the understanding which drives much of project management literature does not satisfactorily explain the richness of what actually occurs in project environments.