You’ll be cut off at the pass if you let yourself rely on standard processes, tools and templates. These, however well chosen, are not enough to manage a project. The quality of working practices, ingenuity, judgement, leadership and cultural factors are at least as important. Today the word on the street is that the behaviour of project players is decisive for achieving the pace of progress and reliability that customers and users expect. This is a reality that is sometimes overlooked and even disregarded. It is through the strengthening of players’ behaviour as individuals and as groups, that the greatest opportunities for advancing project management capability are to be found.
Projects as ‘social endeavours’
The lecturer on a recent project management course explained this matter in a different way. She said, “in managing a project there is only behaviour; the rest is administration”. Today we find ourselves talking about the importance of ‘soft-skills’, ‘culture’, ‘values’, ‘teamwork’, ‘pacing progress’, ‘adaptation’, ‘endurance’, ‘emotional intelligence’ and of project management as a social endeavour.
Many of the most experienced project managers are now coming out to voice their views on the importance of behaviour as it is expressed by project players and by the organisation in which they are deployed. They are claiming that a strong human and organisational capability will itself substantially underwrite a project’s performance and reliability.
Too many projects fail to deliver on their promises and when there is disruption it is rare that the root causes are attributable to errors in the choices of methodology, tools or technique. To achieve the expected pace of progress, projects depend principally on a series of decision chains, including heuristics. Errors or misjudgements made anywhere along these chains and failure to then spot them or to address the consequential issues will lead to delay, rework and the waste of resources. Because of its complexities and uncertainties, there is no field of human endeavour where behaviour is more crucial than in the management of a project and the organisation that sustains it. Here the quality of dialogue and decision-making is central to the enterprise and this can be approached in a number of ways.
One way is to rely on the school of hard knocks. While often providing powerful learning, such occurrences are prompted by the trauma and disruption of a failure or mistake. But such cleansing comes at a high price. In today’s competitive markets we have to be more pre-emptive and sure-footed: be readied and primed for adapting to any plan.
There is another way that leaves less to chance and calls for greater professional ability. A lesson can be taken here from the principles of ‘lean production’ as it is now commonly practised in manufacturing. Here activities recognised to be insignificant are excluded from the schedule; leaving only the tasks that are recognised to be indispensable (known as ‘lean practice’). But of course, many of the actions required when managing a project cannot be prescribed; with many emerging for the first time during execution. Instead, it is only through the astute behaviour of players that a project’s issues arising from uncertainty, complexity and re-planning can be resolved.
Using this same principle of ‘rejecting the dispensable’ when managing a project; it would surely be advantageous for players to align their behaviour in a way that benefits from the practices found in the most successful project regimes, i.e. those behaviours that have shown themselves to be successful. A project lives: adapting and growing as it responds to events and to what it learns from the situations and the experiences that they provide. Good practice can be habituated where and when there is a robust and shared culture that is honed with professional rigour and ambition. It is here that the causes of project successes are to be found.
Pragmatism and behaviour
Uncertainty and complexity, while found in many aspects of human endeavour are of crucial concern to project management, with these twin devils very often poised to disrupt progress. Players have to be alert; recognising them as primary sources of project risk. They need to be systematic but they must also be pragmatic and this relies on a thorough understanding of human and organisational behaviour. Pragmatism is a reasoned and logical way of doing things or in working out what needs to be done. A particular situation will suggest pragmatic options, some of which will be less constrained by formal principles and standards than others.
A taxonomy or ‘code of conduct’ for project management is offered here as a ‘Methodology of Compelling Behaviour’, as described below.
A Methodology of Compelling Behaviour
Project management practitioners are familiar with the idea of methodology as it is applied to the systematic and procedural aspects of their work. Offered here is an equivalent framework to accommodate the crucial human and organisational aspects of managing projects.
The range of behaviours that might be relevant to managing a project is boundless and eclectic. For this reason, it is impractical for the whole field to be obtainable to the practitioner at any one time. An alternative approach then is to separate the human and organisational behaviours that are most commonly associated with successful project management practice. This way, we can identify the most positive or ‘compelling behaviours’ as they are distinguished in project management when conducted at its best. (This is an approach to human capability adopted by Stephen Covey in his book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’.)
The Eight Compelling Behaviours of a Capable Project Management Regime
These are imagined here as conducted in an ideal way. For the purpose of this paper, they are thumbnails only and not mutually exclusive.
1. IMAGINE responses that are primed and ready
Summary: Players are curious and persistent in their enquiries and networking. They seek connection with other players and to discover issues, shared values and remedies to reach goals through the pursuit of common purpose and commitment.
- Known, valued and skilful in their reasoning
- Networked, persuasive and articulate
- Persistent, curious and resolute
- Practised and open-minded
- Determined and enterprising
2. IMAGINE capable and professional players
Summary: The expectations of players are high, of themselves and others. Player ability confers status and this is celebrated. ‘Key Competencies’ are evident. Players are professionally trained and qualified. Mentoring is regular and pervasive. It is conducted both formally and informally. Players have wide experience; equipping them with keen judgement and a healthy scepticism.
- Proficient in ‘key competencies’
- Well-equipped to perform in their roles
- Experienced and persistent in their learning
- Systematic, rational and engaging
- Accountable and open to candour
3. IMAGINE collective and close-coupled action
Summary: The best possible results depend upon collective effort; relying on the influence of an enduring ethos. Exacting dialogue is the life-blood that feeds the choices of what is to be done and how. The greatest distinction stems from players’ knowledge and experience that is shared.
- Well-connected through strong and enduring relationships
- Engaged in regular and active dialogue
- Surfacing issues and jointly addressing them
- Willing to sideline self-interests
- Sharing news of progress and managing the pace
- Connecting the dependencies
4. IMAGINE adapting effectively to the unexpected
Summary: The regime adapts to its circumstances without unnecessary delay. Players are accomplished at managing and accommodating changes. Re-planning is thoroughgoing and fully recognises new surroundings. Responsibility for adaptation is devolved as locally as possible. Changes to the management of a project are known to rely on the maturity of the project organisation.
- Recognising that change is a regular matter
- Tracking the big picture and pace of progress
- Leading organisational changes
- Keeping stakeholders aware and informed
- Learning with all those who are involved
5. IMAGINE solutions resolved by social engagement
Summary: Strong and sustainable ideas, goals and plans are the products of social engagement. Choices and solutions are produced by players who able to pool their experience and skills – purposefully and persistently. The outcomes of social engagement will then enable robust collaboration between groups.
- Continually aware of a project’s purpose and goals
- Conducting and encouraging social interaction
- Free and willing to question issues and any proposition
- Promoting social engagement throughout the project regime
- Continually enhancing the quality of social engagement
6. IMAGINE pervasive leadership
Summary: Managing pace and exploiting innovation depends on every player’s contribution as a leader. Localised leadership should result in prompt and well-informed decisions. This behaviour relies on a common ethos throughout the regime and working relationships that are mature and resourceful.
- Working with others to agree and achieve goals
- Expecting energetic leadership from every player
- Exploring and facilitating engagement with critical issues
- Continually seeking better ways to progress
- Supported in improving their own ability as leaders
7. IMAGINE strong partnering
Summary: To sustain the contract Partnerships, stakeholder agreements, joint ventures, outsourcing arrangements, alliances and similar arrangements there is dependence on trust, candour and flexibility. Regular review, reflection and sensitivity to the preferences and ambitions of all parties are important.
- Continually discovering what is to be done and how
- Building on the strength of the common interests
- Negotiating robust terms and working relationships
- Aware of knowledge, skills and resource limitations
- Regularly assessing pace in terms of speed and quality
8. IMAGINE capability continually improved
Summary: The practice of continuous improvement is a regular preoccupation of the regime and is firmly established in its work ethos. Improvements to what is done and how it is done sustain, rely on and augment a project regime’s community maturity.
- Anticipating where an improvement idea could be important
- Discovering and resolving issues collectively
- Ensuring that innovation is implemented effectively
- Discovering and securing a more mature project regime
- Winning competitive advantage through innovation
A project organisation reaches its greatest capability when there is a synergy combining the efficiency of systems and methodology with a human and organisational capability and its ingenuity. In the conduct of the latter, many project management regimes are found, from their results, to be wanting. Greater attention is needed to the training and development of practitioners and particularly to their organisations. This is an arena where much of the most critical learning is acquired in some way experientially, learned ‘on-the-job’. Many of the principles of Action Learning (originally devised by Reg Revans) can be usefully applied.
Martin Price February 2016
Martin Price is widely known as a speaker and writer and for his fresh ideas on human and organisational behaviour, so crucial to the success of managing a project. He was Director of Professional Development for PMI’s UK Chapter and for six years hosted their monthly UK Chapter meetings in London.
Martin worked as an Electrical Engineer before spending 15 years as a Personnel Director and then as a Change Management Consultant with PA Consulting Group. There he enabled and supported the transformation of large and small businesses. Martin is the Author of the book ‘The Single-Minded Project’. He is MD of EngagementWorks, a consultancy supporting organisations in their quest for developing high performing project organisations.
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