Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Cooperation versus self-interest: the theory of collective action and its relevance to project management

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Conventional wisdom deems that any organizational activity involving  several people has to be closely supervised to prevent it from dissolving into chaos and anarchy. The assumption underlying this view is that individuals involved in the activity will,  if left unsupervised,  make decisions based on self interest rather than the common good, and hence will invariably make the wrong decision as far as the collective enterprise is concerned. This assumption finds justification in rational choice theory, which predicts that individuals will act in ways that maximize their personal benefit without any regard to the common good. This view is exemplified in the so-called Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals who have access to a common resource over-exploit it in their pursuit of personal gain, and thus end up depleting the resource completely.  Fortunately, this view is demonstrably incorrect: the work of Elinor Ostrom, one of the 2009 Nobel prize winners for Economics, shows that, given the right conditions, groups can work towards the common good even if it means forgoing personal gains. This post is a brief look into Ostrom’s work and the insights it offers into the theory and practice of project management.

Background: rationality, bounded rationality and theories of choice

Classical economics assumes that individuals’ actions are driven by rational self-interest – i.e. the well-known “what’s in it for me” factor (this is one of the assumptions of rational choice theory).  So, in a situation where an individual has access to a resource that is also available to others, classical economics predicts that the individual will aim to maximize his or her benefit without any regard to the common good. Clearly, the group will achieve much better results as a whole if it were to exploit the resource in a cooperative way. There are several real-world examples where such cooperative behaviour has been successful in achieving outcomes for the common good (see this paper for some). However, according to classical economic theory, such cooperative behaviour is simply not possible.

So, what’s wrong with rational choice theory?

A couple of things, at least:

Firstly, implicit in rational choice theory is the assumption that individuals can figure out the best choice in any given situation.  This is obviously incorrect. As Ostrom has stated in one of her papers:

Because individuals are boundedly rational, they do not calculate a complete set of strategies for every situation they face. Few situations in life generate information about all potential actions that one can take, all outcomes that can be obtained, and all strategies that others can take.

Instead, they use heuristics (experienced-based methods), norms (value-based techniques) and rules (mutually agreed regulations) to arrive at “good enough” decisions.  Note that Ostrom makes a distinction between norms and rules, the former being implicit (unstated) rules, which are determined by the cultural attitudes and values)

Secondly, rational choice theory assumes that humans behave as self-centered, short-term maximisers. Such theories – which assume that humans act solely out of self interest – work in competitive situations (such as the stock-market) but do not work in situations in which collective action is called for.

Ostrom’s work essentially addresses the shortcomings of rational choice theory.

A behavioural approach

Ostrom’s work looks at how groups act collectively to solve social dilemmas such as the one implicit in the tragedy of the commons. To quote from this post by Umair Haque:

…Ostrom’s work is concerned, fundamentally, with challenging Garret Hardin’s famous, Tragedy of the Commons [Note: Hardin’s article can be accessed here], itself a living expression of neoclassical thinking. Ostrom suggests that far from a tragedy, the commons can be managed from the bottom-up for a shared prosperity — given the right institutions….

In a paper entitled, A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action, published in 1998, Ostrom states that:

…much of our current public policy analysis is based on an assumption that rational individuals are helplessly trapped in social dilemmas from which they cannot extract themselves without inducement or sanctions applied from the outside. Many policies based on this assumption have been subject to major failure and have exacerbated the very problems they were in-tended to ameliorate. Policies based on the assumptions that individuals can learn how to devise well-tailored rules and cooperate conditionally when they participate in the design of institutions affecting them are more successful in the field…[Note:  see this book by Baland and Platteau, for example]

Rational choice works well in highly competitive situations such as the stock market, where personal gain is the whole aim of the game. However, it does not work in situations that demand collective action – and Ostrom presents some very general evidence to back this claim.

More interesting than the refutation of rational choice theory, though, is Ostrom’s discussion of the ways in which individuals “trapped” in social dilemmas end up making the right choices. In particular she singles out two empirically grounded ways in which individuals work towards outcomes that are much better than those offered by rational choice theory. These are:

Communication: In the rational view, communication makes no difference to the outcome.  That is, even if individuals make promises and commitments to each other (through communication), they will invariably break these for the sake of personal gain …or so the theory goes. In real life, however, it has been found that opportunities for communication significantly raise the cooperation rate in collective efforts (see this paper abstract or this one, for example). Moreover, research shows that face-to-face is far superior to any other form of communication, and that the main benefit achieved through communication is exchanging mutual commitment (“I promise to do this if you’ll promise to do that”) and increasing trust between individuals. It is interesting that the main role of communication is to enhance the relationship between individuals rather than to transfer information.

Innovative Governance:  Communication by itself may not be enough; there must be consequences for those who break promises and commitments. Accordingly, cooperation can be encouraged by implementing mutually accepted rules for individual conduct, and imposing sanctions on those who violate them. This effectively amounts to designing and implementing novel governance structures for the activity. Note that this must be done by the group; rules thrust upon the group by an external authority are unlikely to work.

Ostrom also identifies three core relationships that promote cooperation. These are:

Reciprocity: this refers to a family of strategies that are based on the expectation that people will respond to each other in kind – i.e. that they will do unto others as others do unto them.  In group situations, reciprocity can be a very effective means to promote and sustain cooperative behaviour.

Reputation: This refers to the general view of others towards a person. As such, reputation is a part of how others perceive a person, so it forms a part of the identity of the person in question. In situations demanding collective action, people might make judgements on a person’s reliability and trustworthiness based on his or her reputation.

Trust: Trust refers to expectations regarding others’ responses in situations where one has to act before others. Clearly, trust is an important factor in situations where others have to rely on others to do the right thing.

She describes reciprocity, reputation and trust as being central to a behavioural explanation of collective action:

…Thus, at the core of a behavioral explanation (of cooperative action) are the links between the trust that individuals have in others, the investment others make in trustworthy reputations, and the probability that participants will use reciprocity norms…

According to Ostrom, face-to-face communication and innovative governance can change the structure of dysfunctional collective situations by providing those involved with opportunities to enhance these core relationships. On the flip side, heavy-handed interventions and increased competition between individuals will to reduce them.

Implications for the practice of project management

Projects are temporary organisations set up in order to achieve specified objectives. Achieving these objectives typically requires collective and coordinated action.  Although project team members work within more or less structured (and often rigid) environments, how individuals work and interact with others on the team is still largely a matter of personal choice.  It is thus reasonable to expect that some aspects of theories of choice will be relevant to project situations.

The importance of communication in projects cannot be overstated. Many project failures can be attributed to a breakdown of communication, particularly at project interfaces (see my post on obstacles to project communication for more on this), Ostrom’s work reiterates the importance of communication, specifically emphasizing the need for face-to-face interactions. From experience I can vouch for the efficacy of face-to-face communication in defusing crises and clearing up misunderstandings.

In most project environments, governance is imposed by management. Most organisations have follow methodologies which have excruciatingly detailed prescriptions on how projects should be controlled and managed. Ostrom’s work suggests that a “light hand on the tiller” may work better. Such a view is supported by research in organisational theory (see my post on project management in post-bureaucratic organisations for example).  If a particular project control doesn’t work well or is too intrusive, change it. Better yet, seek the team’s input on what changes should be made. In fact, most methodologies give practitioners the latitude to customize processes to suit their environments. Unfortunately many organisations fail to take advantage of this flexibility, and consequently many project managers come to believe that control-oriented governance is the be all and end all of their job descriptions. Is it any wonder that project teams often complain about unnecessary bureaucracy getting in the way of work?

Finally, it isn’t hard to argue that the core relationships of reciprocity, reputation and trust would serve project teams just as well as they do other collectives. Teams in which individuals help each other (reciprocity), are aware of each others’ strengths (reputation) and know that they can rely on others if they need to (trust), not only have a better chance of success, but also make for a less stressful work environment. Unfortunately these relationships have long been dismissed by project rationalists as “warm and fuzzy” fluff, but perhaps the recognition of these in mainstream economic thought will  change that.

Concluding remarks

Classical theories of choice are based on the assumption that those making choices are rational and that they make decisions based on narrow self interest. These theories, which assume the best (rationality) and worst (self-interest) in humans, invariably yield pessimistic predictions when applied to situations that demand collective action. This is often used to justify external interventions aimed at imposing rules and enforcing cooperation, thus perpetuating a pessimistic view of the rational but selfish individual.  Ostrom’s work – which uses a mix of fieldwork, experiment, model building and theorizing –  highlights the flaws in theory of rational choice,  and shows how cooperative action is indeed possible, providing certain important relationships are fostered through internal communication and governance. Externally imposed edicts, rules and structures are largely unnecessary, and may even be counterproductive.

Projects are essentially cooperative endeavours. Given this, it is reasonable to expect that many of Ostrom’s insights into the conditions required for individuals to cooperate should apply to project environments.  My main aim in this post was to describe some elements of Ostrom’s prize-winning work and how they apply to project management. I hope that the points I’ve made are plausible, if not wholly convincing. And even if they aren’t, I hope this post has got you thinking about ways to increase cooperation within your project team.

Written by K

December 2, 2009 at 10:09 pm

6 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by rharbridge, David Harvey. David Harvey said: Good summary of 2009 Nobel winner Elinor Ostrum's ideas on the failings of the "Rational Choice" model: http://bit.ly/8GHLMp […]


  2. […] This post, from Eight to Late relates Elinor Ostrom’s work to project management and I found it an enjoyable read. […]


  3. […] by face-to-face communication and organisational rules/ norms that promote openness. See my post on Ostrom’s work and its relevance to project management for more on […]


  4. […] Cooperation versus self-interest: the theory of collective action and its relevance to project&nbsp… Introduction Conventional wisdom deems that any organizational activity involving  several people has to be closely supervised to prevent it from dissolving into chaos and anarchy. The assumptio… Source: eight2late.wordpress.com […]


  5. […] winning work established that trust is one of the core relationships that promote cooperation (see this post for more on this point). In situations of uncertainty, those who work in a high-trust environment […]


  6. […] of this article are lightly edited sections from a 2009 article that I wrote on Ostrom’s work and its relevance to project […]


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