Modelling project manager performance
A project manager is typically judged by the success of his or her projects. However, to really understand what makes a good project manager, it is necessary to identify and analyse factors that make a project manager successful. Much research effort has been expended on this over the years, with various factors posited as being the keys to success. Some of these include: project management knowledge (as defined by assorted methodologies), general management skills, leadership skills etc. Interestingly, there are studies that indicate there is virtually no correlation between performance and project management knowledge. Possibly as a consequence, the focus has shifted to management and leadership skills – i.e. the so-called “soft”, or people-related skills. In a recent paper entitled, The Role of Technology in the Project Manager Performance Model, published in the Project Management Journal, Vittal Anantatmula develops a performance model based on people-related factors identified from the literature. He also looks at the role of technology tools in supporting project manager performance. This post presents a summary and a review of the paper.
To begin with, the author describes his main objectives as the following:
- To identify a set of people related factors that influence project success, and to find relationships between these.
- To develop a performance model based on relationships between the factors.
- Based on the model, to identify areas where technology can support project manager performance.
As a background for his work, the author presents a detailed, literature-based discussion on the relationship between technology and project management, and on the role of project managers vis-a-vis the project team. Due to limitations of space, I will not go into this here – referring the interested reader to the original paper for more. My focus is purely on the research itself – i.e. the identification of factors, development of the model and the role of technology in project manager performance. That in itself is going to add up to a pretty hefty word count.
From a review of existing project management literature, the author identifies the following set of people-related factors which influence a project manager’s performance.
- Create clarity in communications: One of the major responsibilities of a project manager is to facilitate clear communications between all stakeholders, particularly at the early stages of the project.
- Define roles and project management processes: A clear definition of roles and responsibilities within the project team is important for project success. The roles should cover the entire gamut of project-related activities, but should avoid overlapping responsibilities. Further, unambiguous definition of project management processes adds clarity by ensuring team members know how the project will be run.
- Communicate expectations: This refers to the need to define and establish expectations regarding project objectives, particularly with customers and end-users.
- Employ consistent processes: The use of formal processes reduces project risks and ensures that a project progresses through a well-defined path. The trick here is to understand and implement only those processes that are really necessary and add value.
- Establish trust: Project team members have to develop a sense of trust in each other. This is critical for sharing knowledge and for working together as a team. Although not often acknowledged, this depends on nebulous factors such as organisational culture which are not in the project manager’s control.
- Facilitate support: This refers to the need to obtain organisational support for the support for the project, particularly from senior management. This is a critical function of a project manager.
- Manage outcomes: A project should deliver all that has been laid out in the objectives. As mentioned in the first line of this post, a project manager is often judged on the basis of how well the project meets its objectives. Managing outcomes is thus an important function of a project manager.
In my opinion this list is somewhat arbitrary because:
- It includes factors that aren’t people related (e.g. employ consistent processes) .
- It misses important factors such as team motivation (see this paper, for example). There are probably good reasons for this- one being that such factors are hard to quantify. However, a comprehensive performance model should attempt to incorporate these in some fashion.
- The author has selected a set of factors with no justification other than that they appear in the literature. Now, there are several other people-related factors that have been studied over the years. So, why were these seven factors chosen over others?
Having identified the above factors, the author develops a performance model using Interpretive Structural Modelling (ISM). ISM enables one to prioritise factors (i.e. rank them in order of importance) and also develop causal relationships between them, based on data collected from a population of respondents. ISM is derived from the technique of pairwise comparison. For each possible pair of factors in the list above, respondents were asked about the relationship between factors in a pair. Specifically, they were asked to choose from one of the following options:
- Does the first factor influence the second?
- Does second factor influence the first?
- Do both factors influence each other?
- Are the factors unrelated (no influence either way) ?
Based on responses received from 54 respondents, the author developed a model using ISM. The resulting model is depicted as a directed graph below (note: the diagram has been adapted from the paper)
The arrows are to be interpreted as “leads to” (or causal) relationships – i.e the factor at the starting point of the arrow leads to the factor at the end. The numbers next to each factor denote its priority – i.e. how important the factor is, according to the survey respondents. A low priority does not imply that a factor is unimportant, as the factor could be the result of other, more important, factors (a case in point is the low priority accorded to “Manage Outcomes”). I describe the model below, along with some critical comments.
As shown in the diagram, survey respondents attached the highest priority to defining project roles and processes. This is a prerequisite for smooth running of the project. Roles and responsibilities relate to individual team members, and processes relate to what needs to be done in the project. The project will run in an ad-hoc fashion if these aren’t spelt out early in the game. Definition of processes is a precursor to employing them in a consistent manner (bottom portion of diagram). Further, according to the model, clear definition of roles and processes helps the project manager identify and facilitate the required organisational support required for project success. For example, if one knows the skills required on the team, one can set about negotiating with management to get the right people on the team. In my opinion, facilitating organisational support depends on a whole lot more than the use of consistent processes. In fact, one could well have a situation where the organisation uses consistent processes, yet functional managers stonewall when it comes to making resources available for a project. Not an uncommon situation, I think.
The upper portion of the diagram consists of “softer” factors that are hard to quantify. As per the model, one needs to have a clear idea of roles, processes and requirements before one can communicate expectations. Role and process definition is necessary in that it tells the project manager what needs to be communicated. However, it does not say anything about how clear communication can be achieved. Effective communication involves a whole lot more than a knowledge of roles, processes and all that formal stuff. Because the factors enabling effective communication are so hard to pin down, methodology-focused studies (such as the present one) tend to take a very blinkered view. The author states, “…By defining roles and processes, the project manager can establish expectations from stakeholders but also predictability and openness in communication…” In my opinion, this claim (which is stated without any supporting arguments) is, at best, only partially true. Definition of roles and processes does not of itself lead to open and predictable communication. The latter has more to do with to communication skills (at the level of the individual project manager) and organisational culture (at the level of the organisation), both of which aren’t included in the study.
According to the model, managing outcomes depends on all the factor that precede it (excepting establishing trust). That seems logical enough. The author states that other studies on the relationship between trust and performance in collaborative environments also back this claim.
For reasons outlined above, I believe the model is simplistic, and should be viewed as an initial attempt at modelling project manager performance. As such, it cannot be used as a basis to improve project manager performance. Specific criticisms of the model include:
- The limited number of factors used and the arbitrary choice of these. The author bases his choice of factors on a subjective literature review – there is no good reason offered for why these factors were chosen over others.
- Despite the explanations offered in the paper (and, one assumes, the survey), the meaning of each of the factors is open to interpretation. This begs the question: can one be certain that all (or a majority of) survey respondents interpreted every factor in the manner intended by the author?
- The choice of modeling technique. ISM is a relatively simplistic technique that is based on the method of paired comparison. As such it shares some of the limitations of that method. As another example, ISM can handle only static relationships (i.e. those that do not change in time). However, people-related factors are far from static.
- The causal relationships inferred from the data are based on subjective opinions of a limited number of respondents.
After describing the model, the author turns to a rambling discussion on the role of technology in supporting project manager performance. As far as I can tell, the main point he makes is that technology tools can be divided into two categories: those supporting communication, and those facilitating decision making. The former, which includes technologies such as Internet/Intranet, video conferencing etc., support factors shown in the upper half of the diagram; whereas the latter, which includes tools such as databases, knowledge repositories, project management software etc., support those in the lower part of the diagram. As far as I can tell, there’s not much new in the discussion – the specific supporting roles of individual tools that the author discusses are already well known to practising project managers.
This brings me to the end of my (not so brief!) summary of the paper. Some closing remarks are probably in order. In the concluding section the author states, “The project manager performance model developed in this research effort – showing the dependency relations among important critical factors – can be used as a template for managing projects effectively by integrating technology systems and tools.” I have my reservations about this claim. As discussed above, the model is not detailed or comprehensive enough to be used as a template for managing projects. Having said that, I acknowledge that developing a performance model is a difficult task because of the multitude of factors involved and the complex interrelationships between them. As the author suggests, an extensive study involving more factors and respondents is needed in order to arrive at a comprehensive model of project manager performance. The one presented in this paper may be considered, at best, a small step in the right direction.
Anantatmula, Vittal S., The Role of Technology in the Project Manager Performance Model, Project Management Journal, 39 (1), 34-48. (2008).