Ensuring Joint Action – Relying On the Players’ Proficient Interaction
Groups sustaining a common understanding of goals and the commitment to reach them. Continual dialogue addressing requirements, scope and progress.
In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
A project is undertaken by a range of players, each one having a part to play in the venture – sometime, part-time or full-time. As stakeholders and sometimes players, they distinguish themselves by their particular interests, responsibilities and the contributions that they each make to the venture.
Their roles can be positioned across a range or continuum. At one end we can place the stakeholders who are prominent as players, actively sharing a collective responsibility for the management of their project. At the other end are stakeholders who do not involve themselves directly in its management. These might include suppliers of materials, programme authorities, funding sources and regulators. But all stakeholders have a place on this continuum; their position depending on the nature of their interests and the extent to which they are involved in its management.
Much consideration is given to information systems that support a project and the measurement and control of its progress. But they are not a primary interest to this book. Instead we look here at the resolve, dialogue and organisation of a project regime, i.e. how the players conduct themselves in the venture and how they manage its pace of progress (see Chapter 6).
The book examines, explores and suggests ways to recognise the beneficial behaviours of organisations (or ‘project regimes’), that are now achieving strong project management capability and that are reaching high levels of maturity.
The challenge for a project regime is to orchestrate and accommodate contributions and to resolve issues expressed by stakeholders; each holding different views of the world. It has to continually review the project’s goals as well as the ways in which it intends to realise their value.
So in managing a project, the issue of collaboration is central. And this is always true: not only during those testing and confusing times when the need for greater orderliness might be most apparent. Collaboration is an enduring imperative. It occurs as joint action between groups of players and is enabled by their social interaction. It is a key feature of all project management activities and is a test of their efficacy. Collaboration can be seen as ‘a network of commitments’ (Winograd and Flores, 1987: 150) and this definition serves to emphasise the players’ commitment as crucial. In ‘Towards a holding environment: Building shared understanding and commitment in projects’ (Culmsee and Awati, 2012), the authors offer the principle that collaboration is something that depends fundamentally on its participants acquiring:
a shared understanding of project goals … that leads to
a shared commitment to achieve them.
Project collaboration depends on meeting these conditions; this often presenting a significant challenge. The regime must ensure a common understanding of its goals and secure both the individual and collective commitments of its players.
Rich dialogue is required for engagement and reflection. Dialogue provides opportunities for stakeholders to explore, learn and reason their case and to comprehend and consider those of others. Initial positions need to be openly scrutinised and then ways found for reconciliation and agreement. As a group they will depend on a strong Engagement Capability (see Chapter 4).
Problems in accomplishing collaboration in the management of a project are not uncommon and can become the Achilles heel to achieving progress. Stratagems are needed that are capable of shifting the perspectives of stakeholders away from entrenched positions, defensiveness or scepticism and towards maintaining greater confidence in the venture and its protagonists.
Stratagems and methods for a project to acquire the shared understanding and commitment needed for collaboration, are examined in Chapter 4, ‘Connections’.
The Single-Minded Project
The following story offers some clues as to how groups of project players can become more productive and creative. Readers are invited to consider Janet’s experience in managing a project ‘single-handedly’ and reflect on the patterns of her thinking and decision-making.
Janet has committed herself on a Saturday morning to prepare a special Sunday lunch to be held the following day for her extended family and friends. This requires catering for 14 people. The period of notice is short, as is the floor-space and the situation features complexity and uncertainty. She recognises that the project will be managed ‘live’; continuously and in its entirety in her own single mind: from the decision to proceed, through to its conclusion and the washing of the dishes.
Using her single mind, Janet has to embrace all matters concerning the Sunday Lunch Project. Its planning, products, resources, quality issues, priorities, interests, processes and dependencies will all be continually scanned, scrutinised and acted upon by Janet. She does this, so far as we know, in a way that can only be accomplished using the instrument we know as the human mind.
It is late Saturday afternoon when Janet learns for the first time that three of her guests are vegetarians, and she then also realises that her dining room will be too small to seat everyone in comfort. She must seek more spacious accommodation for the party. Janet is able to take all this in her stride. In her mind – that single, interconnected processor – she is sensing, imagining, scoping, executing, re-scoping and re-planning. Dependencies, consequences and trade-offs are all recognised, considered and acted upon at every stage of the Sunday Lunch Project’s life-cycle.
This facility of a single mind confers major advantages over a project undertaken by a group of minds. It has the capacity to consider all options and to be aware of all known constraints; to be conscious of all that is happening within a context; to recognise all dependencies; to scrutinise the amalgamation of factors and judge trade-offs.
A crucial question that we have to ask is whether a regular project management regime consisting of many minds, can expect to emulate the same ‘single-mindedness’ as was available to Janet when she managed the Sunday Lunch Project.
The high levels of social engagement required for a group to achieve single-mindedness depend on members of a group each having a strong sense of self and social awareness, a belief in the project’s methods and purpose, curiosity, a sense of order and pace, connection and the skills needed to reconcile competing and contrasting interests. These so-called ‘soft skills’ are now recognised by today’s more successful and mature enterprises as the ‘hard ground’ on which strong connection and performance rests. It is a base-line that can sustain a project regime to be responsive, reliable and adaptable than those of its competitors.
Some organisations are now experiencing a ‘Venture Shift’ (see Figure 1.1 on the opposite page), challenging them to reach away from a prescribed or ‘traditional venture’ mode towards one that can function in ‘high venture’; where it will be more adaptive and agile and even ‘extreme’ in its irregularity and where the risks (and opportunities) are likely to be greater. Competition demands it. Many project regimes, in having to embrace the emergent and demanding issues of a project, now recognise that they must develop a response capability that is rapid and sure-footed. They need to be able to sense issues earlier, be more discerning and acting more promptly. The risks are greatest in circumstances that are ‘high venture’; this obliging the regime to become more functionally reliable.
If project players can work together as ‘a single mind’ they should surely expect to emulate some of Janet’s capacity to respond more reliably to events. But how can this be achieved? There is a powerful ambiguity here that will not have escaped readers. While ‘single mindedness’ is shown here to be about a group of players acting as one, the expression has another more familiar and equally vital meaning. This lies in the determination, will and tenacity of the players. We are speaking here of the strength of a conviction to succeed in an endeavour, through the abilities and dispositions that this requires. Managing a project is characterised by uncertainty and that requires a project regime’s dedication to endure. This vital attribute is referred to here as ‘Resolute Leadership’ (see Chapter 3).
Alliancing at the Andrew Field
This project developed and commissioned a platform and undersea facilities to extract oil from under the North Sea in the 1990s. As a recognised example of ‘alliancing’, Andrew qualifies as a ‘single-minded project’ from its capacity to maximise its pace of progress, reliability of execution and the quality of the players’ social engagement and collaboration.
The owner, BP, and its contractors committed from the outset to share the commercial risks of the project: to share any losses of their venture as well as to share any surplus or savings (a form of contract sometimes referred to as ‘Gain and Pain Share’). This exceptional example of collaboration between the rig’s contractors and BP led to the abolition of task duplication and other restrictive practices then endemic to the oil and gas extraction industry. The result was very significant cost savings from the original target estimate and these were shared as profit that was shared. Delivery was six months early and, exceptionally for the oil and gas extraction sector, there were no legal claims made on the contract on its completion (Sakal, 2005).
Once we realised that the historic tiers of authority, cross checking and approval were gone – that we were no longer waiting for permission – we grasped the freedom with relish (Bill Ebon of Brown and Root).
Here, Bill Ebon, a manager with a major contractor, remarks upon BP’s decision to ‘partner behaviour with technology’ as the key to a venture that would otherwise not have been commercially viable. He was referring to the adoption of a radically different project regime in which BP managers and engineers worked in close collaboration, sharing their common objectives. It was a major departure from traditional adversarial working practices in the oil industry (Knott, 1996). The players in this project are quoted as saying:
Co-operation between alliance members made innovation possible.
Having an open dialogue with the fabricators, we discovered what they really needed from us as designers.
We’re proud of our work in every job, but there was something extra on Andrew, an extra degree of trust.
Company identity, who worked for what company, became almost irrelevant to us and largely indistinguishable to the outside observer.
The Andrew project exhibited high ideals in its early meetings between BP and the contractors; but we suspected that in time, matters would revert to traditional business as usual. But not so (Knott, 1996:14,15, 42,140–45).
The era of large field operations was at that time giving way to the development and exploitation of smaller fields in which margins were squeezed. Development costs and the cost of manpower would have to be substantially reduced. Colin Maclean, then manager of programmes at BP Exploration, observed:
At this stage, the method for achieving these goals was not apparent and we realised that we could not rely on our past experience.
For these reasons the Andrew Field had earlier been found to be commercially unattractive. But BP decided that it should have a flagship with which to prove a new approach to capital investment. It also realised that the commercial arrangements with engineering contractors needed to become more effective as well as more efficient. It was decided that an integrated approach was needed that would radically change the working practices of BP’s staff in working with those of the contractors.
A small preliminary development team was formed to set off on this track. Paul Bobby, one of BP’s project co-ordinators, reported that:
We had never experienced this degree of integration before. Once the old barriers to openness and clarity were broken down, the resulting dialogue and understanding gave us the opportunity to determine the real cost drivers on the project.
It was Bobby’s team that first placed value on the advantages of collaboration. They successfully established the foundations for a progressive project community in which behaviour was focused on the project’s technical and financial success. From this, a strong and professional ethos developed. The project was delivered six months early and at a final cost of £290 million. The original BP estimate had been £450 million. The ‘go-ahead estimate’ prepared at the pre-contract stage by what was termed the ‘concerted body’ (BP with representatives of its main contractors) was £393 million. The saving of £103 million was over 26 per cent of the estimate made at go-ahead.
The story of Andrew is related in No Business as Usual, a book by Terry Knott, an oil industry journalist (Knott, 1996). It describes the development and operation of a high-performing work organisation. The engineers and technicians deployed hitherto were accustomed to a traditional contract working regime in which trust was explicitly excluded from the manning of tasks and the transactions that arranged them. Legal matters and contractual terms dominated the choices and working practices. These would encourage delay, excessive quality control, duplication of resources, poor co-ordination and extension claims. It was these behaviours that piled on the costs and in this project, they were largely removed.
From the outset, it was recognised that the project would require a different approach to the assessment and selection of contractors. The executives nominated by contractors to undertake work were assessed for their professional attitude and approach to joint working. BP knew that success depended on close social engagement between the players and collaboration between groups. At the pre-contract stage, these managers were pre-qualified as suitable for Alliance Working. As part of the tendering process, if a contractor was unable to nominate a manager who could be recognised by BP as suited to working in this way, their tender was rejected.
Sir John Browne, then the chief executive of BP, put the achievement into some perspective:
… relationships have been built to the mutual advantage of everyone involved. The savings in capital costs and the early production of oil are major achievements in the drive toward transforming the efficiency and the profitability of our business (Knott, 1996:160).
Before the Andrew project, such behaviours did not feature in BP’s culture. But it is evident that as the project developed, genuine candour, higher levels of confidence, energy and a stronger acceptance of the obligations between players developed. Responsibility was widely devolved in BP’s organisation, in those of contractors and in their joint working. It was behaviour that mirrored the working practices that developed in the Rocky Flats project in Colorado (see Chapter 9). A fuller account of project alliancing is set out in ‘Project Alliancing’ (Sakal, 2005).
So what can be learned from how the project regime on the Andrew Field project produced such outstanding results? Perhaps most significantly it was BP’s commitment to Project Alliancing, initiated through contracting and maturing into the maxim ‘Single Team – not enough; it’s Total Team’. Through these arrangements the project players shared a common purpose out of which emerged their willing commitment to deliver the project’s goals.
Many surveys and books have been written about how projects fail. Instead, this is an account of how a project came to be successful.
Apple Inc. and a Different Formula for Collaboration
Some exceptionally successful projects were undertaken under the leadership of Steve Jobs at Apple Inc. He was often strongly critical of Apple’s project players (Levy, 2006) and this behaviour came from his insistence on a particular approach; demanding the pursuit of his own vision for products and his way of doing business. The term ‘reality distortion field’ (RDF) was coined by staff to describe the regime under Jobs’ leadership. Jobs’ point of view and practices continually challenged conventional wisdom and what others would claim as reality. As Levy relates, Jobs was ‘often at odds with the facts’, but his ethos was nevertheless irresistible to many working with him. As Levy relates:
On the one hand the term RDF reflected the frustration of Mac workers; Jobs would get things into his head and that would be it. Only a repeated assault by the experience of actual reality (when things just didn’t work) would change his position. But the term was not strictly pejorative. Jobs was often right and only his unwillingness to compromise would convince others that taking an un-trodden path was correct. More to the point, people who were in range of the reality distortion field often came to believe that they could actually accomplish what seemed to be impossible (Levy, 2006:227–8).
Steve Jobs created and successfully presided over a community of people who largely shared common values, common ways of thinking, productive conversation and synergy – albeit it would be wrong to suppose that consensus often ruled. But collaboration did. Very many of the players were passionately loyal to him and while it was far from typical as a project community (is there such a thing?), it was a remarkable demonstration of the value of social capital and the exploitation of diversity. The strength of a professional project management regime and community arises from its resolve, its values, beliefs and behaviours. In every project, such features uniquely combine to produce a project regime behaving and performing in its own distinctive way.
Apple launched the iPod in October 2001. Rather than a technological breakthrough, it was a shrewd combination of existing components, including a miniature hard drive from Toshiba and a battery from Sony. In an eight-month ‘project sprint’, the people at Apple engaged and collaborated within and between its businesses, resolving a range of complex problems and issues. The project required countless interactions between design, hardware, manufacturing, marketing, software and external suppliers.
Until this time, Sony had been the dominant global player in portable music players, in the wake of its highly successful Walkman. But Sony experienced fundamental difficulties in competing with Apple and its iPod. When their ‘Connect’ product was launched in May 2004, Walt Mossberg of the influential Wall Street Journal wrote, ‘Until Sony fixes the multitude of sins in this product, steer clear of it’. In April 2007, Apple sold its 100 millionth iPod, and by August of that year Sony had withdrawn ‘Connect’ from the market.
The Sony project had been dogged by its own organisation’s hyper-competitive culture and territorial rivalry. Engineers working in Sony Corporation businesses in the US and Japan were encouraged to ‘out-do’ one another rather than to engage and collaborate. Sony fell into a trap of their own making when they supposed that the necessary collaboration would be available within and between these rival territories. When the ironically named ‘Connect’ project came along, depending as it did on collaboration more than newly developed technology, the decentralised Sony Corporation found itself hopelessly hobbled in a struggle to achieve competitive advantage. The story is reported by Morten T. Hansen (2009).
Collaboration Arises Locally
Social engagement and collaboration showed themselves as distinctive and valuable qualities of Apple’s project management under Steve Jobs. His form of engagement and collaboration was extraordinary but highly effective in the behaviours that it engendered and the innovation and pace of progress that was achieved. A comparison of the arrangements made here by Jobs with those adopted on the Andrew Field indicates that any collaborative regime has to be devised and configured locally and cannot be derived from a formula prescribed from elsewhere.
In the growing ‘projectisation’ of business and public sector organisations, many project regimes are led or sponsored by senior managers with little experience of the management of projects. An understanding of how to equip an organisation to be methodical and collaborative and the skills needed to achieve this kind of conduct are critical. Ill-informed decision-making can not only blight a project; it will also delay the development and maturing of a project regime. Perhaps if sponsors and other seniors and executives were involved more closely in undertaking the management of a project, a more successful partnership would develop with project management colleagues.
Shaping a Project
In the foreword to Industrial Megaprojects, James B. Porter Jr, chief engineer and former vice president, Engineering and Operations of DuPont, has this to say:
After more than 40 years working in the capital project arena, I remain mystified by the extreme reluctance of very intelligent business and technical leaders to validate past experience. It is my opinion that failing to accept that there are best project concepts, when executed in a disciplines manner, deliver predictably good results … makes no business sense. Over the course of my career I have struggled to find the best way of communicating this and to show that the business value was so obvious, that the use of proven approaches should be a no-brainer. I had begun to fear that we were all destined to continue to validate the observation expressed in this quote from Douglas Adams, the English humourist and science fiction novelist:
Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so (Merrow, 2011: ix).
Project management is not the routine that some perceive it to be. Any project’s path of progress is strewn with fresh realisations, unexpected events and innovation. These are inherent features; obliging players to engage and reengage, collaborate and sense issues promptly; then to set a new course while sharing planning activities that they know will be continually revised.
In the preparation work prior to a project’s launch date, a project’s foundations have to be laid with some care. In his blog ‘Shaping Sound Projects’ (Smith, 2010), Charles Smith describes ‘Project Formation’ through ‘Shaping’. Through his Six Element Framework, Smith sees projects as complex social enterprises that are commonly exposed to:
control measures that inhibit players’ inventiveness;
the interests and ambitions of players in groups (‘tribal’ impact);
the dissemination of procedures and routines to enact a tactic or standard;
project players working within a project regime to pursue goals unrelated to the project’s planned outputs/outcomes;
events that prompt or lead to reframing the purpose or progress of a project (Smith refers to this as ‘peripety’);
a player’s behaviour that is driven by personal volition serving allegiances or ambitions.
Shaping as a regular feature of project management is too often neglected. It serves the need to establish and sustain a stable platform from which to initiate and develop a successful venture. Edward W. Merrow, in his book Industrial Megaprojects (2011), defines project management as ‘the science of project planning combined with the art of reacting to surprises during execution’. Alleviating the incidence and impact of surprises is an objective of shaping. As such, it has a crucial part to play in a project’s management of risk.
Understanding the context.
Assessing the potential for creating value.
Assessing comparative advantages of objectives.
Identifying and understanding the stakeholders.
Thinking about partners.
The issue of collaboration lies centre stage.
Collaboration can be seen as ‘a network of commitments’.
A shared understanding of project goals and a shared commitment are keys to collaboration.
Rich and sincere dialogue is needed for a project’s engagement and reflection.
Players acting in concert when single-minded, can expect to be more resolute, engaged and ready to respond.
The will, candour and tenacity of the players.
‘We were no longer waiting for permission – we grasped the freedom with relish’.
‘Company identity; who worked for what company, became almost irrelevant to us and largely indistinguishable to the outside observer’.
‘Single Team is not enough; it’s Total Team’.
‘Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so’.
 According to natural law theory, which holds that morality is a function of human nature and reason can discover valid moral principles by looking at the nature of humanity in society, the content of positive law cannot be known without some reference to natural law. Used in this way, natural law can be invoked to criticise decisions about the statutes, but less so to criticise the law itself. Some use natural law synonymously with natural justice or natural right (Wikipedia).
PMI [ Hunsberger, K. ] (2007). Finding closure. PM Network, January, 31–6. Available at: http://www.pmi.org/About-Us/Our-Professional-Awards/~/media/PDF/Awards/PMN0107_Rockyflats.ashx [accessed 7 May 2014].
Smith, C. (2010). Shaping Sound Projects. Wellingtone Project Management. Available at: http://www.wellingtone.co.uk/blog/?p=114 [accessed 15 April 2013].