On the emotions evoked by project management artefacts
The day-to-day practice of project management involves the use of several artefacts: from the ubiquitous Gantt chart to the less commonly used trend chart. It is of interest to understand the practical utility of these artefacts; consequently there is a fair bit of published work devoted to answering questions such as “What percentage of project managers use this artefact?”, “How and why do they use it?” etc. (see this paper review, for example). Such questions address the cognitive aspects of these artefacts – the logic, reasoning and thought processes behind their use. There is a less well understood side to the use of the artefacts: the affective or emotional one; the yin to the yang of the cognitive or logical side. A paper by Jon Whitty entitled, Project management artefacts and the affective emotions they evoke, (to appear in the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business in 2010) looks into the emotional affects (on practitioners) caused by (the use of) project management artefacts (see the note in the following paragraph for more on the term affect). This post presents an annotated summary of the paper.
[Note on the difference between affect and emotion. As I understand it, the term affect refers to automatic emotional responses which may amount to no more than a quick feeling of something being good or bad. This is in contrast to a full-blown emotion in which feelings are more intense. Unlike emotions, affective responses occur within a fraction of a second and may dissipate just as quickly. Furthermore, affect lacks the range and variety of conscious emotions.]
Like some of Whitty’s previous work, the paper presents an unusual – dare I say, challenging – perspective on the reasons why project managers use artefacts. I use the word “challenging” here in the sense of “questioning the rationale behind their use”, not in the sense of “difficulty.” To put the work in a wider context, it builds on the evolutionary view of project management advanced by Whitty and Schulz in an earlier paper. The evolutionary view holds that project management practices and principles give organisations (and hence individual project managers) certain survival advantages. The current paper studies how project management artefacts – through the emotions they evoke in project managers – “create” behaviours that “cause” project managers to sustain and propagate the practice of project management within their organisations.
Whitty begins by framing two hypotheses which serve to outline the objectives of his study. They are:
- Project managers obtain an emotional affect from aspects of the project management experiences.
- Project managers use the emotional affects of project management artefacts to increase their competitive advantage.
The first examines whether project managers’ behaviours are driven by the experience of managing projects; the second examines whether project managers – through their use of artefacts – manipulate their environment to their advantage. The paper “tests” these hypotheses empirically (the reason for the enclosing quotes will become clearer later), and also examines some implications of the results.
The paper contains an extensive review of the literature on the evolutionary view of project management and emotions / affect. I found the review very useful; not only did it help me appreciate the context of the research, it also gave me some new insights into professional practice. I summarise the review below, so you can judge for yourself.
In their paper entitled, The PM_BOK Code, Whitty and Schulz argue that, in order to survive in an organisational environment, project managers are driven to put on a performance – much like stage actors – of managing projects. They recite lines (use project management terminology, deliver status reports) and use props (project management artefacts) before an audience of stakeholders ranging from senior sponsors to team members.
Subscribing to, and practising the ideals of, project management enables practitioners to gain a competitive advantage in the organisational jungle. One aim of the paper is to clarify the role of artefacts in the evolutionary framework: specifically, how does the use of artefacts confer survival benefits, and what affects evoked in practitioners (who are using artefacts) cause the artefacts themselves to be passed on (i.e. survive).
As far as emotion or affect is concerned, Whitty mentions that much of the work done to date focuses on the management of positive and negative emotions (felt by both the project manager and the team) so as to achieve a successful project outcome. And although there is a significant body of work on the effectiveness of project management artefacts, there is virtually nothing on the emotional affect of artefacts as they are being used. Nevertheless, research in other areas suggests a strong connection between the creation/ use of artefacts, emotions evoked and the consequences thereof. An example is the affective response evoked by building architecture in a person and the consequent effect on the person’s mood. Changes in mood in turn might predispose the person to certain ideals and values. Although the emotional response caused by artefacts has been studied in other organisational contexts, it has not been done heretofore in project management. For this reason alone, this paper merits attention from project management practitioners.
Unlike research into the utility of artefacts – where an objective definition of utility is possible – any questions relating to the emotions evoked by artefacts can only be answered subjectively: I can tell you how I feel when I do something, you may even be able to tell how I feel by observing me, but you can never feel what I feel. Hence the only possible approach to answering such questions is a phenomenological one – i.e. attempting to understand reality as seen by others through their perceptions and subjective experience. Whitty uses an approach based on empirical phenomenology – a research methodology that aims to produce accurate descriptions of human experience through observation of behaviour.
[Note on phenomenological approaches to management research: There are two phenomenological research methods in management: hermeneutic and empirical. The empirical approach follows fairly strict data collection and analytical methods whereas the hermeneutic approach is less prescriptive about techniques used . Another difference between the two is that the hermeneutic approach uses a range of sources including literary texts (since these are considered to reflect human experience) whereas empirical phenomenology is based on the analysis of factual data only. In essence the latter is closer to being a scientific/analytical approach to studying human experience than the former. See the very interesting paper – Revisiting Phenomenology: its potential for management research – by Lisa Ehrich for more.]
For his study, Whitty selected a group of about 50 project managers drawn from the ranks of professional bodies. The participants were asked to answer questions regarding what project management tools they enjoyed using, the emotions elicited by these tools and how they would feel if they weren’t allowed to use them. Additionally, they were also asked to imagine their ideal project management tool / process. Based on the answers provided, Whitty selected a small number of subjects for detailed, face-to-face interviews. The interviews probed for details on the responses provided in the survey. Audio and videotapes of the interviews were analysed to understand what the use of each artefact meant to the user, what emotions were evoked during its use and common gestures used while working with these tools – with the aim of understanding the essence of the experience of using a particular tool or process.
Whitty acknowledges some limitations of his approach, most of which are common to organisational studies. Some of these include: problems with self-reported data, limited (and potentially non-representative) sample size. I have discussed some of these limitations in my posts on the role of social desirability bias and the abuse of statistics in project management research.
From his analysis, Whitty found that eleven artefacts came up more often than others. These could be divided into conceptual and tangible artefacts. The former includes the following:
- Professional persona of a project manager
The latter includes:
- Gantt Chart
- Iron Triangle
- Project management post-nominals (certifications, degrees, titles)
- PMBOK Guide & Project management methodologies
- Professional bodies
The paper contains detailed descriptions of the results, including interesting comments by the participants. I can do no better than refer the reader to the original paper for these. Here, in the interests of space, I’ll present only a selection of the artefacts analysed, relying heavily on quotations from the paper. My choice is based entirely on the items and interpretations that I found particularly striking.
From the responses received, Whitty concludes that:
Projects appear to be emotionally perceived as though they are composed of two opposing forces or elements which were not as dichotomistic as good and bad. Rather, these forces are more complementary or completing aspects of the one phenomenon such as in the concept of Yin – Yang, though this term was only mentioned by one participants. All of the participants described the most difficult parts of their roles as “challenges”, and felt they gained a sense of achievement and learning from their projects.
Participants described the experience of managing a project in terms of a duality between thrill and excitement, even fear and personal satisfaction…Furthermore, many believed in some sort of karmic effect where the benefits of a good work ethic today would be paid back in future project success.
When asked about the concept of a team, most of the respondents felt that there was a sense of mutual commitment between the project manager and team, but not necessarily one of mutual responsibility. One project manager said, “If they (the team) shine I shine, but if it all goes wrong I take the heat.”
On the other hand, most respondents seemed to be appreciative of their teams. Many used the gesture of a circle (tracing out a circle with a finger, for example) when talking about their teams. Whitty writes,
…As an expression of emotion the circle gesture has a limitless or boundless aspect with no beginning, no end, and no division. It symbolises wholeness and completeness, and it is possibly used by project managers to express their feelings of mutual commitment and fidelity to the team and the project.
Despite the general feeling that the project manager takes the blame if things go wrong, most respondents thought that there was a strong mutual committment between the team and project manager.
Project Manager Persona
This one is very interesting. When asked to describe what a successful project manager would look like, some responses were, “mid 20s to mid 40s”, “businesslike”, “must wear a business suit”, “confident and assertive”. Some commented on how they personally and actively used the persona. On the other hand, Whitty states,
There appears to be a tension or anxiety when creating and maintaining the façade of control…
He also suggests a metaphor for the persona:
…that beneath the external impression of the graceful swan are furiously paddling legs…
I think that’s an absolutely marvellous characterisation of a project manager under stress.
The Gantt Chart is perhaps the most well-known (and over-exposed) tangible project management artefact. For this reason alone, it is interesting to look into the emotional responses evoked by it. To quote from the paper,
It seems that project managers cannot talk about PM without mentioning the Gantt chart. Project managers appear to be compelled to make them to create and maintain their professional persona.
On the other hand,
Though the Gantt chart is closely associated with PM, many participants regarded this association as a burden…Even though project managers feel frustration that they are expected, even forced to use Gantt charts, they also manipulate this situation to their advantage and use Gantt charts to placate senior management and clients.
Stress and hopefulness appear to be two emotions linked with Gantt Charts (duality again!). One participant said “the Gantt charts you’re showing me don’t mean anything to me I feel pretty neutral about them. But my Gantt charts can really stress me out.” And another, “When I look at it (the Gantt chart) all finished, (heavy sigh) I suppose I’m hoping that’s how it will all turn out…”
As I see it, the Gantt chart – much like the PERT chart – is used more to manage management than to manage projects, and hence the mixed emotions evoked by its use.
Work Breakdown Structure
Whitty mentions that over two-thirds of the participants said they used WBS in one form or another. He states,
All participants view work in packets or as bounded objects. As one put it, “I like to break the work down into nice crisp chunks, and then connect them all up together again.” This behaviour support Gestalt theories that in order to interpret what we receive through our senses we attempt to organize information into certain groups which include: similarity, proximity, continuity, and closure….
Through his reference to Gestalt theories, Whitty suggests that breaking the project up into chunks of work and then putting it back together again helps the project manager grok the project – i.e. understand the interconnections between project elements and the totality of the project in a deep way. A little later he states,
Many experience satisfaction, contentment, even a sense of control from the WBS process.
I can’t help but wonder – does the popularity of the tool stem, at least in part, from its ability to evoke positive affect?
PMBOK Guide and Methodologies
Based on the responses received, Whitty mentions,
It is apparent that some PM methodologies are PM artefacts in themselves and are used as currency to gain a competitive advantage.”
Yet the profession appears to be divided about the utility of methodologies,
All the participants were aware of the PMBOK® Guide, and all of them utilised a PM methodology of some sort, whether it were an off-the-shelf brand or a company-grown product. Participants appeared to be either for or against PM methodologies, some even crossed over the dividing line mid-sentence (!)
Another theme that arose is that methodologies are “something to hide behind” should things go wrong: “Don’t blame me, I did things by the Book.” Methodologies thus offer two side benefits (apart from the man one of improving chances of project success!): they help “certify” to a project manager’s competence and act as a buffer if things go wrong.
Whitty concludes that the data supports his hypothesis that project managers obtain an emotional affect from aspects of project management experience. In his words:
This study has shown that project managers are drawn to project work. The participants in this study forage for projects because they can obtain or experience an emotional affect or more informally stated a favourable emotional fix from the challenge they present…. they are stimulated by the challenges the construct of a project has to offer. Furthermore, they appear to be fairly sure they can handle these challenges with their existing skill and abilities…
The data also suggests that despite the dominant deterministic approach to project management, project managers also,
…operate under the cognitive logic of yin-yang. They conceptualise the emotional experience of managing a project in terms of two possible states or statuses of events that ebb and flow; one state gradually transforming into the other state along a time dimension. What is also interesting is that these project managers find it necessary to conceal this behaviour for survival reasons.
The data also supports the second hypothesis: that project managers use the emotional affects of the project management experience to increase their competitive advantage. This is clear, for example, from the discussions of the Project Manager Persona, Gantt Chart and methodologies.
This is an important study because it has implications for how project management is taught, practised and researched. For example, most project management courses teach tools and techniques – such as Gantt Charts – with the implicit assumption that using them will improve chances of project success. However, from this research it is clear, and I quote
…some practitioners create Gantt charts because they enjoy the Gantt charting process, and some create them to placate others and/or to be viewed favourably by others. It is simply not clear how Gantt charts or the scheduling process in general contributes to the overall performance of a project…
Using this as an example, Whitty makes a plea for an objective justification of project management practices. It’s just not good enough to say we must use something because so-and-so methodology says so (see my piece entitled, A PERT myth, for another example of a tool that, though well entrenched, has questionable utility). The research also indicates that a project manager’s behaviours are influenced by the physical and cultural environment in which he or she operates: some practices are followed because they give the project manager a sense of control; others because they help gain a competitive advantage. Whitty suggests that senior managers would get more out of their project managers if they understood how project managers are affected by their environment. Further, he recommends that project managers should be encouraged to adopt only those techniques, practices and norms that are demonstrably useful. Those that aren’t should be abandoned.
So what are the implications for profession? In a nutshell: it is to think critically about the way we manage projects. Practices recommended by a particular methodology or authority are sometimes followed without critical analysis or introspection. So the next time you invoke a tool, technique or practice – stop for a minute and reflect on what you’re doing and why. An honest answer may hold some surprises.