Archive for August 2008
In recent years, the focus in project management has shifted from technical aspects of the profession (scheduling, planning etc.) to people-oriented factors such as motivation. This is reflected both in professional practice and academia. On the one hand there is a growing interest in courses on soft skills and leadership; on the other, an increasing number of research papers on these issues. In fact, I have come across two papers on motivation published in the Project Management Journal (PMJ) within last six months. I reviewed one some time ago, in my post entitled Motivation Rehashed. Here, I review the other: a paper entitled, Motivation in Project Management: The Project Manager’s Perspective, published in the June 2008 issue of the PMJ.
First a brief look at what the paper is about. In the introduction the authors emphasise that, “the interpersonal skills needed to motivate a project team are a project managers most important asset.” Despite this, there is no clear definition of motivation in the literature. For example, some researchers have explained motivation as, “the level of energy people bring to their work,” whereas some others have viewed it as being centred on “expectations and reinforcements.” As a consequence, the authors claim there’s still a good deal of confusion about what motivates people. To address this, the paper begins with a literature review and an overview of the theoretical basis of motivation research. The emphasis is on research relating to motivation in the context of project teams. The review is followed by original research on project managers’ perceptions of how they are able to influence motivation. The work is based on data collected from practising project managers.
Background and Literature Review
Recent research indicates that asking the question, “How do I motivate my team members?” might actually be counterproductive because most people begin new initiatives with enthusiasm and a desire to contribute to, and consequently feel proud of their work and organisations. This suggests that project managers may be better served by focusing on how one can help people maintain their motivation levels through their work tasks and roles. The PMBOK definition of motivation which is, “energising people to achieve high levels of performance and to overcome barriers to change”, suggests that there is more to motivation than “maintenance of enthusiasm” by doing the “right things.” The authors delve into this in some detail, as I discuss next.
Motivation is inextricably linked with leadership and power. Research has shown that use of autocratic, coercive or laissez-faire leadership styles can have a detrimental effect on motivation. This is obvious to those who have worked with such managers! More effective leadership styles emphasise the leader as an initiator, negotiator, coach and participant. The last one is interesting – if a leader is viewed as a participant – being “one of the group” – loyalty and motivation emerge more unconditionally. Such leaders employ a participatory approach that includes all team members in a meaningful way.
After discussing motivation and its connection to leadership, the authors move on to reviewing research on the sources of motivation – i.e. where motivation comes from. Motivation can be viewed as intrinsic or extrinsic. In a nutshell, the former is a desire to do something because one finds it interesting, whereas the latter is a desire to do something because of some anticipated rewards not related to the activity. Research indicates that an inclusive leadership or management style is conducive to intrinsic motivation whereas an exclusive approach (coercive or authoritarian) relies on extrinsic motivation. In their book entitled, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman state that the best companies focus on fostering intrinsic motivation in employees.
The difference between extrinsically and intrinsically motivated employees was explored by Gagne and Deci in their paper on the relationship between work motivation and self determination theory (SDT). In SDT, states of motivation are viewed as a continuum ranging from amotivation (no motivation) to intrinsic motivation. SDT uses the terms autonomous and controlled motivation: the former corresponding to intrinsic and the latter to extrinsic motivation. The Gagne and Deci model, identifies four stages of extrinsic motivation, starting from external regulation wherein the person works only to obtain a non-work related reward (no self determination) , to integrated regulation wherein there is some self-determination because the person has internalised some of the reasons for doing the work. Integrated regulation is thus just a small step away from intrinsic (or autonomous) motivation. Another interesting research finding is that intrinsic motivation is fragile in that the presence of a person with lower motivation on a team can reduce motivation levels of other team members.
Next, the authors highlight some practical motivation-controlling factors, linking these to research regarding the efficacy and limitations of each:
- Optimising energy: This refers to the innate capacity for work, which differs from person to person. Research by Welbourne and coworkers shows that there is an optimum zone of employee energy, and that this limit should generally not be exceeded. This zone varies from person to person. Furthermore, it turns out that managers can assist employees to stay in the zone, or even raise it by timely interventions and enhanced one-to-one communication.
- Autonomy: In an earlier post, I have written about the importance of empowering people to make decisions relating to their work. Research indicates that autonomy results in better job satisfaction and, hence, increased intrinsic motivation. One practical way to do this on projects is to specify the deliverable (the “what”), leaving decisions regarding the method of creation (the “how”) to the responsible team member(s).
- Feedback: Research shows that positive, constructive feedback enhances motivation. Negative feedback, on the other hand, reduces both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Perception of feedback is important too: feedback perceived as being controlling will have a negative effect on motivation, whereas feedback seen as being competence related can have a positive effect if properly delivered.
- Rewards and recognition: Rewards are related to extrinsic and recognition to intrinsic motivation. In their book, Peters and Waterman point out that successful companies make it an organisational goal to repeatedly recognise employee contributions. Research by Deci and associates indicates that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, especially if those rewards are linked to specific tasks. This is particularly interesting because many organisations tend to use reward systems based on task or project performance. Also relevant to project work, is the finding that teams should be rewarded as a whole. This is controversial because rewarding all team members equally can create conflicts if certain individuals are perceived as being “freeloaders.” On the other hand, though, both Deming and Drucker point out that individual rewards will eventually lower (team) productivity and morale. This because they lead to a perception of inequity amongst team members. Deming also pointed out that merit systems based on management by objectives are a major source of inequity (see point 11b of his well-known 14 points).
Following the discussion of motivational factors, the authors provide a brief organisational perspective on motivation vis-a-vis project team motivation. As far as organisations are concerned, research by Sirota and coworkers indicates that equity, achievement and camaraderie are factors that are strongly correlated to employee satisfaction within organisations. Equity relates to the perception of fairness; achievement to pride in one’s work and associated recognition; camaraderie to cooperation and a feeling of community. It is vey interesting that these factors were found to be significant regardless of gender, ethnicity or level within the organisation! Clearly, there are differences between organisations and project teams. The most obvious differences are: a) teams work within larger organisations, and b) projects, unlike organisations, have distinct stages. This brings up questions about how these differences are perceived and handled by project managers – questions that are addressed in the next section.
I found the authors’ literature review and associated discussion very interesting, particularly because they highlight some non-intuitive aspects of motivation. Further, the review provides practitioners some excellent suggestions for further reading on the topic.
Having painted the background with a comprehensive literature review, the authors move on to a discussion of their research on project managers’ perceptions of team motivation.
Project Managers’ perceptions of motivation
The authors pose the following research questions:
- What are the factors that most commonly cause low levels of motivation on project teams?
- What are the most successful (intrinsic) motivation techniques in project environments?
- Can a project manager influence team motivation levels despite (negative) organisational influences?
- Should different motivation techniques be applied at different stages of a project?
The authors conducted an online survey of practising project managers using a questionnaire that was based on the above questions. They received 115 completed questionnaires which, on analysis, revealed the following results.
Factors lowering team motivation:
The authors found that the following factors were the greatest team demotivators (in order of importance):
- Missing top management support.
- Personal conflicts between team members.
- Inequity in reward system.
- Schedule conflicts.
- Time overruns.
Having suffered the ill-effects of each of these at one time or another, I think there should be no surprises here for most practitioners (excepting perhaps the order). Interestingly, content analysis of the results showed that each of the above factors are closely related to the project manager’s ability to communicate effectively. A project manager who can communicate well – be it with top management or team members – will be able to lessen the impact of the above factors.
The research also probed the de-motivational effects of changing each of the classical constraints of scope, time, quality and cost. It was found that scope had the largest demotivating effect followed by time, quality and cost. This highlights the importance of clear scope definition and management throughout the project.
Successful motivation techniques
Most of the responses regarding successful motivation techniques centred on the importance of communication. For example, over 90% of respondents agreed that providing positive, constructive feedback is an effective motivator. Many also agreed that personal conversations (e.g. Management by Walking Around) is also a useful technique. Respondents also agreed that it was important to develop an understanding of individual team members. This would be important, for example, in ensuring a good match of skills (and desires!) to tasks assigned.
Participation was also found to be a good motivator. For instance, a large number of respondents indicated that involving the team in creating the work breakdown structure is a good motivational technique as it offers the team involvement in a key aspect of the project at an early stage. What struck me was that “warm and fuzzy” factors such as involvement, communication, responsibility and trust are found to be very important to creating and fostering motivation. The hard-headed project manager with little or no time for niceties would do well to take note – and, yes, there are a few of those around!
Project team motivation vs. organisational motivation
Although organisational factors such as culture, strategy etc. have a clear influence on project teams, over 60% of respondents felt that project managers can influence team motivation positively, despite negative organisational factors. Content analysis of the data further revealed that setting of team goals that are within the project manager’s control can help motivate the team. On the other hand, scope change was found to have a demoralising effect.
Regardless of the mechanics of how project managers motivate teams in the face negative organisational influences, it is interesting that many feel that they can do so. Even those who struggled to motivate their teams on their last project indicated that it was possible to create a positive subculture within a larger, negative organisational culture. Is this just wishful thinking, or is it based on something more solid. Unfortunately the authors can’t (or don’t) tell, so neither can I!
Motivation at different stages of a project
The results indicate that team motivation generally declines as the project progresses. Over 80% of the respondents agreed that motivation is high at the start whereas less than 50% thought that it was high towards the closing stages. On the other hand, respondents indicated that the project managers role in team motivation is greatest at the start of a project, and becomes a shared responsibility (between the manager and team) as the project progresses. This, to me, seems a bit strange : if motivation is known to decline as the project progresses, shouldn’t the project manager take even more responsibility for maintaining it in later stages of the project??
According to me, the authors do not answer the question they pose – i.e. they don’t tell us whether or not different motivation techniques should be used at different stages of the project.
I found the literature review presented in the paper very informative. The authors have done a great job of presenting interesting and relevant work on motivation from the project manager’s perspective. The research, however, has an incomplete feel to it. The authors admit so themselves. In their own words, “The results of this study merely highlight trends in current opinions and should not be interpreted in other ways.” And in the final line, ” The trends expressed in this research should be followed up with case studies or ethnographic analyses to create a more thorough picture of the project manager’s perspective.”
In summary: the authors’ research is far from a comprehensive investigation of project managers’ perception of motivation, but it does point to certain trends that make intuitive sense. The results may also help in the design of further studies. Be that as it may, in my opinion the literature review is what makes the paper a worthwhile read for professional project managers.
Schmid, Bernhard., & Adams, Jonathan., Motivation in Project Management: The Project Manager’s Perspective, Project Management Journal, 39 (2), 60-71. (2008).
Standish and others tell us that a significant percentage of projects fail for one reason or another. Many of these are projects that could have been saved by timely action, but instead end in ignominy due to inaction by various stakeholders. Transfixed by impending doom, those responsible are content to let problems fester until the potential for disaster translates to reality.
That’s when the proverbial stinky stuff hits the fan: project sponsors demand explanations about what went wrong, and how, and why. Above all, they want to know who is responsible. Then the finger pointing begins, culminating in the identification of the scapegoat. Once identified, the scapegoat is blamed, pilloried, and if he or she is really unfortunate (or the sponsor really ticked off), sacked.
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It is strange how many issues come to one’s notice through conversations initiated around the coffee machine. Just the other day, I was getting myself a caffeine fix when Dave wandered by.
“How are you going, Dave?” I asked.
“Hmm good…. good,” he said, nodding absently. He’d looked a little abstracted lately – focusing on the reports he was doing for Finance, no doubt – or so I thought. Then he looked at me and said, “Those reports I’m doing – I still haven’t received all the requirements for them.”
I got a little alarmed; the first tranche of the reports were due next week. “Wasn’t Ralph supposed to get them to you a couple of weeks ago?” I asked.
“He hasn’t given me everything I need.”
“Have you reminded him?” An obvious question that had to be asked.
“Yes – several times.”
“And…what did he say?”
“He didn’t respond to my emails.”
Ah, Dave, Dave. You should know better than to send reminders through email and not follow-up.
Some background: As you may have gathered, Ralph’s in Finance and Dave’s in IT. Dave does a fair bit of reporting work for Finance, hence the work connection between the two. They also happen to be located in the same building – less than a minute’s stroll apart. Yet, I reckon most of the communication between them is via email. The only time they talk to each other, face-to-face, is at the occasional meeting.
Dave should have wandered over to Ralph’s office to have a chat. Although Dave had done the right thing (at least in letter, if not spirit) by sending Ralph reminders, he could have done much better. Email is a sub-optimal mode of communication because, among other things, emails can go “missing” (consider the familiar excuse: “Oh, I must have deleted it by mistake.”), or be misunderstood if the tone’s wrong or content incomplete. On the other hand, face-to-face conversations can’t be ignored, and any potential misunderstandings can be sorted on the spot. Further, they also enable one to listen to what’s not said, through observation of non-verbal signals or body language. So, the next time you start to type out that electronic missive, stop a minute and ask yourself, “Can I do this by conversation instead?” If so, do so.
In politically charged situations, where there’s a danger that a conversation may be denied or conveniently forgotten, one might consider sending a follow-up email that summarises the conversation and agreed actions. But in my experience that is rarely as useful as it’s made out to be.
Perhaps you’re wondering what happened about reports. Here’s the rest of the story. After some prompting Dave had a chat with Ralph and fixed up a time to discuss the reports. Dave got his missing requirements and a delivery date was agreed on. It looks as though the reports will be ready on time. What’s more, Dave tells me that he has been talking to Ralph a lot lately, showing him work in progress and getting useful feedback on it. Ralph has a good idea of what he’ll get in the end, and Dave has peace of mind knowing that his work is indeed on track. Even better, I’ve had some feedback from Ralph as well, commending Dave on his initiative and work.
Happy customers reflect well on the team. Nice one, Dave!
There’s a huge gap between research and practice in most disciplines. Project management is no exception – many practitioners feel that project management research is an academic exercise with little practical value.1 Yet, research is important because, among other things, it gives rise to new techniques and perspectives, and also confirms (or disproves!) the often assumed utility of existing practices. So, when a couple of well known academics with significant industry experience comment on directions in project management research, it behooves practitioners to read and understand their views. Hence this post in which I review a paper entitled, Project Management Research – The Challenge and Opportunity, published by Aaron Shenhar and Dov Dvir in the June 2007 issue of the Project Management Journal.
The authors begin by stating that project management is one of the fastest growing disciplines. Many initiatives in organisations are managed as projects, even if they aren’t labelled so. The authors observe that, “…in a paradoxical way, project failures, delays, and disappointments are much too common to be ignored…there seems to be an alarming gap between the needs of the discipline and what we know in order to fix them. From a research perspective there is a great opportunity to help close this gap…” Their stated aim is to record some observations on the challenges and opportunities in project management research, in order to stimulate discussion about the role of research in academics and industry.
As the authors point out, people have been engaged in creating things since antiquity. The creation of large monuments such as the pyramids would have required some degree of organisation, planning and coordination of the efforts of a large number of people, regardless of the specifics of how that might have been done. In other words, these efforts were all projects that had to be managed somehow. The authors define a project as, “a temporary organisation and process set up to achieve a specified goal under constraints of time, budget and other resources“2 and project management as, “the managerial activities needed to lead a project to a successful end.” They claim that modern project management, as a discipline, arose from the invention of the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) in the late 1950s,3 and take the position that the PMI’s project management standard is the premier standard of the day. Although I have no strong views on this, I have the feeling that some practitioners (and academics) may disagree.
The authors admit that the paper presents their subjective view of challenges and opportunities in project management research. Given this, it is perhaps unfair to read too much into what they say. Yet, it is instructive to look at an implicit assumption they make. It is clear from some of their remarks (and to a lesser extent the references at the end of the paper) that the authors use PMI standard as the basis for their discussion. This, quite naturally, affects their arguments and conclusions: i.e. everything discussed is viewed through the lens of that standard. Perhaps this is unavoidable: one has to make some assumptions to make any progress at all! In my opinion, though, authors of research papers should highlight their assumptions and limitations thereof, so that readers are fully aware of them.4
Anyway, to move on with the review, it is evident that despite all our methodologies and experience, project performance is alarmingly low. The authors quote statistics from the Standish Report and other studies to emphasise this. They concede that some failures can be ascribed to neglect or lack of planning, but highlight – through examples – that even well-managed and planned projects fail. Reasons for this are varied. For example, the original Iridium Project was deemed a failure because it did not take into account future business and technology trends. The construction of Denver International Airport is another example of high-profile failure. In that case, the reason for failure was that the automated baggage-handling system which was relatively unproven (and thus high risk) was treated as a standard well-proven system. On the other hand, the Sydney Opera House is now deemed a huge success despite being a classic example of project management failure – massively over time (by 16 years) and over budget ($100 million against an original budget of $ 7 million).
Citing these examples, the authors note that the problem is not with processes, rules or tools, as project management has plenty (perhaps too many!) of these. They suggest that the problem is at a conceptual level rather than process or practice, and that what’s required is a new understanding of what the discipline is about. This, they say, is the responsibility and challenge of future research.
After outlining the history of the development of project management as a discipline, the authors conclude that there is no central paradigm underlying research or practice of project management. They reckon that inspiration for new ideas may be found in other, allied areas such as: Technology and Innovation Management Research, New Product Development Research, Entrepreneurship Literature and Operations Management. Research in technology/innovation management and new product development is more mature than project management research, and hence may suggest fruitful directions for future work. This has already started to happen: many project management researchers are focusing on new product development. In fact, I have reviewed a couple of papers relating to this area in earlier posts.5 Operations management offers another complementary direction; Goldratt’s critical chain technique is the best known example of a project management technique that emerged from operations management.
The authors believe that project management researchers have largely ignored developments in the above fields – and hence there are significant research opportunities to be exploited. As mentioned earlier, I believe this process has already begun: researchers are indeed looking to other fields for inspiration and ideas, as evidenced by the growing number of cross-disciplinary research papers in project management journals. On the flip side, most of these papers are written by researchers in project management, very few by those working in other fields. The reason for this, as the authors rightly point out, is that project management still has a low profile in management research and business schools. They comment that very little project management research is published in “prestigious” journals. This is true enough, research published in a high-profile journal is more likely to be read widely. Finally they comment that there is a disconnect between project management research and practice. This is well recognised, and I’ve already commented on it in the first paragraph and in the footnotes. It should also be noted, though, that this problem is universal – the gap between academics and practice exists in all disciplines, not just project management.
Based on the current state of project management research and the issues listed above, the authors propose a “wider research agenda to address these challenges and bring project management research to the forefront of the academic world“. I outline their views below.
The authors suggest two perspectives for future research:
- The problem-driven perspective: This view focuses on solving specific project management problems such as scheduling / resource allocation and time overruns to name just two. Typically, solutions to such problems emerge from other fields. For example, solutions to scheduling and resource allocation problems have come from operations research and network theory; and solutions to time overruns have come from operations management (critical chain). The problem(!) with the problem-driven perspective is that there is no unifying theme. Which takes us to the next perspective…
- The central paradigm perspective: This refers to a central, unifying theme for the discipline – or as the authors put it, a view of what project management is about. The authors identify three views:
- Operational/process view: which views a project as a sequence of tasks to performed according to a plan.
- Team/leadership view: which considers a project as an organisational unit that has to be managed (and lead, motivated etc.).
- Strategic/business view: in which a project is considered to be a business-related activity, which (presumably) forms a part of the an organisation’s strategy.
Each of the above perspectives is based on different assumptions, metrics of success and also a different view of what it means to “manage a project.”
The authors correctly recognise that, “Although each direction is a world of its own, the real challenge is to combine them all into a unified view.” They go on to state that, “success in project management can only be achieved by an integrated, holistic view of the entire landscape of the project.” The three perspectives are, in fact, complementary; neglecting any of them will lead to project failure (italics mine). As the authors recognise, progress in these wide-ranging, diverse areas will require a multidisciplinary approach. Finally, the authors address the issue of publication of research in “leading” (aka “prestigious”) journals. They believe that raising the profile of project management in the broader world of management academia can be achieved by a) improving the acceptance rate of project management papers in highly-rated management journals and b) improving the standing of project management journals in academia.
In conclusion the authors make the following observations:
- Project management is still evolving as a discipline, and is yet to establish its position amongst traditional management disciplines.
- It lacks a strong theoretical framework and a coherent set of guiding principles
- It is perhaps too complex to have a single underlying theory, but the interdisciplinary nature of the field and the variety of research challenges may help attract established researchers from other fields as well as young researchers starting out on an academic career.
I think these observations are incontrovertible, and as such they point to significant new opportunities and a bright future for project management research.
1 I believe this is one of the reasons for the low general readership of project management research journals. Another reason is that journal papers are written in journalese – an obscure dialect, familiar only to professional researchers. I’m doing my small bit to address this issue by posting occasional (hopefully, accessible!) paper reviews.
2 This seems to be a hybrid of the PMI and PRINCE2 definitions, with some other bits thrown in.
3 This attribution by the authors is perhaps a good example of how the PERT myth is propagated.
4 See my post on a memetic view of project management for more on the insiduousness of tacit assumptions in project management.
5 See my posts on utility of project management techniques for new product development and the effect of organizational culture of new product development project success, for example.
One of my continual complaints about the way project management is taught and practised is that the focus is on process rather than success. I’ve alluded to this in an earlier post, in which I drew an analogy between the fixation on process and being blinded by a light. Thus transfixed by process, the project manager loses sight of the real objective of the project- which, presumably, is to create high quality deliverables. Preoccupation with process has other negative side-effects too. In a recent post, Scott Berkun points out that it is the reason that project managers [generally] get no respect from those who do “real work” on the project. Project managers are often seen as obsessed with artefacts such as schedules, plans etc., which team members do not see as being critical to project success.
The reality is, project managers are sometimes caught between two conflicting imperatives:
- To get the job done – which requires them to focus on helping the team.
- To satisfy the requirements of project management standards mandated by their organisations or PMOs.
Many project managers focus on the latter, completely ignoring the former. Now, I’m not advocating the wholesale dumping of standards. These should be followed wherever appropriate, but only insofar as they contribute to the project. A lot of process-related stuff is simply administrative stuff that the team will see as irrelevant – stuff that a project manager has to do, but doesn’t contribute to project success. On the other hand, there are several things – not mandated by methodologies – that a project managers can do to really help the team focus on outcomes. Here are some of them:
- Minimise distractions and irritants: This amounts to keeping bureaucratic overhead inflicted on the team to a bare minimum. The project manager should be taking care of all administrative work, involving team members only when absolutely necessary. A distraction (or should I say, irritant) familiar to most is the unnecessary meeting. Forget regular status meetings, if possible. If you absolutely must have it, restrict it to a 10 minute stand-up affair.
- No surprises: A project manager needs to anticipate potential problems or risks. In my opinion one of the main functions of a project manager is to foresee and avoid nasty surprises, or project banana skins as I’ve called them in an earlier piece.
- Empower the team: Those who do the work are best placed to make decisions regarding the work. Sure, the project manager needs to ensure that decisions made are consistent with project goals and don’t create any conflict, but the decision itself is best left to the experts who are doing the work. This brings me to the last point which is to
- Get out of the way: The project team knows what they have to do. Leave them to it. Many project managers (particularly those with a strong technical background) feel the compulsive need to get involved in details. Team members will view such behaviour as interference at best, or micromanagement at worst. Don’t do it.
Processes and methodologies sometimes get in the way of project work because of the undue importance accorded to these by project (and programme) managers who really should know better. Despite the requirements of PMOs, the real aim of a project isn’t the creation of project management artefacts. Project managers are far better served by focusing on the objectives of the project, and helping their teams do the same. Methodologies and processes should be tailored to help one do so – even on a per-project basis, if necessary. Remember, they are only the means, not the end.