Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Projects as networks of commitments – a paper preview

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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:

  1. Inclusion: all affected stakeholders should be included in the dialogue.
  2. Autonomy: all participants should be able to present their viewpoints and debate those of others independently.
  3. Empathy: participants must be willing to listen to viewpoints that may be different from theirs and make the effort to understand them.
  4. Power neutrality: differences in status or authority levels should not affect the discussion:
  5. 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.

8 Responses

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  1. Great post, and nice idea!
    Just two small remarks: Habermas’ philosophy about discourse is not appropriate because it is deeply flawed: it is idealistic and functionalistic, even in its ethical concerns thereby degrading people to “gears”. Else rationality is a bad utopy when it comes in an idealistic flavor. It also contradicts your list above partially. Much more appropriate would be Robert Brandom’s approach of “Making it Explicit”.
    Second, I just want to note that there are two fundamentally different kind of networks, an issue that Winograd did not identify well: there are logistic networks and associative networks, the former suitable for passing things between two points, the latter suitable for creating solutions.
    Without that distinction, the network metaphor misses most of its potential.



    April 17, 2012 at 11:34 pm

  2. Hi Monnoo,

    Thanks for your interest and your comments. At the outset I should clarify that neither Paul nor I are trained philosophers so our ideas are offered as an exploration – an attempt of practitioners to make sense of experiences – rather than an authoritative, academically-oriented study.

    As you mention, Habermas’ philosophy is idealistic (and we say so in the paper) but I would not say it “degrades people to gears”. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it is aimed at drawing out views and concerns that may otherwise be left unsaid. That said, Brandom’s approach sounds very interesting and it would be great if you could suggest some starting points for reading his work.

    You make a good point about network types, a topic that Winograd and Flores do not cover in their book. In our case, however, I think it is clear from the context which type of network we refer to, as the emphasis is on building trust and generating ideas/solutions rather than merely exchanging information. Indeed, we make the point that, ideally, communication in organisations is (or should be!) more about the former than the latter.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment – I truly appreciate it.





    April 18, 2012 at 6:56 am

  3. I am a trained philosopher and I wrote my PhD on Habermasian (and post-Habermasian) critical theory. It’s a common (but lazy) misunderstanding of Habermas to think of him as some sort of wide-eyed idealist. As a critical theorist, he is very sensitive to the ways in which processes of rational discourse can fail as a result of organisational or ideological pressure. The idealized conditions of discourse are simply a methodological tool which is supposed to help us to identify how and why rationality fails. Habermas’s ethics are concerned with the way we communicate: as such they are purely formal, but the ‘content’ of ethics is supposed to come from actual lifeworlds and forms of life. This is supposed to preserve our autonomy instead of relegating it to rule-following. (As Kailash notes, it’s incorrect to suggest that Habermas wants to reduce people to gears in a social machine. The entirely of Frankfurt School thought is directed at quite the opposite outcome!)

    What I think may be missing from the paper (just from looking over the synopsis above) is the idea of validity, which is a central concept in Habermasian thought. Indeed, you might even say that it’s the whole point. We aren’t obliged to try and empathize or understand every single viewpoint, no matter how wacky or patently false. Similarly, we don’t have to go into the minutae of everything all the time. Habermasian discourse ethics is more to do with understanding how and why things go wrong so that we can create institutions and procedures which will ameliorate the pernicious influences of instrumental rationality and the ‘social pathologies’ which are intimately connected with capitalist ideologies. It is by focusing on the *implicit* notions of validity that operate in a specific field (or instance) of discourse that we can reconstruct latent ideas about what is justified and what is not. Or so Habermas contends… It’s a complicated idea, but the Wikipedia article is a reasonably accessible summary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communicative_rationality#Validity_dimensions). It’s worth noting that Habermas’ ideas have evolved over time so it’s difficult to be really concise. But the point is that what are called ‘prerequisites for open dialogue’ above (Inclusion, Autonomy, Empathy, Power neutrality, Transparency) are *not* prerequisites but criteria for understanding ways in which a particular speech act might be termed valid/invalid. In practice, no discourses are power-neutral or fully inclusive, etc. But Habermas is fully aware of this rather than being idealistic or utopian on the matter.

    I hope that’s helpful. I’m happy to discuss further if you’d like to bounce ideas around…


  4. Robert,

    Thanks so much for your comments and clarifications. I should reiterate that neither Paul nor I are trained philosophers, so I’m honoured – and somewhat daunted:-) – by the interest shown by folks such as yourself and monnoo.

    As you mention the idea of validity is central to Habermas’s work. Indeed, we have discussed it in the paper and in our book (I’ve also discussed it in an earlier post). I agree Habermasian discourse ethics is more to do with understanding how and why dialogue can be hijacked in real- life settings than in prescribing solutions. Indeed, this is why it is so useful in understanding why dialogues in organisations so often end up exacerbating problems (and conflicts) rather than (re)solving them.

    A natural question that arises from the above is: what is needed to create an environment in which dialogue that respects diverse values and interests can take root and flourish? As Bent Flyvbjerg has suggested in this paper (see second last para on p. 213), any process/framework that respects Inclusion, Autonomy, Empathy, Power neutrality and Transparency for all participants will do the job. Clearly it is difficult to ensure these at all times for all conversations; as you say, “In practice, no discourses are power-neutral or fully inclusive, etc.” However, governance structures such as alliancing, which we discuss in the paper (and in greater detail in our book) , get us at least part of the way there.

    It would be great to get your thoughts on the above and some suggestions for further reading. Thanks again for taking the time to read the post and comment on it.





    May 6, 2012 at 10:52 pm

  5. Hi Robert

    I co-authored the paper and was the one who lived the case study. I carefully read what you said and am happy to report that this is exactly how we see the use of Habermas work. The paper goes into validity as does our book in more detail. While its easy to be sloppy with language (I’d have to re-read but I think we might have used the term pre-requisites, but we were in fact using them as criteria). In the Heretic’s Guide book, we use the term “holding environment” to describe an environment of participation safety and decision influence. Part 2 of the book then examines various tools and techniques that can be used to create/establish such an an environment and then we use the Habermas “evaluation criteria” for open dialogue to critically examine them.

    The short answer: Most of them fall short and at best, deal with 2 or 3 out of the 5.

    In fact I read Michael Jacksons book on systems thinking (Creative Holism for Managers) and applied the same examination to the methods he outlined in the systems thinking space to deal with issues of power. They also fell short in similar ways when you apply a Habermas’s filter to them.

    But I have been very fortunate to work in alliances (which is a specific type of contract which literally contractually mandates mutual acceptance of risk and collabroative approaches). It was the first time I saw something that took a step further in emulating the conditions required for testing of validity of claims. I worked with some very high performing teams that did not ascibe to any particular methodology either.

    So in the book we end part 2 by taking an unusual turn. We left the world of visual tools for sensemaking, problem structuring methods and examined governance structures (for example: contracts) and how they can affect a holding environment. Within this we looked at agile, partnering and its evolution to alliancing and tied this up with Ostroms nobel prize winning work.

    It might seem odd (and maybe less romantic) to some that a bunch of lawyers created the conditions for inclusion, autonomy, empathy, power neutrality and transparency, but people have been writing about this stuff for a long time now… maybe there are other places to draw inspiration from…



    May 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

  6. […] primary task of a project manager, or any manager for that matter, is to create such a  holding environment that provides psychological safety to the team and encourages rational (or open) dialogue […]


  7. […] – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of […]


  8. […] The first guideline of emergent design is to realize that no one is an expert – not you nor your Big $$$ consultant. The only way to build a robust and lasting system or process is for everyone to put their heads together and work towards it in a collaborative fashion, dispensing with the pretense that one can outsource one’s thinking to the “expert”. Indeed, the role of the “expert” is to create and foster the conditions for such collaboration to occur. Paul and I elaborate on this point at length in our book and this paper (summarized in this post). […]


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