Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

On the relationship between projects and project managers

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Introduction

Those who run projects often spend a large part of their waking hours working or thinking about work.  It is therefore no surprise that the self images and identities of such individuals are affected (if not defined) by their work roles.  In a sense, their identities are colonized (in the sense of “taken over” or “largely defined”) by the project and the larger, permanent organization which hosts the project. A paper entitled, Who is colonizing whom? Intertwined identities in product development projects,  by Thomas Andersson and Mikael Wickelgren explores this issue via a longitudinal case study that was carried out within new product development teams at Volvo. This post is a summary and review of the paper.

From the title of the paper it is evident that the identity issue is more than just a simple   “the project leader (or team’s) identity is defined by project work”  argument . Indeed, those who lead  product development projects  are themselves involved in creating at least three identities: those of the product, project and organization. Further, as I have pointed out in my post on project management in post-bureaucratic organizations, there are contradictions in the way in which project management operates. On the one hand it is seen as a means to direct innovative efforts (such as product development initiatives); on the other it is an essentially top-down,  bureaucratic means of control. Project teams often operate in such contradictory, tension-filled environments.  Although, most project leaders believe they work on projects by choice, it could be that the  not-so-subtle pressures of expectation and social/ professional norms force the choice upon them.

However, as the authors point out, identity construction isn’t enough to explain why folks are willing to work insane hours; there’s something more going on. Indeed there is research that supports the notion that employees identities are moulded  by organizations to suit organizational ends –  in other words, employees identities are colonized by organisations. Andersson and Wickelgren  suggest that the process of  colonization isn’t as straightforward as it seems because employees often actively seek demanding roles. So, who is colonizing whom? Both parties are complicit in the colonization process.  The main aim of the authors is to describe identity construction processes in project work with a focus on how, via the process  proving their competence in project work, project leaders form their  own self identities.

My review follows the format of the paper: I’ll begin  with an overview of the relevant conceptual and theoretical background and then get into the case study.

Identity construction in project management

Individual identities are defined by how people relate to (professional and social) situations. The process of identity construction is an ongoing process of making sense of situations from a personal perspective. An individual is typically subject to many different identities at an aggregate level – for example the professional identity of a project manager, the identity of a parent etc. These can be thought of as certain norms or ways in which people are expected to behave. Individuals identify with aspects of these roles and  act them out, thus  integrating them into  their own (self) identities. The point is that one’s professional identity is a part of one’s self identity.

The process of identity construction is a discursive one: i.e. it depends on how the situations in which the individual finds himself or herself unfold.  In this connection the authors mention two important concepts, identity work and identity regulation. The first is the ongoing process of identity formation (and reformation) through interaction with the situation at hand (which could be a project, say). The second refers to the norms and rules, or the ways in which people are expected to behave in situations (the explicit norms and rules of project management, for instance). It is clear that identity regulation – by laying down appropriate behaviours – can have a “colonizing effect” on people’s identities. The authors make the point that even identity work can have an implicit colonizing effect – an example would be where project leaders identify with their work to such an extent that they go above and beyond the call of duty.

The increasing projectisation of organisations means that many  individuals spend a large part of their work hours in a project environment. As such it is inevitable that this will affect their self-identity.  In a fascinating paper, Lindgren and Packendorff pointed out that there are certain commonly accepted ways of relating to and making sense of project situations.  For example – a project is seen as demanding higher levels of professionalism and loyalty than “normal” organizational work. Such norms constrain choices of those involved in projects. Once signed up, one has to behave in certain accepted ways. The authors make the point that there are very few empirical studies that look into how people handle such a “projectified reality.”

Several researchers have recognized the paradoxical nature of project work. Project-based management is touted as a means to loosen the hold of bureaucratic management structures. However, project management in practice tends to be riddled with (pointless?) bureaucratic procedures. As another example, projects are seen as a means to accelerate organizational learning – by doing new things under controlled, time-bound conditions. Yet, the reality is that when projects are in progress, organisations are loathe to spend time on capturing knowledge. The focus is always on the immediate deliverables rather than longer term learning. Given this, it is no surprise that individuals too, would rather focus on their next project than reflect on what happened on the previous one.  As the authors put it:

…project managers seem ambivalent about their ‘professional identity’; they both aspire to it and resist it. Because of the lack of opportunities for reflection and learning, project workers often seek higher positions in future projects as their reward, with the result that their careers become a series of endless projects requiring increased responsibility and commitment. Emergency situations and problems that arise owing to these time and resource constraints are resolved by heroic actions that gradually become taken-for granted solutions.

It’s a sad commentary on the profession, but I reckon that we, as practitioners, are at least partly to blame.

Project work-life balance

Projects usually operate under tight budgetary and time constraints. Even if one can find more money to throw at a project, it is often impossible to buy more time. As a result those who work on projects often end up working overtime – “doing whatever it takes” to finish the work. But as the authors point out:

‘Doing whatever it takes’ is a very abstract commitment that is hardly measurable since basically it is a social construction dependent on the project leaders’ sense of duty and the external pressures for heroic actions. The dark side of this commitment means long working hours with the inevitable risk of burnout, stress and work/life balance difficulties, all of which may lead to problems with health, general well-being, and family life. The potential damage is as real for the project workers as it is for their organizations.

But it’s even worse because this destructive type of “heroic behaviour”  is  generally seen as distinguishing committed workers from less committed ones.  The authors claim that this goes beyond specific organisations; it is a consequence of projectisation of society in general.

The case study

The qualitative data presented in the case study was gathered by the authors over two periods: 1998-2001 and 2007. In the intervening period, the authors stayed in touch with those in the organisation (Volvo Car Company), but did not actively gather data. Such a longitudinal study (over a long period) enables researchers to study how attitudes  evolve over time. The methodology of the study is best described in their own words:

We studied projects managers who were jointly running new car projects at Volvo Car Corporation (VCC). In addition to direct observations, we video-taped 100 hours of project management meetings and audio-taped individual interviews with all participating project leaders. Our combination of observations and interviews allowed us to observe the practice and everyday lives of the project leaders and to discuss the observations with the interviewees. Thus we were able to observe the project practice closely. In 2007, we interviewed some people from the initial round of interviews who still worked in new car projects. Using this wealth of empirical material, our focus here is on the multi-layered aspects of identity regulation and identity work, especially in terms of colonization, in the studied setting.

The project leaders enjoyed a high status within the company and were often seen as “company heroes, but only as long as their projects succeeded. This created a tremendous pressure to succeed thus making the heroic approach to project management almost inevitable.

Long hours come with the territory

Working long hours is often seen as a hallmark of a dedicated project manager. Further, in many organisations (such as the one studied by the authors) there was the expectation that project managers would sacrifice their own time for the good of the project. As one project leader explained to the authors:

I work all the time! Weekends, evenings…Before Christmas I picked up my husband at a Christmas party in the evening, and then I went back to work and stayed there until midnight. Still, I met a colleague on Saturday morning and was able to do some more work before we left for Christmas. That is typical in my work. I haven’t time for the simplest things in my private life.

The authors make the point that even if a project leader could finish his/her work  within a normal 40 hour work week, others would still question their commitment if they did not work overtime.  Further, if the project did fail, the failure would almost certainly be attributed to the lack of commitment. Project leaders are thus under pressure to work overtime, whether it is needed or not. This is reflected in another comment by a project leader, about what happens between projects:

The period between projects is tough. It takes time to come down. In the beginning it is hard to accept that working 40 hours a week is not the same as having a half-time job, but that is the feeling. […] I have accepted that there are no interesting jobs where you work 40 hours a week, but I think it might be possible to stop at 60 hours a week…

We see that although unreasonable demands are being made on project leaders, they accede to the demands – or even welcome them. So, who is colonizing whom?

Parallel identity construction

The answer to the question in the previous paragraph is complicated by the fact that the project managers who participated in the study wielded considerable influence over the product they were creating. Indeed, this was the intent of the company. That this is so is illustrated by the remarks of an HR director who was involved in the selection of a project leader:

[the candidate] was, along with his competence regarding car development, chosen because he was an almost perfect customer targeted for the V70….Putting him on the management team of the new car project gave him an opportunity to develop the perfect car that satisfied his lifestyle, and the company got the intended car developed. We also used him as an example of our projected customer in a part of our marketing campaign for the V70.

So, selection for prized positions within the company depended on the technical competence and lifestyles of the candidates. In turn, the chosen ones had an opportunity to stamp their personality (identity?) on the product they created.  Identities of people, projects and products were indeed entwined.

Discussion

The authors note that, once selected, project leaders were given considerable autonomy in running their projects. This included the freedom to make choices that influenced the product. Seen in this light, project leaders could stamp their identity on the products they were involved in creating.  However, there were limits to their independence. After all, project leaders depended on the organisation for their livelihoods. Furthermore, their independence was constrained by organizational rules and norms.

Taking another view, one could view the behaviour of the project leaders as being self imposed in the sense that the long hours they put in could be seen as some kind of an addiction to work. Workaholism is an apt term here, I suppose.    At first, the desire to become project leaders spurred them to work hard and once the position was attained they felt the desire to work harder still, possibly to prove that they were worthy of the trust reposed in them by the organisation.

Taking yet another view, one could say that the project leaders had limited choices in both their private and professional lives. On the one hand, there are professional expectations from the company and on the other, expectations from family and friends. Once the individual chose to become a project leader, the choices on offer in both spheres were limited by the choice they made and their personal priorities. All the project leaders interviewed gave their projects priority over all other aspects of their lives. This isn’t surprising because the selection process ensured it. Nevertheless, it does imply that the project leaders accepted that the organisation formed a major part of their self-identities.

It has to be acknowledged that because of their interest in cars, the project leaders were happy to work insane hours. However, equally, the company consciously exploited this interest to the extent that the project leaders believed the project to be the most important aspect of their lives.

Conclusions

Several researchers have suggested that organisations regulate individual identities in a manner that aligns them with organizational objectives (see this paper by Alvesson and Wilmott, for example). At first sight, the foregoing discussion is a case in point. Yet, to some extent, the project leaders in the study believed they had free will – that they made the choices they did because they wanted to. But in the end, the project (and organisation) “wins”. As the authors put it:

To some extent, the project leaders knew they were subjects of control, colonization, and regulation, and yet they chose this career path with full recognition of the consequences for their work/life balance. Their choice meant accepting long workdays and potential emotional and psychological damage in exchange for professional status, job fulfilment, and high compensation. The colonization had consequently moved beyond organizational controland corporate influence. The project leaders were colonized by the projectified society,a situation which made them aspire to the core constructions of the project management..

I suspect that many project managers – particularly those working on high profile projects within their organisations – will find themselves agreeing with the  authors.  Most of us choose to work on ever more challenging projects to further our professional experience, “make a difference” or even “influence the product”.  Regardless of our motives, we generally believe that we make the choice voluntarily. The question is: is this true?

Written by K

July 20, 2010 at 4:56 am

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