Your definition of ‘project’ can determine its fate

A sequence of activities or a temporary organization?

A project is typically defined as a temporary endeavor consisting of a sequence of activities to create a unique product or service. Traditional project management tools used to manage projects are engineering-based quantitative techniques for planning, monitoring and controlling projects. These analytical methods break down the project into component parts to understand and manage them. The project plans consists of linear processes that are too often managed from the top down. This definition, however, is no longer suffice due to increasingly complex projects.

Complex projects, by their nature, progress non-linearly. The unforeseen and unexpected happen, thwarting the best of planning.

Gantt Chart with Pen on Left

I believe that an alternative definition is needed. I prefer the metaphor of a project as a temporary organization. This concept originated with Scandinavian research studies of projects. It is an organizational theory perspective of managing projects. Instead of controlling projects solely with traditional project management tools, people are taught and encouraged to provide interpretation, sense-making and ingenuity to solve unfamiliar problems. This results in projects being managed with action and learning versus managed principally through control tools using traditional project management methods.

From my 30+ years of major project experience, first with military construction (MILCON) projects and the past 20 years with major (including several $1B+) hospital construction and IT projects, managing projects continues to be based principally on traditional project management methods. To view a project as a temporary organization, however, is not easy as it requires a shift in organizational and leadership mindset of how projects are managed. It requires insisting upon organizational behaviors such as:

  • culture that supports openness and trust
  • collaborative behaviors
  • collective commitment to the project
  • being comfortable with ambiguity
  • real team (versus separate work groups)

I have seen many projects start with great fanfare and talk of teamwork and of being transformational. However, when the unexpected inevitably occurs, usually resulting in schedule delays or cost overruns, the various project members quickly shift from transformational to transactional, relying on formal contract documents as a CYA tactic. Often the blame rests with the project manager or sometimes the entire team. Yet, if the project sponsor had enacted a team culture from the beginning which promoted and incentivized collective sense-making and human ingenuity, the unexpected often becomes apparent sooner as weak signals. This allows for identifying and managing issues quickly before they escalate into major problems.

It begins by defining ‘project’.  Are you managing a sequence of activities or a temporary organization?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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