A social constructionist perspective on software development projects
Many new product development (NPD) projects are subject to unpredictable effects which can be hard to control. Examples of these include: requirements changes, changes in personnel, shifting business needs etc. Moreover, in the early stages of projects, there is often a great deal of uncertainty as to what exactly needs to be done. Many project management methodologies tend to conceptualise NPD projects as well defined efforts that can be decomposed into discrete tasks which can then be planned and directed (see this paper review, for example). This conceptualization – or more correctly, assumption – accords software development projects a solidity and certainty that they do not have. In a paper entitled, Towards a (more) critical and social constructionist approach to new product development projects, Beata Segercrantz looks into how NPD projects – specifically, software development projects – can be viewed usefully as entities that emerge from relationships and interactions between various project stakeholders. This post is a review of the paper.
Segercrantz views NPD projects as constructed by discourse – i.e. through dialogue and interactions between all stakeholders. In sociology this is termed as a constructionist view, one in which knowledge of an entity (in this case, a project) and the identities of those involved in or with it (the stakeholders) is seen as being produced through conversations and interactions between those involved in creating the entity. This approach necessarily results in multiple views, reflecting the that reality no two stakeholders will have the same conception of the project. In such a view, voices that are marginalized by the traditional project-as-well-defined-entity view are given equal air time. This is useful because it can unearth viewpoints and insights that would otherwise be missed.
The best known NPD methodology is the Stage-Gate approach, which views the product development process as moving through Scoping, Build Business Case, Development, Testing and Validation and Launch. The stages of discovery and post-launch review are considered to be outside the traditional stage-gate model. Although recent references on the methodology emphasise its flexibility and customizability (see this paper, for instance), it remains at heart a process-based approach to NPD. Segercrantz draws attention to research which suggests that the stage-gate approach, with its early lock-in of product definition, may be too constraining for technology projects, which tend to take place in highly changeable environments (see this paper, for example). More flexible approaches involving overlapping stages which, in effect, allow changes to product definition at later stages are necessary. But these dilute the benefits of the stage-gate approach, the main loss being certainty of commitments and the costs that go with it.
The problem with mainstream NPD methodologies is that they are too prescriptive (whilst claiming to be flexible). Further, in areas where flexibility is claimed, they actually end up delegating much of the management detail to other, unspecified project management processes. This gives the illusion of flexibility. Further – and more important, in my opinion – is that they do not address the process of discovery. They only address what comes after. This, of course, would be a problem for any process because it is impossible to prescribe a method that would lead to useful discoveries. However, this is a shortcoming that isn’t entirely clear in accounts that describe popular NPD methodologies.
Mainstream NPD methodologies focus on reducing product development costs and time to market, whilst ensuring product quality. Their preoccupations, quite naturally, are all about specifying the processes that will enable organisations to achieve these goals. Their approach is, also quite naturally, rational. However, such an approach, which focuses on best practice and standardization ignores the human element. To quote from the paper,
…much mainstream NPD literature presupposes that improved models of NPD processes and projects are likely to lead to progress. Through increased empirical knowledge about different characteristics of NPD, it is assumed that structures of the world, including NPD, can be found; structures that leave little space for margins or deviation from rules of reason. Only increased precise predictions are assumed to produce effective NPD projects and formulating the predictions requires ‘finding’ a single best account or sometimes a limited number of related accounts. The prescriptive accounts in mainstream NPD models, however, pay little attention to various consequences of the models on individuals… Complex ways in which individuals respond to dominant discourses of organizations seem to be under-explored…
Segercrantz’s research is aimed at exploring some of the human elements of NPD projects, specifically how certain voices are shut out of the decision making process thus precluding some outcomes that could otherwise have occurred.
Projects – from being to becoming
In the traditional view, a project is seen as a well-defined organizational entity that has an existence independent of the people who work on it. Real-world interactions between people (the real organisation, if you will) are considered to be secondary. This view is cart-before-horse because, in reality, the project is a consequence of organizing (by the people who comprise the project). So, projects do not have an independent existence, they are brought into being by a process of organizing – i.e. they are socially constructed.
To understand how relationships and interactions create projects, one has to move beyond the traditional view. As Segercrantz puts it,
…our attention shifts towards complex social processes that software product development experts engage in; the interactions and relational processes that take place between them. Through these processes, projects are socially constructed and come into existence as they are attributed with specific meanings. How the product development processes interactively unfold and construct certain shared understanding of NPD and not others are emphasized. These actions are continuous and thus meanings attributed to projects are more or less constantly modified as the actors participate in NPD. Meanings are therefore always in a state of becoming, never fixed, and should be understood as primarily culturally and historically specific. In sum, by engaging in certain process, actors seek to construct stabilized meanings of NPD but, simultaneously, as they participate in these projects various meanings are modified…
To develop a social constructionist view, one has to rely on discourse analysis, which essentially entails understanding what people actually say and do, rather than what they ought to be saying and doing. The point is, what people actually say and do on a specific project to a large extent defines what the project is and how it is to work on it. Further, it is also important to note that certain discursive possibilities are excluded because not everyone on the project is equal – some voices are marginalized because of their subordinate position in the project and/or organisational hierarchy.
So, where do traditional NPD methodologies fit in the discursive scheme of things? Segercrantz suggests that NPD processes and procedures should be seen as discursive templates which can be used as starting points from which one can develop new ways of understanding and running specific projects. This is the reality anyway, because best practices are almost always hacked up to suit specific organizational and project needs. Moreover, the changes needed are most often decided via social interactions – i.e. discourse.
Best practices and methodologies presume there is a right way to do things. Consequently, studies that focus on these tend to give more weight to opinions that support the practice/methodology whilst ignoring contrary views. One of the key benefits of discourse analysis is that it can expose some of these hidden views. In the best case, this can offer up new possibilities for how NPD projects can be run. In Segercrantz’s words:
By unmasking the becoming of certain effects, we can produce new alternatives for the future. This objective sharply contrast to much mainstream NPD literature, which typically aims at formulating one or limited prescriptive options for the future to produce preferred effects.
Segercrantz mentions the difference between critical and analytical approaches to discourse analysis: the former views interactions through the lens of political/social power relationships (i.e. they assume certain stakeholders are more powerful than others) whereas the latter make no such assumptions. The approaches are not mutually exclusive, both can and should be used in discursive studies. Segercrantz uses both approaches: the former to make inferences from the data she gathers and the latter to interpret data in terms of power relationships.
The raw data for the study consisted of over 80 interviews with professionals working in Finnish software companies. In the paper, Segercrantz provides illustrative examples of data drawn from interviews with 6 development professionals within a single company. She notes that when analyzing the data, she initially made no assumptions about relationships (i.e. she used an analytical approach) and made inferences about different organizing patterns based on the data alone. After that, she examined power relations using a critical approach.
The case study
The software company studied was continually engaged in NPD projects. Segercrantz sought the views of development professionals within the organisations. Here’s what one of them had to say:
The process, according to my view, began as the person who is pulling the strings, the major guru, who sort of leads the product development, he has a long history, he has seen many products, he has even seen many versions of this product [under development], that is, of financial portfolio systems. He has seen many financial portfolio system products and systems related to them. Based on this experience he has probably during the years developed a vision and he also happens to be, let’s say quite an intelligent person. Somehow he can keep all these things in his head, it helps. And then he probably got a green light from someone to begin developing his idea. In my view, it has been lead from one head. … Each [team member] has had a very narrow scope in it [the NPD project]. One hasn’t let them intervene in everything. Instead they have been, well, let’s say that their scope has been kept narrow with dictatorial means. It is maybe doubtful in a social sense, but on the other hand it has given good results. That is, a product has been created. And if you would start messing a lot outside your own scope, then you would suffocate very soon. It has worked in this case. Perhaps everyone has respected it. There has been a leadership style that is efficient in my opinion.
Several interesting points emerge from the above:
- Product development was organized according to a process that evolved over time rather than a best practice template.
- The project leader was in a position of power, and was portrayed as (or constructed as) a “major guru ” hence legitimizing his right to decree how things should be done and who should do them. Implicitly, the others were portrayed as having less experience and knowledge, and their opinions could thus be ignored.
- The interviewees emphasized that they had well defined but narrow roles.
In addition, from other interviews it emerged that:
- The interviewees were in positions where they had to comply with rules set from those higher up in the hierarchy, but they also had to set direction and delegate to those who were below them.
- The delegation process had a political aspect to it: delegating work to others also involved convincing them to do it in a prescribed way, following certain rules. This wasn’t a straightforward process. This was the cause of a fair bit of stress.
Segercrantz makes the point that the NPD model shaped and used by the leader served as a discursive template via which others in the project interpreted their experiences and roles. This can be seen as an exercise of positional power. In contrast, the others took up “narrowly defined subject positions offered in discourse and were ‘locked’ into a structure of rights (and obligations) that addressed them as ‘communicators’ and instruction-followers.” However, although the project was run “dictatorially”, the others were able to (had to!) modify (customize) the template in order to get the job done. Some of them also made sense of (or rationalized) their positions within the project and firm via the template , even though they felt disempowered. As Segercrantz states:
The interviewee cited in the beginning of this section seems to dis-identify with the subject positions offered through the seemingly institutionalized ‘dictatorial’ ways of organizing projects. However, he still performed his obligations and even defended the practices by claiming ‘it has given good results’ and ‘there has been a leadership style that is efficient’, thus legitimizing the relations of power. In contrast, another interviewee explicitly seemed to identify, at least in certain local conditions, with the subject positions offered; working under time pressure functioned as an important means through which he was constructed as ‘a person who is needed by the company
The paper puts forward a very interesting perspective on how projects can be viewed as socially constructed. Seen in this light, projects don’t have an existence independent of the people and relationships that comprise them. This questions the universality of popular approaches to project management, all of which assume that the project is an organisational entity that can be managed via standardised processes that pay scant attention to human relationships. That said, I found the case study very disappointing because it is too limited, and does not make a convincing case for the validity of the theoretical framework proposed. Thus, in my opinion, the value of the study lies in the questions it raises, not those that it answers.