Processes and intentions: a note on cause and effect in project management
In recent years the project work-form has become an increasingly popular mode of organizing activities in many industries. As the projectization bandwagon has gained momentum there have been few questions asked about the efficacy of project management methodologies. Most practitioners take this as a given and move on to seek advice on how best to implement project management processes. Industry analysts and consultants are, of course, glad to oblige with reams of white papers, strategy papers or whatever else they choose to call them (see this paper by Gartner Research, for example).
Although purveyors of methodologies do not claim their methods guarantee project success, they imply that there is a positive relationship between the two. For example, the PMBOK Guide tells us that, “…the application of appropriate knowledge, processes, skills, tools and techniques can have a significant impact on project success” (see page 4 of the 4th Edition). This post is a brief exploration of the cause-effect relationship between the two.
Necessary but not sufficient
In a post on cause and effect in management, I discussed how the link between high-level management actions and their claimed outcomes is tenuous. The basic reason for this is that there are several factors that can affect organizational outcomes and it is impossible to know beforehand which of these factors are significant. The large number of factors, coupled with the fact that controlled experimentation is impossible in organizations, makes it impossible to establish with certainty that a particular managerial action will lead to a desired outcome.
Most project managers are implicitly aware of this – they know that factors extrinsic to their projects can often spell the difference between success and failure. A mid-project change in organizational priorities is a classic example of such a factor. The effect of such factors can be accounted for using a concept of causality proposed by the philosopher Edgar Singer, and popularised by the management philosopher Russell Ackoff. In a paper entitled Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning, Ackoff had this to say about cause and effect in systems – i.e. entities that interact with each other and their environment, much like organizations and projects do:
It will be recalled that in the Machine Age cause-effect was the central relationship in terms of which all actions and interactions were explained. At the turn of this century the distinguished American philosopher of science E.A. Singer, Jr.noted that cause-effect was used in two different senses. First… a cause is a necessary and sufficient condition for its effect. Second, it was also used when one thing was taken to be necessary but not sufficient for the other. To use Singer’s example, an acorn is necessary but not sufficient for an oak; various soil and weather conditions are also necessary. Similarly, a parent is necessary but not sufficient for his or her child. Singer referred to this second type of cause-effect as producer-product. It has also been referred to since as probabilistic or nondeterministic cause effect.
The role of intentions
A key point is that one cannot ignore the role of human intentions in management. As Sumantra Ghoshal wrote in a classic paper:
The basic building block in the social sciences, the elementary unit of explanation is individual action guided by some intention. In the presence of such intentionality functional [and causal] theories are suspect, except under some special and relatively rare circumstances, because there is no general law in the social sciences comparable to [say] the law of natural selection in biology
A producer-product view has room for human intentions and choices. As Ackoff stated in the his paper on systems and messes,
Singer went on to show why studies that use the producer-product relationship were compatible with, but richer than, studies that used only deterministic cause-effect. Furthermore, he showed that a theory of explanation based on producer-product permitted objective study of functional, goal-seeking and purposeful behavior. The concepts free will and choice were no longer incompatible with mechanism; hence they need no longer be exiled from science.
A producer-product view of cause and effect in project management recognizes that there will be a host of factors that affect project outcomes, many of which are beyond a manager’s ken and control. Further, and possibly more important, it acknowledges the role played by intentions of individuals who work on projects. Let’s take a closer look at these two points.
Processes and intentions
To begin, it is worth noting that that project management lore is rife with projects that failed despite the use of formal project management processes. Worse, in many cases it appears that failure is a consequence of over-zealous adherence to methodology (see my post entitled The myth of the lonely project for a detailed example). In such cases the failure is often attributed to causes other than the processes being used – common reasons include lack of organizational readiness and/or improper implementation of methodology from which the processes are derived. However, these causes can usually be traced back to lack of employee buy-in, i.e. of getting front-line project teams and managers to believe in the utility of the proposed processes and to make them want to use them. It stands to reason that people will use processes only if they believe they will help. So the first action should be to elicit buy-in from people who will be required to use the proposed processes. The most obvious way to do this is by seeking their input in formulating the processes.
Most often though, processes are “sold” to employees in a very superficial way (see this post for a case in point). Worse still, many times organizations do not even bother getting buy-in: the powers that be simply mandate the process with employees having little or no say in how processes are to be used or implemented. This approach is doomed to fail because – as I have discussed in this post – standards, methodologies and best practices capture only superficial aspects of processes. The details required to make processes work can be provided only by project managers and others who work at the coal-face of projects. Consequently employee buy-in shouldn’t be an afterthought, it should be the centerpiece of any strategy to implement a methodology. Buy-in and input are essential to gaining employee commitment, and employee commitment is absolutely essential for the processes to take root.
..and so to sum up
Project management processes are necessary for project success, but they are far from sufficient. Employee intentions and buy-in are critical factors that are often overlooked when implementing these. As a first step to addressing this, project management processes should be considered and implemented in a way that makes sense to those who work on projects. Those who miss this point are setting themselves up for failure.