In recent years there has been increasing recognition that for projects to be successful they must be soundly based; projects that fail have the seeds of their failure implanted at the outset. In this article, I present a project shaping framework for understanding the skills managers use to shape sound projects and conceptualise these skills in terms of the craft of a hypothetical expert individual – the project shaper.

This article summarises the conclusions of a full paper, ‘The Art of Project Shaping’, written with Mark Winter of the Manchester Business School.

Many of the ideas presented here are also expanded in several chapters of my book ‘Making Sense of Project Realities’ which presents a wider exploration into the nature of projects as complex social enterprises.

Project Formation

To understand how sound projects are formed we have listened to practitioners’ stories about real-life projects, and particularly those complex and messy social processes that lead to a particular project being proposed and formed. From these we have identified six important influences:

Framework for Project Shaping

Influence 1 The Control Model of Projects

All projects reflect a process of ‘projectification’ which brings work that is loosely defined and distributed among many parties into the ordered regime of the controlled project. To make a commitment, managers must mould the project so that it can, with reasonable confidence, be completed as promised.

However, projectification can carry penalties, for example, compromise, where diverse aims have coalesced into a single package that supposedly suits everyone or the destruction of creativity and initiative. There are situations that demand focus, clear definition and tight control, but at other times we need a more flexible and pragmatic style of management. The timing of projectification can be crucial, which we express through the mantra: beware premature projectification.

Influence 2 Tribal Power

Projects are formed in the social world, emerging from the manoeuvres of diverse groups of people with diverse agenda – the tribal world of organisations. A well-formed project aligns the interests of all parties and their energy is deployed in the cause of progress. If a project is not compatible with its multi-tribe environment its energy will be diverted, sapped from the project into intertribal struggles.

Influence 3 Transformation and Value

While mainstream project management is concerned with the delivery of tangible outputs, most managers have objectives that go beyond the immediate product delivery and into the realm of ‘value’. Value could be in terms of client happiness, but often it concerns immediate and commercial aims: the development of more efficient working practices, or strategic changes of business direction.

A failure to take value into account brings additional risk to the project, as it will inevitably alienate the ‘tribes’ affected and drag the project into those energy-sapping disputes. Rather than merely focus on delivery, it is in the project manager’s interest to engage with the relevant tribes and their concepts of value, and shape the project accordingly.

Influence 4 Enacted Reality

As each project takes shape its scope can be unstable, open to challenge as different groups manoeuvre to promote their tribal interests. Project progress, however, requires some degree of stability of purpose. To this end shapers enact their project, creating artefacts that can be seen, inspected and queried, so the project has, associated with it, incontrovertible facts that establish it as a stable and tangible ‘reality’. The creation and authorisation of key documents is a well-established enactment tactic. Other, and stronger, techniques are also available through the production of tangible ‘hard’ objects: early production of software, models, etc.

Influence 5 External Dynamics – ‘Peripety’

Experience shows that projects have periods of relative stability interrupted by significant shifts in the plan as the social world they inhabit changes. A useful perspective on these dynamics is the dramatic concept of peripety. The significance of peripety is not merely that there has been some twist in the plot or untoward event. Something has appeared which leads to a reframing of the understanding of all that has gone before.

Experienced shapers know that there are times when they must scour the horizon for approaching messengers, and if necessary re-shape their project and change course. At other times, of course, they will persevere, focus on the work in hand, and shoot messengers on sight.

Influence 6 Shapers’ Volition

In contrast with mainstream project management theory, which treats projects in strictly impersonal terms, our real-life examples show that each project becomes what it is through the strong action – the volition – of an individual who chooses to shape it in that way. It is this aspect of project formation that leads us to the concept of the project shaper.

While shapers are constrained by the power structures of the organisational world in which they operate, it is also evident that the project form they establish is also very much designed to support their own agenda: their allegiances and their personal aims. They protect their credibility and reputation, and, if failure is on the cards, manoeuvre themselves into winning positions.

Conclusions – Shaping Sound Projects

Projects are constructions, created through the agency of individuals. The concept of the project shaper, those expert players in the complex social world in which projects are performed, embodies their vital craft. While they are motivated by personal objectives, self-preservation (to avoid finding themselves in charge of a mal-formed project) will motivate shapers to create projects that are fundamentally sound.

Our 6-element framework can be used by practitioners to improve their awareness of how projects are actually formed, and of the craft of project shaping, and thereby improve their skills in this critical area.