What is a Project?

The history of Projects as a discipline started in the 1940’s with large initiatives such as the United States Military’s the Manhattan project, and then the later Apollo space programme. Although many important projects contributed to the development of Project Management as a distinct field of practice, it has been the US Military which is seen as the most significant driving force and starting point of this phenomenon. During the 1960’s Organisational Design started to be incorporated into the idea of Project Management, which until then was mostly concerned with delivery of technological initiatives driven by a scientific and quantitative way of thinking. During the early 1990’s the internet and rapid increase of digitisation saw Project Management gain strength and applied in much broader contexts, and progressively so as a business tool to deliver those rapid changes needed to incorporate new digital capabilities which emerged.

Current Project Trends

In contemporary terms a ‘Project’ is defined simply as the vehicle or structure used to deliver intended business improvements and optimisations – and ultimately enhanced value to customers – into an organisation. Typically, projects are ring-fenced and systematically managed to prevent or control risks like waste of resources or disruption to daily organisational functioning.

Whilst early grand projects benefitted from a systematic way of work, it must be kept in mind that these early initiatives were based in a context of scientific research and engineering which defined the character of those early delivery methods. These early projects were driven from much more hierarchical organisations where control and decisions characteristically had top-down command structures. In these early stages conditions were based on predictability, structures were rigid and enduring, and little to no expected change in how things were done. These all contributed to the nature of early project management taking on these characteristics with centralised and pervasive points of control and decision making, and of predictability bringing repeatability and a building of trust in the reliability with which these ‘recipes’ could repeatedly deliver the expected outcome.

However, in our current VUCA (see our previous blog for more on this) world, all these key paradigmatic elements have been subverted: the complexity and unpredictability brough by rapidly changing and advancing technology, the cultural need to achieve good outcomes through shared knowledge and contributions, specialisation of knowledge and the need for collaboration, and the overall unpredictability of the world in general, has created a strong contrast with the original paradigm. It is perhaps not surprising then that current research strongly points to the pervasive failure of projects to actually bring about expected outcomes and value mostly because there is still a strong foundation of control and structure which frames many project delivery methodologies and environments.

The current poor track record of project implementation success, together with contemporary views on organisational design, leadership, the role of talent and skill, the role of strategy and technology, and the increasing complexity surrounding organisations which constantly need to adapt to stay relevant and competitive, have all contributed to the rise different (and often contrasting) thoughts on Project Management methodologies and the best methodology for change implementation in organisations today.

Below we briefly offer some key points to consider in directing decisions on project delivery and methodologies to increase successful outcomes in your organisation.

1. The most effective relationship between projects and your business resides in the culture of your organisation

In Drucker’s famous words, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Culture is pervasive, entrenched and frames everything in an organisation, including how projects will be delivered. From power and decision structures, the use of knowledge and talent, the ways of work, attitudes to technology and change, motivation to position in the market, the view of value your organisation is bringing to its consumer base – all of these are framed by your culture. It shapes the capacity of an organisation to remain adaptable because it is the ability of the people to change and absorb the stress and demand that change brings that will determine the velocity and ceiling of how much change can be produced and handled in an organisation.

When delivering intentional change through projects to stay relevant and competitive, it is critical to align how change is driven out to the culture and ways of work. If an organisation values experimenting, can tolerate iterative steps (even if some of these seem like failures) towards refining and ultimate success of delivery of value (through products or services) to consumers, and can embrace new ways of doing things and new technologies to apply to processes and ways of work, then the culture of such an organisation will likely feel stifled and eventually resentful and stagnant in a highly structured, rule-driven and rigidly framed project delivery methodology.

Conversely, in a traditional, structured, and highly defined structure where set rules and procedures are highly entrenched and low tolerance exists for deviation from these, a highly collaborative, emergent and experimental way of developing new offerings or products through short and rapid iterations of success and failure might seem reckless, chaotic and highly stressful to employees. If a methodology is not congruent with underlying norms and values of an organisation (or is diametrically opposed to it), it is likely to bring about severe challenges to bring desired outcomes. It is also of utmost importance that the speed of bringing about changes to an organisation through projects, actually continually allows for adaptation to new market demands and challenges. The point of change is for strategic benefit – not to bring change for the sake of change. It is the role of leadership to ensure that this is achieved, which raises the next point.

2. Leadership is tasked with creating the direction and impetus for change, and then the conditions to actualise on it

This has been raised extensively in previous blogs: leaders are responsible for determining the correct strategic direction to remain competitive. It is the task of leadership to create the conditions of change to achieve strategic enablement, which includes the shaping of the right culture, creation of optimal structures (formal and informal), resource allocation, and rationale and motivation to achieve change objectives. Change, and the implementation thereof, starts at the top – this is true also for failure to achieve any of this. Some of the key structures leaders should think about to ensure effective change manifestation and implementation in organisations, include decision making structures, the rationale for change, and the alignment of culture and ways of work to formal project environments (all briefly discussed in the next three points).

3. Decision structures are critical for continuation and completion of projects and their intended benefits

Much like grids of streets and highways in a busy city, the paths that projects take through organisations can sometimes reach a gridlock because of conflicting decision-making structures. If there are senior decision makers of equal power in an organisation who all hold some critical decision influence over critical delivery components with no alignment in purpose, decision jams and gridlocks could very easily result. In short, if leaders hold the power to veto each other, expect decision gridlock (and expensive stagnation).

Leaders in organisations must organise and align their formal structures and mandates in such a way that there is harmony and support for achieving the desired change outcomes and in the correct sequence to meet overall strategic goals. Once direction is set and investment approved, leaders must create structures that do not rely heavily on centralised decision forums or excessive procedures to monitor progress, but rather create streamlined decision making mechanisms and rapid allocation of resources and a reliance on effective decision making cohorts at the right level of expert knowledge in a project space (where the knowledgeable and experienced talent pools operate) to carry out the change. If execs or top leaders require more information or input to reach decisions quicker it is incumbent on them to insert themselves at the frontline of the change space and contribute actively with hands-on and first-hand information gained from the unfolding context, rather than to wait for much delayed, heavily scrubbed and often pointless reports and tardy decision making forums which carry little information to steer projects. Leaders cannot follow old structures and expect rapid and competitive change to unfold in the organisations they lead!

4. The business case must make sense at every level, and be evident to the organisation in totality

In simple terms – if the key proponents of creating value consumed in the market, i.e. the people that work in a business, do not agree with the production methods (project methods) of delivering the value or the actual goals of the project itself, then chances will progressively diminish for project implementations to deliver successful outcomes. If business cases for change or project outcomes are not simple, compelling, and crystal clear, then the projects that are meant to achieve the business benefits will not achieve much by way of strategic benefits. In larger projects where stakeholders are broad and cut across sectors of society, this complexity of project resistance or lack of support can be compounded in the form of resistance from the stakeholder communities (such as those opposing energy or mining projects deemed harmful to the environment at large) as an example. Leaders must align their stakeholders and interested parties, from the larger community all the way to the actual delivery teams in all circumstances, guided by a sensible and plausible business case.

5. There is no one size fits all – methodologies are at best guidelines, and the principles are the most valuable contribution

There is no research suggesting the greater success of one methodology over another. It is more important that the methodology followed, reflects the character existing ways of work that are already established in the organisation. Those “success stories” of project delivery methods that brought great success, are more likely successful because of alignment between leadership, organisational culture, and business case sense, rather than having a ‘recipe for success’ which can be replicated anywhere.

In fact, it is sometimes the case in large organisations where there are multiple projects with a myriad of various stakeholders and participants, that a Project Management Office (PMO) might enforce rules pertaining to a certain methodology which harm or prevent the original business case objectives and jeopardise the investment – whilst remaining perfectly compliant with their delivery methodology. This is interpreting the rule rather than the spirit of the implementation method; the sensible thing is rather to understand the goal, test its validity against current market conditions (i.e. validate the business case) and to decide how to proceed with the actual conditions and options at hand.

It is in no way sensible to trade off strategic goals for project methodology compliance. Yet, examples of this happening daily and on a large scale abound; leaders and investors must remember that projects that are models of perfection when it comes to showing methodology compliance, often fail to deliver what it was meant to. Conversely, a project that might seem like it is not a textbook example of how to manage and keep things under control against a methodology, might actually succeed in delivering the goods initially envisaged by the leadership and the strategy of the organisation. Leadership involvement is critical – leadership ‘at a distance’ is likely to rely on rules because of lack of firsthand insight into the project nuances and challenges. The lesson is that success of project delivery is not determined by the adherence and compliance to methodology, but is measured against strategic imperatives being achieved, and ultimately the bottom line of the business: no project methodology ever advocated the abandonment of common sense!

6. Plotting the environment

In light of all the above, a simple classification of some core principles is provided below to suggest a way forward in selecting an appropriate implementation methodology. Understanding these axes might assist in understanding what character of project methodology might be better suited to bring about the desired project outcomes: