Projects as networks of commitments – a paper preview
Mainstream project management standards and texts tend to focus on the tools, techniques and processes needed to manage projects. They largely ignore the fact that projects are conceived, planned, carried out and monitored by people. In a paper entitled, Towards a holding environment: building shared understanding and commitment in projects, Paul Culmsee and I present a viewpoint that puts people and their project-relevant concerns at the center of projects. This post is a summary of the main ideas of the paper which is published in the May 2012 issue of the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business.
Conventional approaches to project management tend to give short shrift to the social aspects of projects – issues such as stakeholders with differing viewpoints regarding the rationale and goals of a project. Our contention is that problems arising from stakeholder diversity are best resolved by helping stakeholders achieve a shared (or common) understanding of project goals and, based on that, a shared commitment to working towards them. Indeed, we believe this is a crucial but often overlooked facet of managing the early stages of a project.
One of the prerequisites to achieving shared understanding is open dialogue –dialogue that is free from politics, strategic behaviours and power games that are common in organisations. Details of what constitutes such dialogue and the conditions necessary for it are described by the philosopher Juergen Habermas in his theory of communicative rationality. Our paper draws extensively on Habermas’ work and also presents a succinct summary of the main ideas of communicative rationality.
The conditions required for open dialogue in the sense described by Habermas are:
- Inclusion: all affected stakeholders should be included in the dialogue.
- Autonomy: all participants should be able to present their viewpoints and debate those of others independently.
- Empathy: participants must be willing to listen to viewpoints that may be different from theirs and make the effort to understand them.
- Power neutrality: differences in status or authority levels should not affect the discussion:
- Transparency: participants must be completely honest when presenting their views or discussing those of others.
We call an environment which fosters open dialogue a holding environment. Although a holding environment as characterised above may seem impossible to create, it turns out that an alliance-based approach to projects can approximate the conditions necessary for one. In brief, alliancing is an approach to projects in which different stakeholders agree, by contract, to work collaboratively to achieve mutually agreed goals while sharing risks and rewards in an equitable manner. There are a fair number of large projects that have been successfully delivered using such an approach (see the case studies on the Center for Collaborative Contracting web site).
Once such an approach is endorsed by all project stakeholders, most of the impediments to open dialogue are removed. In the paper we use a case study to illustrate how stakeholder differences can be resolved in such an environment. In particular we show how project-relevant issues and the diverse viewpoints on them can be captured and reconciled using the IBIS (Issue-based information system) notation (see this post for a quick introduction to IBIS). It should be noted that our concept of a holding environment does not require the use of IBIS; any means to capture issues, ideas and arguments raised in a debate will work just as well. The aim is to reach a shared understanding, and once stakeholders do this – using IBIS or any other means – they are able to make mutual commitments to action.
It should be emphasised that an alliance-based approach to projects takes a fair bit of effort and commitment from all parties to implement successfully. In general such effort is justifiable only for very large projects, typically public infrastructure projects (which is why many government agencies are interested in it). It is interesting to speculate how such an approach can be “scaled down” to smaller projects like the ones undertaken by corporate IT departments. Unfortunately such speculations are not permitted in research papers. However, we discuss some of these at length in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.
In their ground-breaking book on design Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores describe organisations as networks of commitments. We believe this metaphor is appropriate for projects too. As we state in the paper, “Organisations and projects are made up of people, and it is the commitments that people make (to carry out certain actions) that make organisations or projects tick. This metaphor – that projects are networks of commitments – lies at the heart of the perspective we propose in this paper. The focus of project management ought to be on how commitments are made and maintained through the life of a project.