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Chapter 2 of Exercising Agency (9781472427885) by Mark Mullaly

Exploring How Projects Do (and Don’t) Get Initiated

Chapter 2

Introduction

When I began the research this book is based upon, it was with the intent to explore how individuals are involved as participants within the project initiation process. Based upon insights gained from prior research, there was a presumption that there would be an influence from power, personality and rules in defining how project initiation decisions are made. It was also presumed that these dimensions had equal stature and would have broadly similar levels of emphasis. In undertaking the research, however, the results revealed very different conceptual implications than had been anticipated at the outset. Firstly, the constructs of power, personality and rules – while present – arose at very different conceptual levels than had been anticipated, with varying degrees of influence on the results. Secondly, the results provided perceptions that went beyond the roles of participants, and led to an awareness that process, rule and decision effectiveness had much larger implications than originally envisioned. Finally, the concept of agency – originally viewed as a tangential offshoot of the larger exploration of rules – emerged within the study as a central and important concept. As a result, the direction of the research, and in particular the research questions at the focus of the analysis, shifted. While the overall focus of the study retained its intent and purpose, the specific questions that it sought to answer evolved.

The Challenges of Project Initiation

As detailed in Chapter 1, there are a number of perspectives as well as many unresolved challenges in how decisions are made within projects, as well as about which projects to undertake. In particular, the influences of social forces, politics and power are significant in understanding how decisions are made. While these areas are only broadly understood in the context of the project management literature, they have been extensively explored in the broader literature of decision making. Understanding these influences and how organizational actors manage them in supporting project initiation is important to understanding how strategy shapes projects, and how projects respond to strategy.

Integrating Initiation with Psychological and Political Forces

One of the challenges that must be understood in exploring project initiation decisions is the manner in which inappropriate projects still get initiated. The underlying factors that influence irrational, unwarranted or subjective project initiation decisions are numerous. Flyvbjerg et al. (2009) suggest that delusions and deception are complementary, rather than alternative, explanations; delusions include susceptibility to the planning fallacy and issues of anchoring and adjustment, while deceptions include principal-agent problems in which actors use self-interest, asymmetric information and different risk preferences as tools of deceit to win or keep business. Other studies identify issues related to a lack of clear strategy, where problems at the project level are a product of board-level actors failing to provide clear policy and priorities (for example, Maylor, 2001). Still others suggest much deeper levels of deception, in which the effort of initiating projects provides ample opportunity for actors to make claims and evince convictions to which they do not necessarily adhere, to demand certainty in the face of the unknown, and to use uncertainty as a way of manufacturing political hypocrisy (for example, van Marrewijk et al., 2008). Clearly, any understanding of project initiation decisions needs to specifically accommodate the possibility of deception, negligence or manipulation.

Strategies to remove or manage these biases include the introduction of reference class forecasting as a means of comparing projects with others that are similar in order to validate estimates of cost and benefit; this strategy is based upon the assumption that ‘ventures are typically more similar than actors assume, even ventures that on the surface of things may appear entirely different’ (Flyvbjerg, 2008, p. 8). Attempting to address political influences of deception have thus far resulted in observations that the power relations governing estimation and project initiation themselves need to change; greater transparency and accountability must be introduced into the project initiation process (Flyvbjerg, 2009).

The challenge in supporting project initiation is to develop approaches that actually enable the adoption of such transparency and accountability.

Integrating Initiation with Strategic Management

To address the challenges associated with understanding the influences of strategy on making project initiation decision requires that it be situated within the larger context of the strategic management of the organization, and also requires that the dynamics of the decision making processes be explored. For some, project management has been (or should have been) long considered a part of the strategic management domain: ‘The art and skills of project management reach right into the earliest stages of project initiation’ (Morris, 1989, p. 184). Research perspectives have positioned projects as largely responsive to the deliberate formulations that emerge from the strategic management process of the organization, while still needing to accommodate more emergent notions of strategy (Artto et al., 2008; Vuori et al., 2012). Other perspectives view business projects as ‘strategic interventions’ that influence the overall process of strategic management as means of influencing business change (for example, Winter et al., 2006). Still others place the project initiation decision, and the role of projects, in a more entrepreneurial context that positions projects as both related to and yet autonomous from the larger organization (Lindgren & Packendorff, 2009; Vuori et al., 2012). While identifying the need to integrate with project strategy is easy, adopting strategies to actually do so is considerably more complex.

Approaches to improving the integration of project initiation with organizational strategy include reframing how the idea of project strategy (and organizational strategy) is developed. Proponents suggest the need to establish an alignment between organizational strategy and project strategy (Maylor, 2001; Milosevic & Srivannaboon, 2006; Shenhar, 2001). Others point out the need to allow for a more iterative form of initiation than is standard now, one that enables a more dynamic and interactive evolution of strategy in response to uncertainties (Lehtonen & Martinsuo, 2008). Further investigations have proposed a reframing of the concept of what constitutes ‘project strategy’ and the nature of how planning progresses in support of organizational strategy (Pitsis et al., 2003). Still other suggestions include the need for explicit recognition of the strategic management processes in organizations as having both deliberate and emergent aspects (Artto et al., 2008; Vuori et al., 2012). While there have been various proposals regarding how to accomplish the integration of projects within strategy, what remains is the need to investigate how this is accomplished in actual practice and to examine the implications of such strategies being adopted within organizations.

Encouraging Research into the Front End of Projects

While there are some suggestions of solutions and approaches to the inherent political, power, social and psychological challenges associated with project initiation, the limitations and barriers that result from current levels of understanding of these influencing forces are acknowledged in the majority of these discussions. The escalation literature has seen calls for the further study of the dynamics of both escalation and exit, with a particular emphasis on multi-method and multi-level investigations; these specifically suggest that drawing on experimental, archival, questionnaire and case study data would be potentially fruitful (Ross & Staw, 1993). There have been proposals for more investigations of cognitive psychology, investigating how the templates that drive framing, anchoring and optimism biases are formed and utilized; these have also included consideration of cognitive dissonance theory, in which the meaning of decisions is changed by altering the nature of the underlying alternatives (Thomas, 1998). Further study of the causes of psychological bias, and particularly political deception, have also been suggested (Flyvbjerg, 2009). These research proposals in particular emphasize investigating the dynamics of power, politics and influence, rather than the normative and rational process approaches that have dominated much of the literature to date.

Embedded within suggestions for further research has also been the need to better understand the complexity and uncertainty associated with project initiation decisions. Explicitly rational processes are perceived to ignore the existence of subjective rationality, leading to projects being initiated for unclear reasons, with greater emphasis on process than outcomes, and despite changes in the environment rendering objectives obsolete or undesirable (Packendorff, 1995). Initiation decisions are often the products of unclear objectives, devised by stakeholders with conflicting views, where there is a need for advocacy as much as rational analysis (Winter et al., 2006b). While politics and power are operative forces in normal human functioning, arguments are made that this is not necessarily the result of conscious intent or malevolent design as much as it is a product of professionals confronting issues of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity, and that as a result, issues of power, ambiguity and paradox must be better understood (van Marrewijk et al., 2008). The implication for future research into project initiation is that there is a need to navigate a complex web of dynamics that integrate influences of politics, power, ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity with the motivations and limitations of individual actors.

Individual Influences on Project Initiation

It is perhaps helpful at this point to explore why it is so important to explore how individual actors approach the project initiation process. Regardless of the structures, processes, rules and guidelines that may be in place, project initiation is ultimately the product of individuals. Ultimately, it is a person who influences – and finally determines – whether a project is going to be initiated. Even where decisions are made in groups, it is rare that they are exclusively made through group processes. Individuals serve as advocates to the group, they chair the group’s functioning, and they choose to speak – or not speak – in favour of or against whether a particular project should proceed.

In fact, there are numerous areas where action is influenced by individual actors in the initiation of projects. The process of project initiation is not simply limited to the decision of whether or not to proceed with a project. Similarly, individual actors are not solely involved in making the decision. At the beginning, an idea is advanced that a project should be undertaken. Time is spent investigating and exploring that idea, in order to understand the implications of the project and how the work of the project might be accomplished. Further analysis and investigation explores the impact the project might have on the organization, and the benefits that might or might not be realized. The idea is championed to others in the organization, in order to build awareness of what would be involved and why the project might be important. Support is secured from others, and in particular those who might have power to sway whether or not the project should proceed. Finally, after much effort, some level of agreement – formally or informally – is made to proceed with the project. At each stage, from development of the idea to agreement to proceed, individual actors play a role in advancing the project or opposing it.

Understanding the influences that individuals have on project initiation is not just a question of knowing what happens at the moment of decision. There is a need to understand the forces at work and the influences at play at each stage in the life of the idea. We need to understand how actors perceive their roles, and the means they have available to exercise influence. And we need to understand the organizational forces that enable or constrain those actors in performing those roles. This requires expanding the field being explored beyond the individual, while still keeping the attributes, roles and actions of the individual actor at the forefront of our explorations.

The Role of the Project Shaper

A particularly promising line of enquiry in investigating the path forward in understanding project initiation decisions and the influence of individuals is that of Smith & Winter (2010). Their initial study specifically focused on the ‘messy social processes’ that lead to projects being proposed and initiated. Not simply a product of rational and normative techniques, this process carries: ‘awareness of projects as socially constructed entities. Rather than being pre-existing objects to be subjected to the instrumental techniques of conventional project management, they are created and shaped by individual players in the workplace’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 48).

In framing their discussion of project initiation, Smith & Winter (2010) identified six key dimensions that comprise a framework for evaluating how project initiation decisions are shaped:

  1. The control model of projects – Viewing project management as having primarily a control focus echoes the observation of numerous other researchers (see, for example, Maylor, 2001; Packendorff, 1995; Söderlund, 2004; Thomas & Tjäder, 2000), Smith & Winter (2010) specifically identified two narrative views of control: that of project management as determining the best and most orderly and efficient route of delivery; and that of project management as a tyranny that destroys autonomy, initiative and creativity. They also raised issues regarding when a project actually becomes a project, with the amusingly relevant warning to ‘beware premature projectification’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 53).

  2. Tribal power – Recognizing projects as social constructions, Smith & Winter (2010) also acknowledge that they are constructed by diverse groups with diverse agendas. Projects therefore need to both acknowledge and consciously address the expectations of this multi-tribal world. This requires that project shapers act as expert players within the social world of tribes, consulting, facilitating and leading towards a unified view of the project. This reinforces the call for project managers to be adaptive experts and reflective practitioners (Cicmil, 2006; Crawford et al., 2006b; Thomas & Mengel, 2008).

  3. Transformation and valueSmith & Winter (2010) discuss the need for the project manager to focus on the value of the project, however that is defined. This builds on calls to revisit and redefine how success is perceived and evaluated (Steffens et al., 2007; Winter et al., 2006a; Winter et al., 2006b).

  4. Enacted reality – For projects to be viewed as real and initiated, Smith & Winter (2010) argue for the need to create clarity out of the chaos and complexity of how projects are defined and interpreted: ‘Any version of the project scope can be open to challenge as different groups manoeuvre to promote their tribal interests. Project progress, however, requires some degree of stability of purpose, and this is achieved through enactment’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 55). Referencing in part the work of Weick (1995), Smith and Winter say that this requires the project manager to act as the sensemaker of the project, as well as demonstrating its reality through co-ordinating the production of artifacts which can be seen, inspected and queried.

  5. External dynamics: peripetySmith & Winter (2010) define ‘peripety’ as the Aristotelian concept of the plot point in a play where new information transforms our understanding of what happens: ‘It is not only the outcomes that are changed, but the questions that frame the project thinking and plans’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 55). This concept recognizes that projects are subject to the influence of external forces at different points in their lives, and that expert practitioners will go out of their way to engage with external influencers, and to continue to actively shape perceptions as change emerges.

  6. Shaper’s volition – ‘Volition’ is identified by Smith & Winter (2010) as a powerful and significant determinant of the form that a project ultimately takes: ‘For each project, the scope becomes what it is because of the strong action of an individual who chooses to shape it in that way’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 56). The actions of project shapers are constrained by the forces within the context in which they operate, and by the agendas and motivations of the actors with whom they interact; at the same time, they are enacting their own roles within the organization: ‘choosing allegiances, supporting their personal agenda within the organization, protecting their credibility and reputation, and, if failure is on the cards, manoeuvring themselves into a winning position’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 56).

 

The focus of Smith & Winter’s exploration of the shaping and forming of projects is on the expertise, wisdom and reflexivity of practitioners. Their operative assumption is that project initiation is less a product of rational and normative functions of gate-keeping and good governance, and more a product of the degree to which those who shape projects are able to operate as reflective, intuitive, pragmatic and ethical players within the organizational contexts in which they operate.

The relevance of the conceptual model proposed by Smith and Winter is that it firmly establishes the role of the project shaper in the project initiation process, and frames that role as one that operates inherently within the social, political and power structures of the organization. Further exploration of the role of shaping projects requires an understanding of the activities and – to the degree it is possible to do so – the motives of the individuals fulfilling this role. Smith & Winter view this as being possible to achieve only through in-depth research into the actuality of projects: ‘We hope that the arguments we have set out here, promoting the central role of the project shaper and setting out a framework for understanding the activities of such an individual, can form a basis for such research’ (Smith & Winter, 2010, p. 59).

The conceptual model developed by Smith & Winter (2010) would appear to provide a promising perspective from which to investigate project initiation decisions. The current model, however, is the result of a small number of case studies which were reviewed to extrapolate the dimensions that have been proposed. There is no underlying theoretical framework, and no theoretical lens is suggested for its further development. In order to evaluate the degree to which their conceptualization of the role of project shaper is appropriate to the study of project initiation and the dimensions which they discuss are relevant, it will be necessary to establish a firm theoretical foundation.

Influences on Project Initiation

In conducting this study, there was a need to explore comprehensively how participants perceived the process of making project initiation decisions, and what factors were perceived as influencing process and decision effectiveness. While exploring this issue, it was my hope to develop a basis for understanding what factors influence the effectiveness of decision making processes, and the influences of individuals in supporting these processes. This section provides an overview of the initial findings that emerged from the research, as illustrated in Figure 2.1. In particular, it highlights the initial categories of influence that were found to be significant in shaping the project initiation decision, and the effectiveness of the decision making process.

 
Figure 2.1 Initial categories of analysis

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The following points provide an overview of the purpose and intent of each of the initial categories:

  • ability to influence – the degree of influence and latitude the participants have in the project initiation process, and consideration of the other influences that may be required at a sponsor or executive level to ensure initiation;

  • agreement to initiate – the degree to which there is actually agreement within the organization to initiate a project, including definition of the decision making process and the degree to which a decision is recognized by the participant as having been made;

  • formality of approach – the relative formality of the process supporting project initiation, including the consistency of the process and the formality of the documentation produced within the process;

  • clarity of decision – the degree to which the results of the decision process are clear, understandable and aligned with the direction of the organization;

  • information to initiate – an understanding of the information that needs to be identified and considered as input prior to making the decision;

  • value of decision – the degree to which the value of the potential results of a project is considered as part of the initiation process;

  • overall rule environment – the underlying rule environment within the organization that supports and enables the project initiation process, including the consistency and stability of the rules regarding project initiation and the degree to which they are explicit or implicit.

 

Each of these dimensions of influence is described in further detail below, in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the essential concepts that emerged in conducting the research. In order to protect confidentiality, each quotation from a participant will be identified by a case number in parentheses.

Ability to Influence

The concept of ‘ability to influence’ explores the degree of influence and the role that participants have in the decision making process with respect to initiating projects. For the majority of participants, their role was to provide input into the process. Often, this was in the form of developing documentation or preparing analyses for consideration by others in making project initiation decisions. A smaller number of participants indicated that they would either participate in the decision making process directly, or make recommendations. Those who participated were typically members of the executive team within their organization, and as a result of their role were involved in the collaborative process of making an initiation decision. Those who recommended decisions were more likely to do so because of their seniority in the organization, or their participation in a team whose responsibility was to make recommendations that would be forwarded to a subsequent decision making body. Interestingly, only one participant in the research was actually the final decision maker in the project initiation process; while many participants had high levels of seniority, and several were members of their organization’s executive team, no other participant had sufficient autonomy to make initiation decisions in isolation. By contrast, two participants indicated that they had no influence on the decision making that led to projects being initiated. Characterizing their involvement, one participant indicated: ‘We pick them up once we inherit them. At what stage? It runs the gamut; we have started a project, and now we need a project manager. We don’t start projects, we catch up to them’ (11). Perhaps most interestingly, a number of participants who perceived their actual influence on the project initiation process to be comparatively low were often identified as being at relatively senior levels in their organizations. While all participants were involved in some degree in the decision making process, the degree of influence was often – although not always – related to the seniority of the participant in their organization.

The means participants drew upon in exercising their influence also varied. The exercise of influence reflected the means by which participants established their credibility and impact in supporting the project initiation process. Some participants established influence through an emphasis on process, identifying the importance of diligence, experience and past performance, and ensuring adherence to process. Others established influence through political savvy, relationships, proactive communication and the leveraging of power through position and delegation. Most interestingly, the influences participants highlighted tended to emphasize one driver or another: participants would indicate a tendency to leverage politics or process to gain influence, but not both.

Returning to the discussion of the project shaper in Smith & Winter (2010), every participant indicated that the role of project shaper existed within their organization to some degree. For several participants, the role was identified as being present, but highly informal in nature. For most organizations, the role was an individual’s; in half of the organizations, it was identified as being the role of the sponsor, while for a few it was defined as the role of the project manager. Success in this role strongly relies on credibility, which numerous participants identified as being a challenge: ‘Sometimes that person isn’t strong enough to do that role – confident, capable. Part of the challenge is to get the person to that level. Where they can be a voice for the staff’ (5). Even though the role of project shaper was viewed as being prevalent, the capability and influence of the person in that role had a significant influence on their success, and the ability to effectively advocate for projects.

In addition to the shaper role, participants also frequently discussed the role of the project sponsor. The vast majority of participants identified the need for a champion who was responsible for ownership of the project. At times this role overlapped with the idea of a project shaper, and in other contexts it reflected a larger responsibility for on-going business ownership: ‘When I come back to the sponsor piece, you have to have a sponsor who is engaged and driving and who is leading and is providing the support and removing the hurdles’ (3). Nearly half of all participants viewed the role of sponsor as needing to be held at the executive level, while in some instances the actual exercising of the responsibilities associated with the role was varied. Sponsorship can also be viewed as varying depending upon the importance of the project or the skills of the person in the role, while a few participants specifically highlighted weak sponsorship as being a challenge in their organizations. While sponsorship was identified as being of critical importance by the majority of participants, there were several instances where it was inadequate, and its alignment with what participants described as the role of shaper was not always clear.

Agreement to Initiate

The dimension of ‘agreement to initiate’ reflects the degree to which there is established agreement within the organization that the project should proceed. This includes understanding the process by which agreement is established, and the degree to which agreement is actually formally recognized. In particular, the degree of formality underlying the decision making process varied considerably. For a few organizations, the decision was inferred; in other words, because activity was happening on a project, there was a belief that somewhere, someone had made a decision to conduct the project. Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of project initiation decisions were the result of verbal commitments: ‘Ultimately, the decision won’t be made in presentation – they will sit on it a little bit, they will talk it over amongst themselves, and then a week or so later they will announce a decision’ (19). Only a small number of organizations actually described an initiation process that included a formal sign-off on the project initiation decision. In a small number of organizations, there was no formality whatsoever: ‘Not even great decision tracking, or even writing decisions down’ (2). For the majority of participants, decisions were recognized as occurring, but those decisions were often perceived as being quite informal.

The influence of politics on making an initiation decision was discussed in detail by virtually all participants. In a significant majority of the cases, politics was identified as having a strong influence on the decision making process. The participants described politics as being: ‘absolutely huge. Worse on some, but absolutely in all’ (22). In half of all cases, politics was critical in ensuring buy-in and support for project initiation activities. Depending upon the participant, political activities could be seen as being positive or negative. A number of participants identified a political environment characterized by disagreement and discord, while several others characterized the political culture as constructive. The culture of the organization influenced the political environment for many organizations, and while sometimes positive, the culture was also often described as being characterized by avoidance, where there was a: ‘mostly risk-averse culture – it doesn’t deal with outright confrontation. We will sheepishly address them. And they will do it again next time’ (13). In only a very small number of organizations was politics not identified as having an influence; these individuals identified the process of project initiation as having more influence than the political discussions that surrounded it. While politics was described as being critical to the process of project initiation, how politics emerged differed radically among the participant organizations.

A key aspect underlying the category of ‘agreement to initiate’ is the degree to which decision recognition exists – an appreciation that a decision has been made, and awareness of what the implications of that decision actually represent. For a few organizations, the process of initiation and project planning were intertwined, where initiation: ‘starts with the development of the project charter and the project plan, and ends with sign-off’ (3). For a significant number of organizations, the initiation process was the planning process; people were told to go and do a project, and the very first activity was building a project plan. Only a small number of participants indicated a situation where the initiation process was formally separate and distinct from that of project planning. In a few instances, it was the structure imposed by a project management office that drove this formality, and for others formal initiation as a separate and distinct process was embedded within their defined processes. The result was that while projects were initiated, many of the processes were informal and indistinct, and frequently the decision, while made, was indicated by verbal direction rather than formal sign-off.

Formality of Approach

The dimension of ‘formality of approach’ asks the specific question of how formally the process of project initiation is actually managed. What constitutes the formal documentation required to initiate a project was a particular point of variation, with participants indicating that they would be required to produce a detailed business case, a high-level business case, a project charter or a project plan. Some organizations described an approach that was less reliant on documentation and more focused on discussion, basing initiation decisions on presentations. For a few participants, an extremely high-level summary document would suffice: ‘Does that look like a charter? Unless it is just an IT project, I am not seeing charters used a lot. We don’t have a lot of pure [project management]-type practices. Would look like a two-page document’ (16). While the majority of participants described some level of documentation, the formality and detail were subject to a great deal of variation, and few participants described initiation documents that aligned with formal project management or strategy practices.

There was also a considerable degree of variation in terms of process consistency. This describes how often the process of project initiation is managed the same way within the organization. The majority of participants indicated that the process of project initiation had moderate consistency, and described their organization’s environment as one in which the process: ‘sometimes varies. A lot of times it is driven by how urgent the initiative has to be implemented, how large it is, what part of the organization is running with it’ (21). A few participants indicated that the process was mostly consistent or very consistent, but an equal number indicated that the process was very inconsistent. One perspective on this indicated: ‘We struggle with this. Before charter stage, there is not a consistent way of getting from an idea to an official project charter’ (2). The degree of consistency varied greatly in the participant descriptions, from completely lacking to extremely rigorous.

In addition to questions of consistency, there are also questions regarding formality of the initiation process for projects. Approximately half of the participants described an environment where there was no formal process for project initiation. At the same time, there were instances where the presence of a process had no impact on actual practice: ‘We don’t tend to not approve projects. Not a lot projects don’t get approved. We have a tendency to approve more projects than we can actually deliver. That tends to be our primary problem’ (1). While a significant number of participants indicated some formality regarding the project initiation process, this reflected a range of challenges, including processes still in development, processes that existed but were not well applied, processes that were flexible, and processes that, while being adhered to, did not actually produce relevant decisions. Only a small number of participants indicated that a relatively formal process of project initiation was in place. For the majority of participants, even the presence of a process did not result in consistent usage, and the actual decision making activities were often very informal.

Given the lack of formality, the question of process effectiveness was very important for participants. Nearly half of all participants described an initiation environment where the process was ineffective. For some, this was the result of not having an identifiable process. Others indicated that there was a process, but that it was not used. According to one participant: ‘We have a very clearly defined process that we put in place shortly after joining the organization; it probably lasted about three months, and then got thrown out the window. Tried to revitalize the process earlier this year; not a lot of success’ (7). A few indicated that their process didn’t actually result in prioritization decisions, and some also indicated that the results of the process were not understood or trusted. Most of the other participants indicated that their initiation process was only somewhat effective. This was the result of inconsistency, lack of adherence, differing processes being applied to different projects, little control actually being imposed on initiation or the process being too new to have an impact. Some spoke of challenges being introduced through compromises being imposed by the initiation process: ‘I worry about that. Will I have to compromise too much? Will I lose benefits that the organization may want to achieve? Will we compromise user experience because of demands for other features?’ (22). Only a very small number of organizations described the presence of a very effective process. This is significant, in that while all participants recognized project initiation processes, the vast majority indicated that the one at their organization was not effective or was only moderately effective in supporting the actual initiation of projects.

Clarity of Decision

The dimension of ‘clarity of decision’ explores the degree to which the result of the initiation process is a clear path forward in terms of what has been committed to. Only a few participants indicated that the project initiation process resulted in a clear plan. Half of the participants indicated that the initiation process resulted in a general direction, and a smaller subset suggested that the result of the initiation process was an inferred solution: ‘They would finalize it – get it under way probably without understanding what the scope implied as far as things like how it should be architected would go. Everyone would nod and agree and start marching’ (23). A small subset of participants indicated that the initiation process in their organization was unworkable or resulted in a tendency to defer decisions until more information was available: ‘We have had instances where hard decisions have had to be made and have required trade-offs, and those decisions tend to get deferred as well’ (1). Many participant descriptions indicated that projects at the time of initiation were not developed to an extent where the organization had a clear picture of the results it intended to obtain.

Another significant and problematic area was the degree to which decisions to initiate projects were aligned with the strategic direction of the organization. A large number of participants indicated that projects were matched to strategy in the project initiation process, meaning that as projects were identified, they were justified retroactively in terms of how they related to a predefined strategy: ‘I suppose they all consider the larger government mandate. Does this fit in the government business plan? Which priorities does this assist with? Doesn’t go much beyond that’ (4). Only a small number of participants indicated that strategy drove project initiation choices, and a few also indicated that there was a presumed link to the strategic plan for initiated projects. More than half of all participants indicated that the initiation process was predominantly reactive to demands, and several more suggested the process was ad hoc: ‘Decisions get made on a whimsy – it depends upon the mood what gets initiated’ (1). While participants described a theoretical alignment with strategy within many organizations, very few projects seemed to be initiated with a conscious alignment to organizational strategy.

Information to Initiate

The dimension of ‘decision information’ identifies the information that is required and considered during the project initiation process. This includes information contained within formal documents and deliverables as well as informally compiled or assessed information. Respondents demonstrated a comprehensive and diverse number of perspectives on what is required in terms of information to support project initiation. Participants identified the need to understand background, understand goals, understand impacts, understand lessons learned on previous projects, understand success and define approach. The need to research alternatives was also identified, as well as the need to present external benchmarks, and the need to consider change management as part of the initiation process. While this suggests a relative degree of formality in the analysis and consolidation of information, a number of stakeholders still indicated that they wanted more analysis of projects prior to initiation:

We do talk a lot about wanting to do a lot of analysis. In terms of actual time, we take on too many projects as a group. We find that we tend to do less analysis than we should. We are pressured to complete existing projects. We are not always spending enough time at the analysis stage. (26)

 

In short, many participants did not consider the analysis undertaken sufficient.

Respondents’ perceptions of failure to conduct sufficient analysis were supplemented by their statements that the level and detail of analysis varied depending upon the type of project being conducted. A number of participants suggested that rigour depended upon the purpose, and more than half suggested that rigour depended upon the project type. Relative perceived urgency was also an influence. Such comments suggested that different decision makers within the organizations had different degrees of expectation regarding the information required in choosing to proceed with projects.

What information was actually sought varied by respondent as well. Some participants sought their own understanding, while a few participants relied on the views of others in determining the viability of a project initiation decision: ‘Apart from the knowledge that we bring to the table, we don’t do our own kind of investigation. At least I don’t. I rely on the information in the proposal, and the presenter’ (4). More than half of participants indicated that despite the analysis and information that might be assembled, there was a tendency within their organization to commit to a solution prematurely, and a number of other participants suggested that any analysis tended to get overridden by executive imperatives. A significant challenge was the sense that any analysis only served to justify a pre-ordained conclusion, with documentation primarily serving to justify decisions that had already been made. For many participants, the effort to compile analysis and demonstrate rigour appeared to be more an issue of justification than a product of considered deliberation.

Value of Decision

The dimension of ‘value of decision’ identifies the means by which the value of potential projects is considered within the project initiation process. This includes the degree to which the value of a project is formally defined and articulated prior to project initiation, and the degree to which tangible and intangible factors influence the assessment of potential value. While respondents indicated that in their organizations there was a fairly broad discussion of overall analysis as part of the project initiation process, there was much less emphasis on understanding the value of potential projects. While some participants indicated that value was formally defined and evaluated, a comparable number indicated that value was informally considered or inconsistent:

It is probably too finite to say it is just retail projects, but more where projects are customer facing, there tends to be not a lot of scrutiny. That tends to be in the main retail projects. Compliance projects which are a cost burden face a great deal of scrutiny. (1)

 

For several organizations, value was not considered in any manner as part of the project initiation process. Participants appeared to place much less emphasis on considerations of value in determining whether to proceed with projects.

Where value was assessed, perspectives differed on the nature of value that had to be demonstrated. A significant number of participants indicated that any demonstration of value needed to be tangible and quantifiable. While a number of other participants allowed for the role and importance of intangible dimensions of value, it was rare that this was the primary area of emphasis. For some participants, value itself was reframed, with four participants indicating that the primary emphasis was on being ‘cost-sensitive’. This perspective is demonstrated by the comment: ‘if I view this from [our] standpoint, we have been sort of there a couple of times, when we have come to an understanding of the cost, there is usually a quick backing away from it’ (19). Measures of value appear to have been regarded with scepticism by many participants, and even projects with good promise were dismissed if the costs were considered too high.

Overall Rule Environment

The dimension of ‘overall rule environment’ encompasses the system of rules that are employed in governing the project initiation process within organizations. A particular area of consideration, and one that we will explore in considerable detail later, is the idea of decision agency, or the degree of flexibility and freedom that participants had to work within the organization to support project initiation. Several participants indicated that they had no flexibility in working within the rule system; rule adherence was essentially mandatory. For some, this was the result of the rigidity of process; for others, it was predominantly a result of the political environment within their organizations. In reference to organizational rules, one participant indicated: ‘Probably, I stub my toe once a week on one I didn’t know about’ (23). More than half of participants indicated that they had some flexibility in terms of adhering to and working with the rules of their organization – usually because there was some degree of process that they were required to adhere to, and because they recognized others who had political influence over the final project initiation decision. Only a small number of participants indicated that they had ‘considerable flexibility’ in working within the rule environments of their organizations: ‘Figured out how to work within this culture. It is a relationship-driven organization – if you have the relationship, that is how things get done: Through the back door conversations’ (16). There was a broad spectrum of responses from participants, from those willing to work around the rules to those that worked strictly within them.

A variety of ‘explicit rules’ were in place to govern the initiation of projects. For a small subset of participants, the explicit rules were clearly defined, with this clarity being a response to political issues, an espoused expectation or simply a reflection of how projects are actually initiated. By contrast, a number of participants indicated that there were minimal explicit rules within their organization. The underlying themes for this were diverse, and included comments about rules being limited to the expectation of a business case, or the definition of a project, or the commitment that a formal decision would in fact be made. In addition, participants indicated that there were minimal practices, minimal compliance and only general alignment of the rules with overall direction. Finally, a small number of participants indicated that there were no explicit rules within their organization governing project initiation, despite their perceived importance: ‘Very important. You need a common field of play so that everyone understands what it is that they need to be providing. If we are going to start evaluating one project against another, [we] need a common understanding’ (8). In all, surprisingly few organizations appeared to have clearly defined explicit rules in place relating to project initiation, and there was a great deal of room for interpretation and movement.

Participants outlined a broad array of implicit rules regarding the process of project initiation. One of the implicit rules discussed was that process has value; several participants suggested that there was an implicit appreciation of process within their organization, either because of the perception of value associated with having a process, because experts were responsible for the process, or because the process was in fact being adhered to. For some participants, process was implicit; while it was not articulated or written down, it was understood.

The pitfall is, I understand the rules in my own head, but sometimes they don’t get conveyed. Sometimes the problem is that the rules are my rules, and they haven’t been formally adopted within the organization or in the PMO – part of the vision that I have that hasn’t really made its way out yet. (3)

There was a muchbroader implicit understanding of politics, with more than half of the participants highlighting the implications of politics on project initiation; in this context, there was discussion of the need to leverage relationships, exercise influence and work within the culture. Overall, participant responses suggested that implicit rules had a broader and more comprehensive influence on project initiation than explicit rules do.

An important consideration in understanding the rule environment within organizations was the idea of rule consistency: the degree to which the rules as understood (whether implicit or explicit) were actually adhered to. The majority of participants reported that the rules within their organization were inconsistent, reasons for this including cultural differences, inconsistent expectations, silo influences, the existence of multiple processes, political influences, avoidance of processes, and a lack of history within the organization. Only a few participants indicated some consistency in their rule systems; they felt this was due to a conscious desire to remain flexible, a greater emphasis on implicit rules within the organization, or consistency being limited to only some aspects of the process. Finally, a small number of participants indicated that the rule system in their organization was very consistent; in all cases, these organizations had a strong explicit process environment in place: ‘We are very stringent – some might say over the top – but because we are in audit and tax, we have to be’ (20). These results suggest that not only were there fewer organizations described as having an explicit rather than an implicit process, but even where they were present, the application of explicit rules was low, except in a much smaller subset of organizations.

Lastly, the idea of rule effectiveness explores the degree to which the rule system in place helped in providing good project initiation decisions. According to the majority of participants, the rule system currently in place was not effective. Reasons for this included: there was no rule system in place; the rule system that was defined was not used or was subverted; the rule system was not fully articulated or understood, or the system did not produce decisions that were considered effective. Several more participants indicated that the rule system was only somewhat effective in their organizations. They suggested that this was due to: a lack of full awareness of the rule system within the organization; the evolving nature of the rule system; political influences on how the rules were applied; differences between explicit and implicit rules, and/or excess scrutiny of projects within the organization. By way of illustration, one participant said: ‘If the explicit rules are followed then a number of tasks have been completed prior to the [project manager] being assigned. If the implicit rules are followed in initiation, then the tasks the [project manager] needs to perform would vary’ (21). Only a very small number of participants indicated that the rule systems in their organizations were very effective. One of these said: ‘Very stable. Very repeatable. It’s the business we are in’ (28). These results suggest that for many organizations, the rule systems that were in place governing project initiation were not being used, or were being complied with only to the degree that there was scrutiny, and as a result were often being worked around. It is interesting to note that only a few participants felt that the rules that were in place were appropriate and effective.

Conclusions

The participant inputs described above exhibit a diversity of practices in project initiation, in a broad array of organizations. Participants did not tell the same story over and over again; their responses showed that very different approaches were applied in different organizations, with varying levels of formality and consistency. Some practices were written down, while others were only generally understood. A small number of participants saw the process of project initiation as being very clear, very formal and very much adhered to in their organizations, while another subset suggested that there were no rules about how projects were initiated, and that the presence of some rules might go a long way toward helping the organization to improve how it made project initiation decisions.

While the diversity of findings is interesting, they are not overly helpful or instructive when viewed in isolation. In particular, they do not provide a real insight into how decision making practices interact to produce effective – or ineffective – project initiation decisions. Determining the factors that led to effective decisions, and considering those aspects that led to ineffective decisions, required a great deal more analysis and the development of additional insight. What emerged from this exploration was the importance of agency in influencing the project initiation process, and the degree to which personal agency intersects with the formal and political rule systems of the organization to determine how decisions are actually made. The results of this analysis are presented in the next chapter.

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