Project management in the post-bureaucratic organisation
Over the last two decades or so, it has been recognized that creativity and innovation tend to thrive in organisations where employees have a say in decisions that affect their work. This has lead to the notion of a post-bureaucratic organisation – an organisation in which decisions are made collectively through dialogue and consensus, and where the hierarchy is flat. Although a number of workgroups within large organizations function this way (and with some success too), a post-bureaucratic organisation is generally seen as a utopian and academic ideal; one that is unlikely to work in the real world. Those who manage organizations, departments or workgroups are generally uncomfortable with employees working autonomously, even though this might lead to the generation of novel ideas and products. This is understandable: it is ultimately the responsibility of managers to ensure that organisational or departmental goals are achieved. How else to do this but through the time-tested command and control approach to management?
In response to the question posed above, project management is often touted as a means to manage creative and innovative efforts in organisations (see some of the articles in this issue of PM Network, for example). The claim seems a reasonable one: project management (by definition) provides a means to manage collective, goal oriented endeavours. Further, many projects – especially those involving new product or software development – have a creative/innovative component. In practice, though, project management tends to be a bureaucratic affair; involving plans that must be followed, schedules that must be adhered to and regular progress reports that must be made. Even so (or perhaps, because this is so) many organizations see project management as a means to manage all creative work in a post-bureaucratic setting. Implicit in this view is the assumption that the implementation of project management processes will enable managers to control and direct creative work without any adverse side-effects. An article by Damian Hodgson entitled Project Work: The Legacy of Bureaucratic Control in the Post-Bureaucratic Organisation, explores the tensions and contradictions presented by this notion. Although the article was written a while ago (in 2003), I believe the ideas explored in it are ever more relevant today, particularly in view of the increasing projectisation of organisations and the work carried out within them. Hence my motivation to summarise and review the paper.
Background – setting the stage
To be fair, many organizations recognise that a “light hand on the rudder” is needed in order to encourage creativity and innovation. In these organisations, project management is often seen as a means to achieve this. But how well does it work in practice? Hodgson’s paper aims to provide some insight into this question via a case study of an organization in which a project-based form of management was implemented as a means to balance the requirements of creativity and control. In his words:
In response to the challenges of the post-bureaucratic form, project management has been put forward by many as a ‘tried-and-tested’ package of techniques able to cope with discontinuous work, expert labour and continuous and unpredictable change while delivering the levels of reliability and control of the traditional bureaucracy. In this article I explore some of the contradictions and tensions within a department where such a ‘hybrid’ mode of control is implemented, embodying both bureaucratic and post-bureaucratic logics. In particular, I focus upon the discursive tactics employed to sell ‘rebureaucratization’ as ‘debureaucratization’, and the complex employee responses to this initiative. I argue that the tensions evident here cast significant doubt on the feasibility of a seamless integration of bureaucracy and the post-bureaucratic [organization].
The “discursive tactics” that Hodgson mentions to are (seemingly reasonable and rational) arguments that an organization might use to “sell” the idea that the methods and approaches of project management are consistent with the ideals of a post-bureaucratic organization. An example of such an argument goes as follows: project management is routinely used to manage new product development projects, so it is eminently suited to managing creative work (Incidentally, this isn’t quite right – see this paper review for more on why)
Post bureaucracy vs. bureaucracy
Before moving on, it is worth comparing the characteristics of bureaucratic and post-bureaucratic organizations. Hodgson provides the following comparison, based on the work of Charles Hekscher:
|Consensus through Acquiescence to Authority||Consensus through Institutionalized Dialogue|
|Influence based on Formal Position||Influence through Persuasion/PersonalQualities|
|Internal Trust Immaterial||High Need for Internal Trust|
|Emphasis on Rules and Regulations||Emphasis on Organizational Mission|
|Information Monopolised at Top of Hierarchy||Strategic Information shared in Organization|
|Focus on Rules for Conduct||Focus on Principles Guiding Action|
|Fixed (and Clear) Decision Making Processes||Fluid/Flexible Decision Making Processes|
|Network of Specialized FunctionalRelationships||Communal Spirit/Friendship Groupings|
|Hierarchical Appraisal||Open and Visible Peer Review Processes|
|Definite and Impermeable Boundaries||Open and Permeable Boundaries|
|Objective Rules to ensure Equity of Treatment||Broad Public Standards of Performance|
|Expectation of Constancy||Expectation of Change|
The aim of the case study is to highlight some of the inconsistencies and contradictions that result from applying a bureaucratic mechanism (project management) to manage the work of a group that was very good at doing creative work, but was used to a more free-wheeling, hands-off management style (i.e. a group which approximates the idealised post-bureaucratic environment described above).
Why project management?
Project management has its roots in classical management (ala Taylor and Fayol), so it is perhaps surprising that it is considered as a means to manage work in a post-bureaucratic setting. In Hodgson’s words:
I would argue that what distinguishes project management as of particular relevance to 21stcentury organizations is its rediscovery of a very 19th-century preoccupation with comprehensive planning, linked to a belief in the necessity of tight managerial discipline.
Project management tools and techniques support managerial discipline by providing means to decompose the project into manageable bits – by using a WBS say – and then assigning these bits to individuals (or small teams). The work assigned can then be tracked and controlled tightly – which is a good thing. If the matter rested there it wouldn’t be too bad, but very often management also prescibes how the work should be done. This level of control results in a loss of autonomy (and motivation) for team members whose job it is to do the work. The loss of motivation can have negative effects, especially in projects with a large creative component. To counter this criticism, in recent years project management has started to focus on the creative aspects of projects – what’s needed to motivate teams, how to foster creativity (in new product development work, say) etc. As Hodgson puts it,
The linking of project management and change management has increased project management’s influence across industries, such that now the largest professional organization in project management includes special interest groups in areas as diverse as healthcare, retail, media, marketing, and hospitality. As a consequence the last decade has been a time of particularly rapid expansion for project management, as issues of change, knowledge management, and constant innovation emerged as central themes in popular management discourse.
So, project management offers two (seemingly contradictory) benefits: the ability to maintain tight control of work and the ability to foster innovation and creativity:
…project management can be seen as an essentially bureaucratic system of control, based on the principles of visibility, predictability and accountability, and operationalized through the adherence to formalized procedure and constant written reporting mechanisms. At the same time, however, project management draws upon the rhetoric of empowerment, autonomy and self-reliance central… In principle, then, project management offers a system which attempts to integrate bureaucratic control and a form of responsible autonomy more in keeping with the interdisciplinary, knowledge-intensive nature of much project work in teams.
Seen in this light, it is perhaps not so surprising that project management is viewed as a means to manage creative work.
The case study
With the above background done, I now move on to a discussion of the case study. In Hodgson’s words, the study:
…focused upon a telephone bank in northern England which I have referred to under the pseudonym Buzzbank. In the late 1980s, Buzzbank had been set up by a major UK bank, which I will call TN Banking, and represented one of several success stories in the retail banking sector over this period. Through reduced overheads and the extensive use of new technology in the form of sophisticated marketing techniques and call-centre technology, Buzzbank had expanded rapidly in terms of market share and turnover, developing into a key component of TN Banking’s global operations. My interest in particular centred on Buzzbank senior management’s identification of project management as the prime ‘critical success factor’ for the organization; the development of project management expertise throughout the organization was seen as a key priority to maintain performance into the next decade. To an extent, the project teams researched could scarcely be more ‘cutting edge’, representing highly-trained ‘knowledge workers’ developing innovative high technology applications and solutions in a new sector of an enormously profitable industry
Hodgson conducted interviews and observed operations within the IT department of Buzzbank over a period of two years. During this period, the organization was implementing a “strategic plan” aimed at formalizing innovation and creative work using project management processes. The idea, in the words of a couple of senior IT managers was to “bring a level of discipline” and “bring an idea of professional structuring” to the work of the highly successful unit. The structuring and discipline was to be achieved by implementing project management processes.
The main rationale used to sell project management to the Buzzbank IT team is a familiar one: the need to ensure predictability and repeatability of work done whilst ensuring that innovation and creativity would not be impeded. Another justification offered by management was that the size of the organization (which had grown considerably in the years prior to the implementation of the strategic plan) meant that the existing “ad-hoc” work culture would no longer be successful. That is, the size of the organization necessitated a degree of formalization, ergo bureaucratic procedures had to be put in place. This was rationalised (by senior management) as a natural and inevitable consequence of growth:
…The organization was therefore portrayed by senior management in IT as approaching its ‘next stage of evolution’. The immediate benefit of such a metaphor for those members of senior management charged with rebureaucratizing the organization is that it carries a very strong sense of inevitability. As such, it casts opposition to such changes as irrational and futile, standing in the way of natural ‘evolution’.
Further, managers in the organization dubbed any employee resistance as “natural growing pains” – like those of an adolescent, say. Cast in this light, dissenting viewpoints were portrayed as natural and unavoidable – and possibly even necessary – but ultimately without any validity.
Another interesting aspect that Hodgson highlights is the way in which old practices (the successful but “bad” ones) were subsumed in the new (formal) framework. For example, in the old world, employees were given the freedom to experiment, and many considered this as a strength not a weakness. In the new world, however, such a practice was seen as a threat; it was considered more important to capture how to do things correctly so that things became repeatable (ala best practice) and experimentation would not be necessary. As one manager put it:
If we capture how we do things right, at least it makes things repeatable, and we can record the improvement required when things don’t go right, which doesn’t happen in a rapidly-expanding, gung-ho environment.
Hodgson notes that the terms rapidly-expanding and gung-ho, which are used in a negative sense, could just as well be cast in positive terms such as flexible, proactive etc. The point being that management framed the existing situation in terms that made the implementation of the new procedures seem like a logical and reasonable next step. The processes were touted as a means to achieve change (i.e. be flexible), but in a controlled way. So, management went to great lengths to avoid use of terms that would be perceived as being negative – for example, the term “structure” was used instead of “bureaucracy” or “formalization.” In this way, management attempted to assimilate the existing values of Buzzbank into the strategic plan.
So, how well did it work? Here’s what Hodgson says about the end result:
The impression given [by senior management] was that of an organizational change which was inevitable, which gave rise to some understandable but irrational resistance, and which had now been effectively completed, for the good of the organization as a whole.
On the other hand, the impression Hodgson got from speaking to lower level employees was very different:
However, in the time spent by myself in the organization, the tone and target of much of the humour, as well as much stronger reactions, appeared to throw doubt on the extent to which this discourse had permeated among the general employees, particularly within the IT department. Humour was commonplace in the everyday banter both within teams and between teams in the IT division at Buzzbank, and the increasing levels of bureaucratization was the butt of most of the humour, particularly at the lower levels of the hierarchy. The main experience of project management as reported by many Buzzbank employees was one of intensified bureaucratic surveillance…
A key example is the reaction of employees to managerial jargon that was used in company circulars and literature intended to promote the strategic plan.
Typically, comments were provoked by the circulation of literature on the strategic plan, and again, excerpts of the document were read out by members of staff, adding ironic comments to underline the gap between the document and their experience of life and work in the department.
Hodgson notes that employees often appeared to comply with the new regulations, but not in the way intended by management:
At other times, the employees appeared to comply with the formal requirements of the new system, in terms of filling in the necessary forms, reporting in at given times, completing the necessary work-logs and so on. Even here, despite the relative sophistication of senior management’s re-articulation of key discourses, compliance on the part of Buzzbank employees in many cases bore all the hallmarks of instrumental behaviour, accompanied by insubordinate statements and humour ranging from the cynical to the confrontational. At other times, assurances were given to senior management and immediately contravened, fictionalized accounts of project activities were submitted late, or else procedures were observed meticulously to the detriment of deadlines and other constraints. The emergent organizational order was a precarious negotiation between alienated compliance and an autonomous disregard for bureaucratic demands…
In short: there was a clear gap between the perceptions of management and employees as to the success of the newly implemented processes.
It is clear that Buzzbank managers saw project management as a means to control and direct creative / innovative work in a way that would have no negative effect on employee morale and motivation. The challenge, of course, lay in achieving employee buy-in. Management used many creative (!) tactics to “sell” project management to staff. These included:
- References to a “natural process of evolution” and the consequent “growing pains” that the organization would experience. This made the pain of the change natural and inevitable, but necessary in the interest of future gain.
- Manipulation of terminology to make the changes seem more palatable – e.g. using the word “structure” instead of “formalization” or “bureaucracy”.
- Co-opting terminology of post-bureaucratic organizations into literature designed to promote the new structure. For example, claiming that project management processes would enable the organization to be even more responsive to change (i.e. flexible), through change management processes.
From employees’ perspective, such techniques were plainly seen for what they were: methods to “sell the unsellable”. The negative reactions of employees were manifested through sarcastic humour and (often minor) acts of insubordination. The case study thus highlights the difficulties in using project management as a means to control work in a post-bureaucratic work environment.
Wrapping-up: reflections and summary
Hodgson sees the case study as exemplifying the problem of control vs. autonomy in emerging post-bureaucratic organizations: managers view project management as a means to address the risks inherent in post-bureaucratic work, whereas employees view it as a unnecessary and unjustified imposition. Management was looking for the “best of both worlds”, a hybrid model that incorporated the best elements of a post bureaucratic model and a traditional command and control approach. The case study casts doubt on whether such a hybrid is possible solely through the implementation standard project management techniques and processes. It does so by exposing some of the tensions and differences in perceptions that can occur when such a model is implemented.
So where does this leave managers? Is there a way to manage creative work without destroying employee morale and motivation?
Looking over the complaints of the Buzzbank employees, it is clear that most of the problems arose from the loss of autonomy that they had enjoyed prior to the implementation of the new processes. This being the case, any measure to increase autonomy should improve the situation. A couple of possibilities come to mind – both of which I have discussed in earlier pieces. These are:
- Empower employees to make decisions that affect their work. This means allowing them the freedom to decide the best approach to solving problems (within limits specified by organisational and resource constraints).
- In situations where (1) isn’t possible, one could use collaborative techniques such as dialogue mapping to achieve employee buy-in. Of course, management has to be prepared to engage in true dialogue, and be willing to act upon (reasonable) suggestions made by employees.
The key message is simple and obvious: the more of say employees have in making work-related decisions, the more engaged and motivated they’ll be. This is not just a warm and fuzzy notion, but one that is backed up by research on motivation (see this paper review, for example). Yes, this does mean letting go of the “reins of control” to an extent but it is clear, as highlighted by Hodgson’s work, that holding the reins tightly might cause more problems that it solves. What’s called for, above all, is a degree of flexibility: use project management processes by all means, but be open to employee input as to what’s working well and what’s not.
To sum up: Hodgson’s case study suggests that inflexible project management based approaches to managing creative work may not work as well as advertised by purveyors of frameworks and methodologies. As an alternative, it might be worth taking a step towards the utopian ideal of a post-bureaucratic organisation by using techniques that encourage employee input in organisational decision making.