Project management between will and representation

Serghei Floricel, Department of Management and Technology, School of Management, University of Quebec in Montreal, Montreal, Canada

Sorin Piperca, Department of Management and Technology, School of Management, University of Quebec in Montreal, Montreal, Canada

This article challenges some deep-rooted assumptions of project management. Inspired by the work of the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, it calls for looking at projects through two complementary lenses: one that accounts for cognitive and representational aspects and one that accounts for material and volitional aspects. Understanding the many ways in which these aspects transpire and interact in projects sheds new light on project organizations, as imperfect and fragile representations that chase a shifting nexus of intractable human, social, technical, and material processes. This, in turn, can bring about a new grasp of notions such as value, knowledge, complexity, and risk.

KEYWORDS: complexity; knowledge; value; goals; materiality; planning; risk; governance

Project Management Journal, Vol. 47, No. 3, 124–138
© 2016 by the Project Management Institute
Published online at www.pmi.org/PMJ

INTRODUCTION img

From building transportation infrastructures, such as bridges and airports, to designing airplanes and dispatching exploration missions in space; from creating information and communication systems to editing video games and other software products; and from developing new medical drugs to organizing vaccination programs, complex projects are an essential part of advanced economies and societies. Yet many complex projects are not implemented fully or end half-way through execution. They are plagued by conflicts, litigations, and scandals; significant cost and schedule overruns; widespread dissatisfaction with their activities, final form, functions and benefits; and sometimes by accidents with catastrophic consequences for people, nature, and societies. The project management discipline has seized upon various perspectives and developed new approaches in an attempt to explain and address deviations from what it considers the normal course of a project. These attempts have recently produced a deep reconceptualization of project processes, knowledge production, stakeholder management, contractual design, risk management, as well as organizational governance, flexibility, and reliability.

One problem with these attempts is their low integration; each relies on different assumptions and they often produce recommendations that contradict each other and the basic tenets of project management. For example, some recommended contractual designs create problems with knowledge production and organizational flexibility, whereas others hamper cost control and organizational governance (Floricel & Miller, 2001). Researchers have tried various ways of bringing these approaches to a common denominator, by conceptualizing projects as organizations in their own right or, more recently, by adopting a practice perspective on project management. But these integration efforts are themselves plagued by heterogeneous assumptions and methodological foci (Floricel, Bonneau, Aubry, & Sergi, 2014), producing polyphony rather than dialogue and slowing down theory development.

This article attempts to provide a common ground for the efforts to re-conceptualize project management by seeking inspiration in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1821/1966) in order to reassess some deep-seated assumptions of the discipline. In essence, traditional assumptions depict project management as using knowledge about user needs, natural environments, technical objects, and human behavior in order to produce, through rational selection, decision, problem-solving and optimization processes, a series of prospective representations of project form (architectural and design depictions, technical drawings, site maps, production flowcharts, and so forth); resources and activities (goals, development processes, Gantt charts, budgets, risk matrices, and so forth); and organization (hierarchical charts, contracts, rules, and procedures, and so forth). These representations then become a teleological engine (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995) that drives implementation activities; managing projects amounts to monitoring and correcting deviations from these prospective representations (Floricel, Banik, & Piperca, 2013).

Our inquiry originated in the incongruence we felt between this depiction and the reality we perceived while studying complex projects, characterized by multiple iterations, deceptive embellishments, or even Machiavellian manipulations of representations. In addition, there were conflicts, heated debates, and tentative commitments between participants, which along with events that appeared as unexpected in light of participants’ representations, produced endless changes in project form, organization, and activities. These observations suggested to us that representations do not drive projects; they are merely a temporary truce under pressure from a heterogeneous and constantly shifting nexus of interests and forces. Following Schopenhauer, we term this nexus ‘will’ and argue that the current thinking in project management misinterprets its nature and underestimates its role. Inspired again by Schopenhauer, we also argue that representations are not mirror depictions of surrounding realities and future projects; rather, they are constructed at various levels, including in manipulative ways, and are used strategically to advance interests and activities. This enables us to argue that project management is the process of bringing and keeping together numerous heterogeneous and evolving strands of ‘will’ and ‘representation,’ and attempting to master the wildly emergent, rather than teleological, nature of this process.

We hope that by clarifying the complementary categories of ‘will’ and ‘representation’ in relation to issues encountered in complex projects, we provide an explicit worldview and a parsimonious set of fundamental concepts around which project management scholars could articulate their theorizing efforts. The specific contribution we expect is to help integrate a series of fundamental concerns of project management researchers, starting with the understanding of complexity and processes (Cooke-Davies, Cicmil, Crawford, & Richardson, 2007; Whitty & Maylor, 2009), and ending with the recent interest in practice and actor-networks, including the renewed interest in the role of materiality and the calls for a symmetric treatment of human and nonhuman ‘actors’ (Latour, 1991; Barad, 2003; Orlikowski, 2007). In turn, this will hopefully enable the integration of various applied and practical developments to which we alluded above.

We begin this conceptual development by introducing, in the next section, the concepts of will and representation as reflected in Schopenhauer's philosophical works, and by showing how these concepts can be viewed as extending, directly or indirectly, into some current thinking in organization theory and the project management field. The last section of the article discusses the implications for project management research and practice.

Understanding ‘Will’ and ‘Representation’

In 1818, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer published a book whose title is most often translated into English as The World as Will and Representation (Schopenhauer, 1966). The book sought to answer questions about our relation to the world, which date back at least to the time of Plato and Aristotle. In particular, Schopenhauer argued that our subjective relation to the world is, on the one hand, a ‘representation’ constructed by our cognitive faculties, and, on the other hand, a ‘will’ that works through our inner desires and sentiments. Rather than proposing a new dualism, he saw these two aspects as intertwined. In fact, the main reason we return almost 200 years back in time to rediscover Schopenhauer's work is that subsequent philosophical works emphasized one aspect at the expense of the other. On the one hand, phenomenology (Husserl, 1913/1931; Heidegger, 1927/1962) and logical empiricism (Bunge, 1996) seem equally concerned with the ‘representation’ side of being in the world; whereas, on the other hand, Nietzsche, existentialists, and even materialists appear to emphasize ‘will,’ be it as freedom or as necessity. We sought a perspective that balances these two aspects because we came to the conclusion that they are inextricably linked and play an equal role in projects. With such a perspective we hope to overcome a certain disconnect between these aspects in the project management field. Although the official project management discourse, backed by literatures rooted in decision theory, economics, and optimization (Winch 1989; Chapman & Ward, 1996; Brucker, Drexl, Möhring, Neumann, & Pesch, 1999), emphasizes the rational construction and embodiment of systemic and structural representations, the informal, everyday discourse of managers, with some support in the literature on the “human side of project management” (House, 1988), often strays into discussing volitional and emotional aspects and the interpersonal efforts needed to keep the project alive and enable effective action.

Schopenhauer's ideas suggest not just a path toward restoring the balance and enabling the integration of these aspects, but also a parsimonious set of distinctions, which, with proper interpretation and actualization, could provide a conceptual kernel for rethinking the nature of project management. We begin by discussing the ‘representation’ aspect, before clarifying the particular meaning of the term ‘will.’ The section ends with a discussion of the interaction between ‘will’ and ‘representation.’ In each subsection, we outline recent developments that echo Schopenhauer's views as well as implications for the understanding of project management.

Representation

Following Kant, Schopenhauer argues that our representation of the world presupposes certain a priori cognitive faculties, the most basic of which are the capacities to represent time, space, and causality. Because of this, while admitting that there is a reality out there (a “thing” in itself) and that representations are an immediate correlate of this reality, Schopenhauer argues that the constructed nature of representations precludes us from knowing the true nature of this reality based on our perceptual sensations or on our abstract ideas. In particular, we cannot assume that this reality has the same properties of space, time, and causality inherent in our representations of the world as a priori forms of our sensibility. The constructed nature of representation concerns the immediate perception of the world, but even more so other representations, in particular abstract conceptualizations, which are all conditioned by the immediate perception.

Subsequent inquiries into the nature of immediate perception support the idea of a constructed representation of reality. Physics-inspired thinkers were intrigued by our perception of the world. Of particular interest were time and space, namely why introspection into the way we perceive the world tells us that space should be represented with three dimensions and time should be considered a separate dimension, even as physical theories and mathematical formalisms could add any number of dimensions and consider time as one among them. Poincaré (1912) argued that the ‘normal’ structure stems from the biological structure of our cognitive apparatus, but also surmised the existence of a faculty that enables us to construct physical and mathematical continuums as well as 'spaces’ with a different number and configuration of dimensions. Rashevsky (1935, p. 75), the founder of a field called mathematical biophysics, even attempted to imagine “what the physico-chemical structure of organisms must be so that they would choose for their frames of reference our three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time,” warning that “this structure must itself be described in non-spatial and non-temporal terms.” Biology-inspired thinkers extended this line of thought to argue that such innate ‘distortions’ are adaptations that ensure our survival, among others, by focusing our attention on certain aspects of reality and excluding others. Maturana and Varela (1980) proposed the concept of autopoiesis, as the tendency of some systems to reproduce the relations that sustain their existence. The ‘perception’ of autopoietic systems refers to the system itself, by selecting only those external features that are of interest in relation to system survival. For example, unaided human perception only represents a range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic or sound spectrums, as well as objects and processes in a limited range of size, proximity, and speed. In other words, we construct a world of our 'size’ and ‘likeness,’ which, among others, translates into safety and ergonomic concerns for project site equipment operation and for the design of projects from military aircraft to information systems (Shneiderman, 1979).

Psychologists and neural scientists provide more evidence in support of the constructed nature of our representations. For example, they found a powerful ability to set apart objects from the ground or to discern the features and expressions of other people. For gestalt psychologists and neurobiologists, these abilities amount to an active construction of the world by our brain (Köhler, 1938; Wertheimer, 1938; Maunsell, 1995; Zeki, 1992). A first operation involved in “seeing with the brain” enables us to spontaneously see objects as an instantiation of a category. Many such categories, including social ones, point to the function of an object or to the way it affects the subject (Polanyi, 1966; Dreyfus, 1991; Rosch, 1978). Perceiving objects directly as meaningful, for example, as a friend or a foe, is an adaptation that enables us to react more quickly to dangers. A second constructive “distortion” that our brain performs almost automatically is putting objects in relation (Anderson, 1980; Damasio, 1989), such as apprehending their relative position, sequence, movement, or causal influence. The two operations are not only basic, but also independent, as suggested by the fact that our brain uses separate neural circuits to perform them (Kandel, 2006).

According to Schopenhauer, our representation of the world also involves the ability to create and operate with abstract categories. In line with the rational views mentioned above, this uniquely human ability to “withdraw into reflection,” in a “sphere of calm deliberation” away from the “storms of reality” (Schopenhauer, 1966, p. 85) is the key to planning future actions and increasing our control over the world. He also argues, however, that abstract concepts are rooted in our perception of the world and, hence, are conditioned by the operations that construct this perception. Furthermore, while perception gives us a direct and, in some sense, infallible grasp of the world, abstract representations are prone to errors with regard to the meanings of concepts and the relations between them. These ideas are echoed by epistemological perspectives that see only a loose correspondence between abstract constructs and the reality “out there.” These range from views insisting on the primacy of the logical structure of a network of concepts over its correspondence with the sensations we get from reality (Bunge, 1996), to those observing that conceptual nets “impinge on reality only at the margins” (Quine, 1951), or not at all, as concepts derive meaning from their relations to each other (Wittgenstein, 1953).

Such debates are paralleled in the literature on technology by discussions on the role of abstract knowledge—such as scientific formulas—in representing and guiding the design concrete artifacts, for example, in innovation projects. While some authors (Bunge, 1967; Sorenson & Fleming, 2004) maintain that abstract knowledge plays an important inspiring and guiding role, others (Vincenti, 1990; Nightingale, 1998) argue that abstractions have a hard time capturing the complex forms of technical objects and may even be counterproductive (Kline, 1987). The alternative is developing an intuitive understanding of the operation and “affordances” (Gibson, 1977) of relevant concrete objects, through immediate perception and practical experience, such as that obtained through repeated prototype trials. A similar debate, with relevance for project selection activities, ensued in psychology and decision theory from the finding that decision makers systematically deviate from the norms of “substantive rationality” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). A more adaptive behavior seems to be interacting repeatedly with the concrete reality and iteratively improving the representation of the situation rather than seeking an optimal decision scheme from the outset (Simon, 1978; Einhorn & Hogarth, 1981). These findings are, perhaps, echoed in the growing popularity of iterative, as opposed to linear, project processes, including Scrum (Boehm, 1988; Schwaber, 1997; Shenhar, 2001).

Human limitations and abilities also explain the widespread production of representations on external, material supports, such as paper and computer screens, in the forms of symbolic formulas, drawings, imagery, and videos. Some of these representations, such as those provided by an electronic microscope or a particle detector, enable us to overcome perceptual limits. Yet the means by which they are produced add another thick constructive layer, via the theoretical assumptions incorporated into the design of the relevant devices and practices, even simple ones such as optical microscopes (Hacking, 1981; Pickering, 1981). Similar constructive distortions operate in the devices investigating soil conditions for a hydroelectric dam project, the size of an oilfield for a drilling platform project, or the biological processes that justify a new drug development project.

Other benefits of external representations are the possibility of preserving impressions and abstractions to overcome memory limitations and of conveying them in time and space to overcome the limitations of presence. Moreover, external representations also provide feedback on imagined objects by letting us glance at their concrete form in the world and manipulate them in ways mental abilities do not allow. This is particularly useful for architects, engineers, and industrial designers who, in essence, construct project representations by relying on nonverbal thought (Ferguson, 1977; Visser, 2006). Like constructing mental representations, constructing external ones involves selection, accentuation, meaning attribution, and relational configuration (Lynch, 1988). These distortions, however, are combined with processes of materialization and preservation on external media, which impose their own set of constraints (Latour, 1986). In some cases, the process also involves representational conventions that abstract in a particular directive way from the richness of perceptual representations (Henderson, 1991; Zasso, 1996). These insights into the nature of mental and external representations suggest that knowledge production and representation practices in projects do not just passively enhance correspondence with a reality out there, but actively construct a reality, via multilayered, partially implicit processes of perception, conceptualization, codification, and embodiment. Construction seems even less anchored and more active when prospective representations, such as project plans and drawings, are being produced. Results may differ, depending on the specific actors, tools, and operations involved in these processes, and hence may channel projects on quite different action paths.

Social processes add another distortive layer to the process of representation construction. Theories about the social construction of reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Bourdieu, 1977), in particular the sociology of science, technology, and risk (Fleck, 1979; Hughes, 1983; Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982), imply that rather elaborate processes of collective selecting, amplifying, forgetting, and legitimizing are enmeshed in the construction of concepts and causal attributions used in practice and science. In turn, these influence individual perception and action. These theories can help us understand the practices through which the ‘myth’ of project viability and worth is built and maintained; the strategic practices that encourage or limit the access and influence of possible participants in the process; or impact decisions by setting the discussion agenda, framing the key issues, legitimating, and otherwise structuring the field of possible action (Foucault, 1982; Dutton & Jackson, 1987; McCombs & Shaw, 1993).

Representations on external, material support play a key role in these processes—first as vehicles for conveying internal representations, such as project visions or personal and tacit knowledge, to other actors, present in the same room, or located farther away in space and time. Studies of engineering design and innovation projects suggest that a multitude of representations are used, some to synthesize, convey, and legitimate knowledge, either existing or produced in the course of project activities; whereas others are used to represent requirements, functions, architectures, artefact forms, and schedules that guide execution. The nature of representations seems to evolve from abstract and simple to concrete and complex as the project advances (Floricel, Michela, & George, 2011; Chandrasegaran et al., 2013). The research on external representation practices traced sequences or networks of representations that converge toward a definitive “inscription” which legitimizes the project myth (Henderson, 1999; Latour, 1986), and also elucidated how external representations are used to enable collaboration. As “boundary objects” (Star & Griesemer, 1989; Carlile, 2002), they enable the coordination of planning activities across organizational and departmental boundaries by helping create a shared vocabulary and meaning, while as “epistemic objects” (Ewenstein & Whyte, 2009; Knorr Cetina, 1997), their joint construction helps integrate the contributions of planners working together. A key condition for collaboration seems to be the flexibility allowed by various forms of embodiment, for example by a pencil and paper sketch compared with an electronic database (Henderson, 1991).

External representations can also be a vehicle for “translating” the project in an attempt to attract, tame, or repel other actors or to create a “screen” that projects the needed image for stakeholders (Callon, 1986). Their morphologic, figurative and symbolic structures, as well as their dynamic properties, convey meaning by interacting with actors’ innate perceptual and conceptual abilities as discussed above. The study of practices involving such representations—from written slogans and graphic materials to final artifacts—can illuminate their use as “discursive instruments” for influencing others actors (Deetz, Tracy, & Simpson, 2000). The selection and active manipulation of representations are also used to project the competence, probity, diligence, and reliability of the actors that produced them, and hence, to augment their status, legitimacy, credibility, and, ultimately, their potential influence on other actors (Floricel, Michela, & George, 2011). For example, during the Polaris system development, PERT charts served, among others, to demonstrate the use of modern management practices and hence keep public bureaucrats from interfering with the project (Sapolsky, 1972).

The above discussion reveals that representations could be viewed differently compared with the assumptions of the rational paradigm in project management. Rather than being knowledge that reflects, albeit imperfectly, the reality surrounding a project, they are distortions resulting from biological, psychological, and social processes; instead of providing objective justifications for projects, they are used as tools for convincing and manipulating. But even if this richer, albeit not unusual view, is adopted, our understanding of projects may suffer from the overemphasis on representations imported from the social and organization theories that inform project research. These theories have been dominated by phenomenology-inspired views regarding the social construction of reality and the various forms of institutionalization of structures and practices (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Giddens, 1984; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). These views had multiple echoes in organization theory—from the information-processing view (March & Simon, 1958; Stinchcombe, 1990); to an emphasis on tacit knowledge (Nonaka, 1994), routines (Nelson & Winter, 1982; Feldman & Pentland, 2003), sensemaking, identity, and heedful behavior (Weick, 1979; Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991); and even on ‘practice’ as a corpus of accepted ways of doing things (Jarzabkowski, Balogun, & Seidl, 2007). Project management has followed the same trend (Blomquist, Hällgren, Nilsson, & Söderholm, 2010). Only recently have these fields started to pay attention to external representations and their organizational roles as boundary or epistemic objects (Scarbrough, Panourgias, & Nandhakumar, 2015). Also recently, currents such as actor-network theory, activity theory, socio-materiality, and the practice view (Latour, 2005; Engeström, 2001; Orlikowski, 2007; Nicolini, Mengis, & Swan, 2012) have started to explore the ways in which social interactions are intertwined with various material aspects of the world. We believe that Schopenhauer's concept of ‘will,’ discussed in the next section, opens an avenue for better understanding the volitional and material aspects of project management, as well as for their rebalancing and integration with the representational aspects.

Will

This second aspect of our relation to the world, which Schopenhauer puts forward, is related to inner sensations such as pain, pleasure, emotion, desire, and urges to act. Schopenhauer views these sensations as vehicles through which a fundamental ‘will’ present in the world expresses itself. For him, the intuition of these inner states, unencumbered by words and concepts, is a way of glimpsing into the intrinsic nature of the world—a holistic eternal force that manifests itself through a multitude of subjects in particular times and places. Another expression of ‘will’ is the never-ending struggle for domination between subjects, including that between human and non-human subjects, or with non-living forces. Simply put: a multiplicity of subjects are vehicles, at specific places and times, of this universal force. Subjects cannot represent this force as an object, but it acts through their bodies and can be glimpsed via introspection. Contrary to Nietzschean or existentialist views that emphasize the autonomy of individual volition, Schopenhauer argues that the feeling of individual free will in human subjects is an illusion, enabled by the higher levels of organization of the human body.

Schopenhauer's vision of ‘will’ appears to have been influenced by Hinduism (Nichols, 1999; White, 2010). Other possible influences are ancient mystical notions, such as Dionysian or Bacchic cults in ancient Greece and Rome, which opposed the rational cult of Sun's god Apollo, and whose ceremonies, by diminishing actors’ restraint, let followers express and connect with the irrational forces that ruled them. These ideas made Schopenhauer a preferred philosopher of Romanticism, an intellectual current that—in reaction to the Age of Enlightenment with its emphasis on knowledge, individual freedom and rationality—rediscovered ancient Nordic myths and their beliefs that occult magical forces rule the world (Williamson, 2004).

Despite these sources, Schopenhauer's view is surprisingly compatible with modern scientific views of a material world. Thus, Schopenhauer's always unsatisfied ‘will’ is akin to the impetus present in the universe since, say, the ‘Big Bang,’ whose nature and origins still elude our ability to understand it as a fully representable object. One of the many diffuse consequences of this impetus is the development of living organisms, including the human species. Each organism can be seen as a temporary nexus of processes in the vast network of transformations that this impetus generates in the world. Its particular form is an echo of transformations, such as evolutionary adaptation, that follow obscure logics, perhaps as strange as that supposed by Dawkins's (1976) “selfish gene” hypothesis. The peculiarities of this form, including the a priori representational abilities and the sensations it produces in subjects, are geared toward the survival of the body and the reproduction of its species.

The idea of a magic underground that influences phenomena in the world in intractable ways is also echoed in modern scientific views. Scientists are still debating the fundamental properties of space, time, energy, and matter, as well as the nature of subatomic particles and the processes involving them. Current thinking about them includes notions that call into question the traditional conceptions of space, time, and causality, such as relativity, intrinsic randomness (rather than lack of knowledge), and limits to observation. Yet, even with these assumptions, the world cannot be explained using a parsimonious set of concepts related in simple ways. Streams of thought attempting such explanations—for example string theory—make strange assumptions, so strange that no mathematical apparatus is available to work out any testable hypotheses (Greene, 1999). Among others, they postulate entities that lack normal dimensionality and spaces with many additional hidden dimensions. What Romantics viewed as occult, telluric forces, is now the almost infinite potential for surprising discoveries in what Feynman (1960) called “plenty of room at the bottom.”

But the idea of intractable influences beyond our representation and abstraction abilities is also relevant at a more macro, everyday level, and transpires in the debates on complexity, emergence, and process ontologies. Of the various views on complexity (Biggiero, 2001), closer to the concept of ‘will’ appears to be the one focusing on the fact that interactions between entities at a lower level of organization, and/or between their properties, lead to unexpected properties in higher-level objects. System philosophers call this possibility ‘emergence’ and argue that it gives higher-level entities a distinct ontological status; emergent entities exist in their own right (Bunge, 1979; Simon, 1981). Complexity in this sense increases with the extent that component aggregation is non-additive, and emergent properties cannot be reduced to the properties of component entities and of their interactions. In other words, we cannot represent the origin and the impetus for many entities that we observe in the world. The nature of emergence and non-additivity itself is still the object of heated debate (Wimsatt, 2006). All this gives phenomena, including project-relevant ones, such as those related to materials, air or fluid dynamics, and soil, an aura of ‘magic’ despite spectacular advances in science and technology in the two centuries since the publication of Schopenhauer's book.

Additional complexity of this type comes from the ‘downward conditioning’ (Kontopoulos, 1993) that higher levels of organization exert over their components, especially in the sense of maintaining the relations that led to their emergence in the first place. Upward from molecules, biological entities have been characterized by multiple interactions between up to nine emergent levels of organization (Kohl & Noble, 2009, p. 3). The failure to explain and especially to predict these phenomena by focusing on components such as genes and proteins has led to calls for abandoning the prevalent reductionist stance in biology and adopting a more systemic, cross-level approach (Mayr, 2000; Sauer, Heinemann, & Zamboni, 2007; Noble, 2010). In practical terms, this failure, relevant for pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and biomedical projects, seems to account for the extremely low percentage of successful projects, for the low level of success of ‘rational drug design’ approaches; and hence, for the continuing prevalence of massive trial and error approaches that seek to find a way of tricking the ‘magic underground’ to do what project participants want it to do (Nightingale & Martin, 2004; Mandal, Moudgil, & Mandal, 2009).

The ideas of emergence and downward conditioning have also characterized the efforts to account for the complexity of social reality. Researchers set apart several aggregation levels: individuals, teams, organizations (including projects), sectors, nations, and global systems. Yet they struggle to understand how these interact. Although some scholars, particularly economists, try to explain the properties of higher-level systems by looking at the interactions between lower-level entities (Axelrod, 1984; Coleman, 1966), others emphasize the influence of higher levels on the organization of lower levels (Parsons, 1960; Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Luhmann, 1995), whereas a third group stresses the mutual influences between the various levels (Bourdieu, 1977; Giddens, 1984). The diversity of possible interactions may account for the fact that project organizations do not obey the tenets of rational design; their emergence from multiple types of relations between various types of human and nonhuman entities adds layers of complexity in addition to those attributable to intractable interactions in their material and biological substrate.

Another stream of thought that supports the inscrutable and dynamic nature of ‘will’ concerns natural and social processes. According to Prigogine (1997, p. 55), we live in a world in which “we discover fluctuations, bifurcations, and instabilities at all levels.” One line of inquiry into processes still considers entities as real and focuses on the conditions and mechanisms that produce highly non-linear or chaotic dynamics in the systems of interests (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995; Dooley & Van de Ven, 1999). Of particular interest are conditions and mechanisms through which small, imperceptible differences in initial conditions lead to wildly different outcomes; for example, for competing innovation projects (Arthur, 1989). On the other hand, however, the proponents of so called ‘process ontologies’ consider that entities are artifacts of our perception, and that events, which make a difference in the world and connect to each other to form processes, are the essential elements of the world (Hernes, 2008, p. 45, referring to the work of Alfred North Whitehead). Processes are detectable strands of events in a world in continual becoming (Hernes & Weik, 2007). Organization scholars influenced by this ontology argue that continual becoming is the normal state of organizations and the only way to influence its course is by interacting in order to reweave some of the processes (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002). This process view provides strong arguments against the rational ‘practice’ of attempting to ‘freeze’ project deliverables and organizations up front, through plans, organizational charts, and contracts; in fact, it suggests that to manage projects is not to sanction deviations but to embrace and perhaps stimulate continuous change processes.

Schopenhauer's argument that perception is conditioned by innate structures, and that we perhaps get a more direct access to ‘will’ through bodily sensations, such as emotions, has also been supported by subsequent developments. The discovery of unconscious sources of human behavior (Freud, 1953), some of which may be deep structures shared across the human species (Jung, 1965; Schein, 1985); the mapping of cognitive functions and subjective sensations on specific areas and processes in the brain, nervous, and other somatic systems (Changeux & Dehaene, 1989; Le Doux, 1995; Cabeza & Nyberg, 2000; Kandel, 2006); as well as studies in evolutionary psychology (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Pinker, 1999) all seem to support the idea that representations and emotions are the results of the lines of force that express the original impulse working through the body. Rather than producing a “mirror” or “true” representation of some external reality, evolution developed living forms that harmonize with these lines of force by constructing biochemical and physiological ‘representations’ and perceptual sensations and by triggering actions, which, despite their seeming irrationality, are crucial for maintaining the relations that ensure the survival of individuals and species (Maturana & Varela, 1980). The implications of these findings for project management research and practice go well beyond the tenets of the ‘human side of project management’ current, which opposes a view of project actors as malleable and rational executants that can be managed mechanically (Block, 1983; House, 1988). While relying on psychology, ergonomics, and political science to suggest a more nuanced understanding of actors, the ‘human side’ perspective still aims to subsume any complications to the ‘rational’ project management view, by identifying relevant stimulus-response regularities; and, from a cognitive perspective, by accounting for intervening biases and distortions. Rather, the new views, which correspond better to Schopenhauer's ‘will,’ de-center away from humans by stressing their complex and multifaceted material and biological roots and by treating human and nonhuman entities in a symmetric and inextricably related manner (Latour, 1991).

The relevance of the ‘concept of will’ for project management is echoed by recent trends in research and practice. In a sense, the unpredictable and always becoming nature of the world is already captured by the interest in risk, in particular in unforeseen events (Floricel & Miller, 2001; Sommer & Loch, 2004) and complexity (Shenhar, 2001; Williams, 1999). Research on complexity in project management has taken two paths (Geraldi, Maylor, & Williams, 2011). One path aims to take a deeper look at the nature of project complexity to enable a critical reassessment of prescribed project management methods (Whitty & Maylor, 2009), whereas the other prefers the more practical approach of mapping the vast diversity of factors that increase project complexity (Bosch-Rekveldt, Jongkind, Mooi, Bakker, & Verbraeck, 2011). These studies can be further divided into two strands—one static and the other dynamic—a distinction similar to the one we made above (Benbya & McKelvey, 2006). In terms of substantive areas, the inquiry included technical aspects (Kim & Wilemon, 2003; Lu & Suh, 2009) as well as the market, social, and political environment; the networks of contractors and stakeholders; the nature of organizations and teams, and so forth (Floricel, Piperca, & Banik, 2011).

We believe, however, that the concept of ‘will’ can improve our understanding of the forces at work in project management to a much larger extent than the research on complexity has been able to do thus far. First, it can help us take a fresh look at the broad range of intractable and dynamic ways in which materiality intertwines with projects, as suggested by researchers interested in sociality with objects (Knorr Cetina, 1997), actor-networks (Callon, 1986), and sociomateriality (Barad, 2003; Orlikowski, 2007). In our own research we repeatedly found that, despite the availability of statistical knowledge and advanced technical means, project managers had to confront unforeseen soil and weather conditions. Situations in which the support of a bridge or the base of a dam could not reach solid rock because they fell on a surprisingly deep geological deposit or even on a tectonic fault line are common. Echoing the occult telluric forces of Romanticism, it seems that complex projects regularly encounter ‘black swans’ that reveal the fragility of past statistical knowledge (Taleb, 2007). Thus, even more common are occurrences of biological processes that block the action of drugs for reasons that are impossible to predict or even understand, of unsuspected responses of living organisms and ecosystems involved in or affected by projects, as well as of artifacts that stubbornly refuse to behave as designers intended. Failures during execution and exploitation, often having severe consequences, or even the inability to separate and coordinate work and traffic flows on construction sites are other frequent examples. These situations have inspired some thinkers to argue that a constant risk of technical catastrophes and major unintended consequences of innovation and other complex projects is the normal state of affairs in modern societies (Beck, 1992; Kenway, Bullen, & Fahey, 2006). Echoing the Romantic-era vision of a magic underground, Perrow (1984, p. 11) argued, after studying the Three Mile Island accident that “socio-technical systems have become so complicated that we cannot anticipate all the possible interactions of the inevitable failures; we add safety devices that are deceived or avoided or defeated by hidden paths in the system.”

Given the vast network of material and logical interactions that constitute a project today and the abundance of surprising events, the project management field has started emphasizing practices such as the gradual or iterative definition of scope and requirements (Mac-Cormack, Verganti, & Iansiti, 2001), the lean (just-in-time, moderately in advance) planning of activities (Ballard & Tommelein, 2012), and the agile or improvisational execution (Conforto, Salum, Amaral, da Silva, & de Almeida, 2014; Leybourne, 2009); to seek ways to detect early warning signs of project failure (Kappelman, McKeeman, & Zhang, 2006); and to increase the response capacity of project organizations (Floricel, Piperca, & Banik, 2011). Others have insisted that reducing the chances of such events relies on the development of network coordination capabilities (Brusoni, Prencipe, & Pavitt, 2001) and even on a total reshaping of the institutional framework that surrounds the development, execution, and exploitation of projects (Leveson, Dulac, Marais, & Carroll, 2009). Even for projects such as software, information, and communication systems in which designers assume that material aspects are under control, and only deal with representations, such as strings of bits, they have become concerned with the complexity of representations themselves (Tergaden, Sheetz, & Monarchi, 1995; Katina, Keating, & Jaradat, 2014). Experts struggle to define and quantify the static complexity of such virtual systems, often conceptualizing it as the difficulty of representing system regularities in a simplified manner, along with the computational effort required for retrieving its form with a given degree of precision (Kolmogorov, 1965; Gell-Mann & Lloyd, 1996).

The concept of ‘will’ can also be used to better understand the roles and behaviors of human actors, going beyond the view of selfish opportunism ‘with a guile’ (Williamson, 1981), but still calculating and utility maximizing, which economists propose, toward a much broader range of rational and non-rational behavior, driven by urges stemming from actors’ material and biological nature. This view can accommodate behavior affected by greed, libido, resentment, fatigue, stress, disease, mental illness, and the use of alcohol and drugs. Our own research on complex projects has revealed frequent conflicts not only with stakeholders such as pressure groups and trade unions, but often between participants. These conflicts were often based on personal animosity, sometimes led to threats, violence, and other types of criminal behavior, and often could be resolved only by removing some of those involved from the project. We also observed how this kind of conflict was exacerbated by unexpected problems related to project environment and artefacts. Of course this view can also account for seemingly ‘random’ creativity, entrepreneurial brilliance, and energy as well as altruism, solidarity, and heroism in dangerous situations. Despite the recent importance that organization theorists are beginning to attach to emotions (Huy, 1999), neural micro-foundations of organizational behavior (Hodgkinson & Healey, 2011), and even criminal behavior (Crane, 2013), this range of non-rational behavior is still rarely considered in project management research (Müller et al., 2013).

All these aspects, uncovered by using the concept of ‘will,’ also enable a rethinking of the impetus for initiating and carrying forward projects as a diversity of processes conditioned by their material substrate. This latter condition puts human and non-human beings as well as project artifacts and natural surroundings on an equal epistemological footing; they all become actors of sorts (Latour, 1991; Law, 2004). Indeed, participants’ and stakeholders’ needs, desires, intentions, fears, urges to act and dominate, as well as underlying natural processes in artifacts and soil, are all expressions of ‘will’ through different vehicles. In rational views, some of these expressions translate into goals, functions, value, or utility, whereas others are interpreted as costs, constraints, and risks. Yet, these translations operate on processes that can hardly be understood and represented, such as those that work through the body to ensure survival or those that work in project surroundings to produce earthquakes and hurricanes. As a result, goals and value are bound to be arbitrary in light of any representation of the world, as expressed in such observations as “rules of morality [...], are not conclusions of our reason,” (Hume, 1739, p. 457), and “nothing that ought to be can be deduced by knowing what is” (Polanyi, 1966, p. 44, italics in the original).

A corollary of having such a shaky base is that goals and value assessments by different project participants are likely to be in conflict, even when they are rooted in altruistic urges or when surrogates of causal representation—such as cultural values, social norms, and traditions—serve as justifications (Habermas, 1968). Conflicts force project participants and stakeholders to change positions or induce other actors to change theirs. Besides, while a current assessment may reflect fundamental forces and longstanding traditions, the dynamic components of survival-oriented bodily processes constantly react to changing stimuli. In particular, the impetus that works through nonhuman and inanimate material substrates will produce events that will be perceived as unexpected by project participants (Luhmann, 1993). This will trigger reactions in some actors, which will change their goals and assessments of value and induce other actors to change their desires accordingly. Therefore, project goals or technical specifications that “fix” these assessments of value can only be taken as temporary representations of untamed and poorly understood expressions of ‘will’ through subjects. This also means that the teleological engine and the linear unfolding patterns—implicit in the dominant plan-then-execute paradigm for project management—are not a valid description of project processes, and should be replaced, perhaps by dialectic or evolutionary engines and by continuous becoming processes, as well as by practices that constantly reassess the context and participants’ goals and attempt to continually rebuild the nexus of commitments to the project.

The Relation Between ‘Will’ and ‘Representation’

In Schopenhauer's view, ‘will’ and ‘representation’ are two sides of the same coin, which amounts to an automatic link between the two. Hence, he stresses the importance of representations in the form of “intuitive, immediate apprehension,” by arguing that “abstract concepts of reason can only serve to handle what is immediately understood [...] but never to bring about understanding itself” (1966, p. 21). In turn, apprehension is conditioned by the innate manifestations of ‘will.’ Theories of evolutionary cognition and autopoietic systems, which we mentioned before, as well as pragmatism (Simpson, 2009), situated action (Suchman, 1987), and activity theory (Leont'ev, 1978), connect ‘will’ to ‘representation’ via the argument that the latter is oriented internally, toward inner states and activities that ensure the survival and maintenance of the body or other relevant systems. This link is supported by evidence from psychology and neurobiology research on the importance of emotions—an expression of ‘will’ in subjects—for regulating cognition and adaptive behavior (Zajonc, 1984; Damasio, 1989; Storbeck & Clore, 2007). Additional support comes from the importance that scientists, including famous physicists such as Einstein and Pauli, place on introspection when attempting to understand the world (Miller, 2009). Evidence even shows that “bioregulatory signals, including those that constitute feeling and emotion, provide the principal guide for decisions” (Bechara, Damasio, & Damasio, 2000, p. 307). This may also explain the crucial role of volition, together with perceptual abilities and experience, in constructing representations of useful artificial objects, for example, inventing new operating principles or designing new projects (Mitcham, 1994).

In turn, perceptual representations of the world and their cognitive processing interact with subjects’ volition, triggering evaluative and emotional reactions, and sometimes becoming an impetus for action, such as initiating a project. Externalized representations become objects in the world and have a similar effect by interacting with subjects’ perceptual and understanding abilities. For example, the fact that subjects have a visceral reaction to certain types of material stimuli is well known and exploited by marketing experts (Zaltman & Coulter, 1995), but subjects also appear to evaluate emotionally abstract representations, such as expected values and probability distributions. Hence, in decision experiments, subjects express inordinate preference for alternatives that are certain or for menus of alternatives with known probability distributions, as opposed to more uncertain distributions (Allais, 1953; Ellsberg, 1961). Shifting a representation of prospective action outcomes from an achievement that falls short of the subject's aspirations to a possible demise of the subject is accompanied by an emotional shift “between hope and fear” (Lopes, 1987). In addition, studies of managerial decision making in natural settings show that subjects react to risk as they react to dangers; they do not engage in calculations of variance and probabilities and focus only on the extreme values of the outcome, rather than the entire distribution (Shapira, 1995; MacCrimmon & Wehrung, 1986). The project management domain is just starting to pay attention to this interaction in order to identify the kinds of representations that can be used to introduce a project to stakeholders and to structure public hearings and decisional debates (Lehmann & Motulsky, 2013).

As a consequence of (1) the constructed nature of representations about the project, its context and its viability and the additional construction and possible manipulation involved in the production of external representations; (2) the unstable expressions of ‘will’ in human and nonhuman actors; and, (3) the many possible interactions between representations and expressions of ‘will,’ such as goals and perceptions of value, projects are not likely to converge toward a static equilibrium of actors’ positions, as assumed implicitly by rational theories, but will advance through a constant repositioning and rebuilding process. We argue, however, that visibility in the social arena stabilizes some project representational elements. Such elements include both input assumptions and output representations, such as studies, designs, plans, and contracts, which are available to most participants, as well as initial positions and, especially, resulting commitments, which were made public and are considered to be the tamed or regulated aspect of the participant's volition. Because these elements result from lengthy discussions and negotiations and changing them sends strong signals about the respective actors and interferes with implementation activities, elements in the social arena are likely to remain stable for a certain time. Though, behind this screen of stability participants’ representations and expressions of will are constantly shifting and the accumulated tensions are always ready to disrupt the apparent stability. As a result, outside observers will likely perceive the redefinitions that take place in planning as a punctuated equilibrium process.

Instead of Conclusions: If Schopenhauer Were a Project Manager Today …

Some may perceive the preceding discussion as a call for returning to old romantic myths about the world and importing them into project management. However, we hope that the arguments we provide suggest quite the contrary, namely taking a more lucid look at the reality of project management, one that is informed by the latest discoveries in a whole range of sciences—from physics and biology to social sciences—and includes a much broader range of relevant aspects. In the process, it may well become evident that, in fact, the current rational-normative approaches to project management are based on no more than a myth (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). We used Schopenhauer's discussion of the world as ‘will’ and ‘representation’ as the kernel that not only enabled us to articulate all these discoveries in an integrated and parsimonious framework, but also to rebalance what we saw as an excess of attention to cognitive and representational aspects at the expense of material and volitional aspects. In more concrete terms, we believe that this framework enables reconsidering various aspects of project management from new perspectives.

First, this framework allows for rethinking project organizations in a way that includes a much broader range of ways in which people are connected, by including not only rules, charts, and plans, or routines and interaction scripts, but also physical attraction, repulsion, threats, and force. These ways to connect would also emphasize material objects, from forms to be filled out and information systems that embody power differentials through pre-set access rights; to surveillance systems, alleys, walls, and fences that constrain, warn, or isolate people; and tools that embody past experience and convey it across time and space.

Second, the framework enables a rethinking of the role of representations, in particular of those on external supports, in their various hypostases: from project ‘translations’ that convince and ‘attract’ actors to projects, securing convergence and commitment, inspiring and guiding action; to distorted constructions that mislead and cause problems; and to artefacts that can be manipulated for illicit gain and used for window-dressing to fend off surveillance. From this perspective, planning can no longer be viewed as the construction of an objective and integrated, albeit evolving, representation of the future project. Instead, it is a distributed process of bricolage that struggles to accommodate opposing interests, conflicting institutional logics, and disparate sensemaking strands, to create some sort of assemblage, often from accidental, marginal and reused components, and to hold it together by way of narratives and rhetoric (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005; Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005).

Third, this framework argues squarely that project participants are biological and material beings, evolving in a material world that acts in ways that cannot be totally understood, and that conditions their urges, perceptions, and cognitions in significant yet not completely tractable ways. This would perhaps enable the inclusion of a much broader array of desires, behaviors, and actions in the range of the normal (which does not mean that all of them are condoned), and hence develop theories that enable managers to better prepare for their occurrence rather than relegating them to the category of problems and unexpected events. This would also call for considering multiple levels at which the various aspects of the world interact with and condition each other.

Fourth, this framework suggests that our thinking of projects should be much more dynamic, in fact, extremely dynamic. As mentioned above, projects are a more or less connected nexus of processes, in which a variety of manifestations of ‘will’ connect and collide in multiple ways. Stabilizing elements are scant, and over-enforcing them is probably counterproductive, as constantly shifting stimuli and volitions may cause the outburst of accumulating tensions. Projects are thus better seen as continually changing or becoming. Some groups of representations and associated manipulations and rhetoric may play a temporary stabilizing role, which would enable advances in planning and execution in ways that are somewhat under control. But such representations more likely amount to ill-assembled rafts floating on the agitated sea of ‘will.’ As a consequence, our vision of project management should shift from that of maintaining a straight line—like a liner would do on an ocean by correcting deviations from the preset trajectory—toward one of a collective struggle of maintaining convergence and advancement, while dealing with representational inconsistencies and aberrations, as well as with the constant shifts and conflicts in the manifold manifestations of ‘will.’

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Serghei Floricel is a Professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada, where he teaches project feasibility and innovation project management. His research focuses on the planning and organizing of complex projects and innovation processes. He has published in, among others, International Journal of Project Management, R&D Management, Research-Technology Management, International Journal of Innovation Management, and Academy of Management Best Papers Proceedings. He is the lead author of two monographs published by the Project Management Institute (PMI): “Increasing Project Flexibility” and “Refining the Knowledge Production Plan,” and co-author of The Strategic Management of Large Engineering Projects (MIT Press, 2001). He was Research Director for the Managing Innovation in the New Economy (MINE) program, and Principal Investigator for five other research projects. He holds a PhD in Business Administration and an MBA from the University of Quebec in Montreal, and a bachelor's degree in engineering from the Faculty of Technological Equipment, Technical University of Civil Engineering of Bucharest, Romania. He can be contacted at floricel.serghei@uqam.ca

Sorin Piperca is a PhD candidate in Business Administration at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada. His research focuses on structuring processes, project management, and interorganizational collaborations. He co-authored one monograph published by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and various other books, book chapters, and articles. He has also presented papers in many prestigious conferences, including those organized by the Academy of Management (AoM), European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS), and European Academy of Management (EURAM). He holds a master's degree in Quality Management and a bachelor's degree in Management in Electrical Engineerering from the University “Politehnica” of Bucharest, Romania. He also holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Bucharest, Romania. He can be contacted at piperca.sorin_eugen@courrier.uqam.ca

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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