Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Processes and intentions: a note on cause and effect in project management

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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.

Written by K

September 1, 2011 at 3:12 am

9 Responses

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  1. Another well researched and presented thought piece, Kailash. Thank you!

    Here’s another article, from Harvard Business Review, that amplifies the case you’re making: “Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy”: http://hbr.org/product/fair-process-managing-in-the-knowledge-economy-har/an/R0301K-PDF-ENG

    The article is pretty compelling, and some of my clients have really taken these points to heart.




    September 1, 2011 at 4:27 am

  2. Jeff,

    Thanks for your feedback and the article. I love the idea of fair process and will be forwarding the article on to some people who need to read it.





    September 1, 2011 at 7:42 am

  3. K, I can’t quite see how, based on the discussion in the body of the post, you arrive at the conclusion at its end. It is correct that projects, including those utilising standard PM methodologies and processes, fail. it is not necessarily correcto to suggest that a prime cause for this is due to lack of employee buy-in. I also wonder, assuming your assertion IS correct, whether the proposition that “project management processes should be considered and implemented in a way that makes sense to those who work on projects” is valid as it pre-supposes an acceptance criteria by individuals in the project team (and perhaps other stakeholders) in a domain in which they might not have sufficient experience or relevant knowledge. Rather than expecting a binding buy-in I would suggest a binding commitment from those who work on the project to extend their professional skills in the best possible way. Should they not wish to commit their skills they should be welcome to and indeed encouraged to work on another project. Just to clarify, I am not suggesting an authocratic style project management but rather an acceptance of roles and responsibilities as deemed to be appropriate to the project structure. The overriding point though is that I don’t believe this to be THE prime reason for projects’ failure and I suspect furthr research is required in order to clarify this issue further.

    I would love to get your response to the above.

    Cheers, Shim.


    Shim Marom

    September 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm

  4. Shim,

    Thanks so much for your careful reading of the post and comments therefrom. Indeed, a clarification is in order: what I meant was that project managers need to have a say in formulating the processes and team members need to believe in them. Further, my use of the word “failure” in the last sentence of
    the post was intended to refer to (the failure of) processes rather than projects.

    The case study from this post (based on this paper by Mats Engwall) is relevant because it looks at two similar projects (in size and other parameters, one managed using formal processes and the other managed informally. Interestingly, the latter project succeeded whereas the former didn’t. As Mats Engwall, stated in his paper:

    “The PM with his formal authority, explicit management approach, and who deliberately applied state-of-the-art methods of project management was having significant problems, while the PM who lacked both formal authority and an explicit management approach, and who deviated substantially from the textbooks, was being significantly successful.”

    It turns out that the first PM’s solution to personnel and project problems was to “throw more process” at his project whereas the latter PM managed his project in a way that was sensitive to the expectations of the team (even if this meant giving process short shrift).

    Of course, a single case study does not constitute proof, but it does suggest that team buy-in is important too.

    Having said that, I entirely agree with you that commitment from the project team should be more about using their skills to the best of their ability rather than binding buy-in to the PM processes used. Nevertheless, if team members don’t buy-in to the processes, they will see them as intrusive or overly bureaucratic and will therefore look for ways to subvert them. Dr. Damian Hodgson’s case study, discussed in my post on project management in the post-bureaucratic organisation, provides an excellent illustration of such behaviour in action.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. My apologies for the sloppy wording in my post, and hope the above clarifies my POV.





    September 1, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    • Come on mate, you are far from being sloppy. Thanks for taking the time to respond at length, it does make more sense and agrees with my experience, having seen processes being thrown at problems without achieving their targeted results.

      Cheers, Shim.


      Shim Marom

      September 2, 2011 at 9:23 am

  5. […] Processes and intentions: a note on cause and effect in project management Introduction 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 ha… Source: eight2late.wordpress.com […]


  6. Kailash

    Of course processes will be evident in the management of any project; formal or otherwise: a process being a set of actions expected to lead to a desired outcome. The project management community has I fear come to limit the meaning of the word ‘process’ to those that are prescribed as an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) and even only to prescriptons drawn from published methodologies (eg PMBoK, PRINCE). Process and methodology serve and support the management of a project; they are not the managing of a project.

    To manage a project successfully a project regime must be competent in its understanding of the requirement. It must plan continually, deploy a collaborative community of players including stakeholders, sponsors, suppliers, ensure sufficient collective tenacity, seek and handle emergent opportunities and constraints, accommodate stakeholders; using tools as necessary to maximise the efficiency of their work.

    Processes, I agree, are necessary but not suffiecient. But I must emphasise that a set of processes, however comprehensive, are not the heart of the matter. In deciding their best course of action, players will include lots of process, chosen and deployed at the discretion of the players. But these are essentially tools to support crucial comprehension, behaviour and decision-making by players – singly and in groups. Managing requires close observation, judgment and choices. Tools don’t do this.


    Martin Price

    September 6, 2011 at 8:49 pm

  7. Martin,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree entirely – processes aren’t the heart of the matter, people are. As you have said so well, a collaborative environment is the key, and a good project manager will find ways to create and and nurture one.





    September 6, 2011 at 9:03 pm

  8. […] “Sir, your PMO failed because it attempted to transplant practices that allegedly worked elsewhere into your unique –dare I say, special – organisation. As was inevitable, the transplant was roundly rejected: your people found the processes strange, even arbitrary, and resented them. Consequently, they found ways to work around them instead of with them. Failure of your PMO was preordained because of your focus on processes rather than intentions. […]


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