Project Management Institute

Remove the blinkers and discover the conflicting programs of action

a dynamic perspective on management of "fuzzy" projects

Anneli E.M.Linde, Chalmers University of Technology
Henrik C.J. Linderoth, Umeå School of Business and Economics

The traditional literature of project management has been criticized by scholars for being normative, giving little guidance to a deeper understanding of project management (see e.g., Packendorff, 1995). However, during the last decade new perspectives have evolved (see e.g., Lundin & Söderholm, 1995; Kreiner, 1995). These focus on the fact that projects are managed and influenced by a wider social context. Even though these perspectives address the interplay between a project and its context, the factors influencing this interplay are given insufficient attention. There is a need for a more comprehensive understanding of how events in a project interact with the context before, during and after a project is carried out. The lack of knowledge about the interplay between projects and their contexts can, for example, be seen in the vast body of literature on implementation failures regarding IT-projects and quality projects.

One reason for failures among these projects is their “fuzziness.” “Fuzzy” projects are problematic and challenging to understand and manage, meaning that they have unclear time limits, tasks and goals can change over time; members of the project are part time members, and the projects aiming at change in the behavior of the actors. Another reason for the “fuzziness” of a project is the interpretative flexibility (Orlikowski, 1992); this is given to the actors and the projects tendency to drift (Ciborra, 1996). Another characteristic of these IT and quality projects is the vague project organization with few people engaged full time or even part time trough the project, but with a large amount of people that are going to be affected and which cooperation the projects are depending on.

Thus, the discussion indicates that a normative deterministic perspective on implementation of “fuzzy” projects is problematic. An alternative approach to understanding the implementation of “fuzzy” projects and their relations to the world outside the project is to analyze them from the perspective of Actor Network Theory (ANT) (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1986, 1987; Law, 1986). ANT is built on the assumption that society is a completely interwoven sociotechnical web, consisting of a heterogeneous network of actors, inscriptions, work practices and institutional and organizational arrangements (Hanseth & Monteiro, 1997, p. 185).ANT can be helpful when analyzing how underlying assumptions and ideas of a project are translated into programs of action, which is realized in a network among human and non-human actors. The programs of action can be seen as a desired behavior performed by actors in the network, aiming at realizing the ideas of the project.

The aim of this paper is to describe how Actor Network Theory can be applied to the analysis of “fuzzy” projects, in order to uncover mechanisms that are vital for the realization of the ideas of the project. To illustrate the “theoretical assumptions” data from case studies of two IT-projects in healthcare organizations and on two quality projects in the building and construction industry are analyzed.

Implementation and the Project Management Concept

Efforts to renew business and to change existing operations in business firms are often organized and accomplished as projects (Lundin & Söderholm, 1995), e.g., organizational change toward quality improvement or IT-implementations (Boddy & Buchanan, 1992). A simple, but frequently used way of expressing a project implementation process is a two-stage model (e.g., Slevin & Pinto, 1987) where the project process can be regarded into planning and action. The project process, or life cycle is here described as a straightforward and rational process. And failures are often explained as the absence of clearly defined goals, or the lack of a formal structure and implementation plan (Maylor, 1996).

However, defining project goals is not an unproblematic matter. Christensen and Kreiner (1997) argue for the ineligibility of defining goals for the project at an early stage, while the available information is limited. At this stage both contextual and operational uncertainty is high. The problem is that, if we try to reduce the operational uncertainty through planning and control than the contextual uncertainty will be neglected. Instead of talking about goals Christensen and Kreiner claims that it is more appropriate to express goals as visions. In a fuzzy project there is a problem to define goals at a detailed level at early stage, which has implications for the way we ought to see the project process. We suggest that the idea of the project stages be accepted but not as a linear process but rather as cycles of implementation (Christensen & Kreiner 1997; Linderoth, 1997).

The problem to define goals at a detailed level in fuzzy projects is linked to the interpretative flexibility of ideas underlying the project, as well as to their tendency of drift. The interpretative flexibility does not only have a bearing on ideas, but also artifacts. Pinch and Bijker (1987, p. 40) describe interpretative flexibility of artifacts, which is relevant in the IT projects, as: “…there is flexibility in how people think of interpret artifacts but also that there is flexibility in how artifacts are designed.”

In the case of IT-projects interpretative flexibility of technology can be described as: “IT may appear to have objective forms and functions at one point, these can and do vary by different users, by different contexts over time” (Orlikowski, 1992, p. 403).

Interpretative flexibility can be seen as the reason for the openness and complexity of the technology. This makes it difficult to forecast the function of technology in use, while users gradually learn to discover and exploit features of the technology (see e.g., Rosenberg, 1982; Rice & Rogers, 1980). Openness and complexity are also a major reason for the tendency of technology to drift when it is put to use. Ciborra (1996, p. 8) describes drifting as: “… a slight or significant shift of the role and function in concrete situations of usage, that the technology is called to play, compared to the planned, pre-defined and assigned objectives and requirements (irrespective of who plans or defines them, users, sponsors, specialists, vendors or consultants).”

However, the interpretative flexibility and the drifting phenomenon is not only limited to IT-projects. It can also be seen in quality projects meaning that one of the main reasons for the fuzziness in the quality projects is the fact that we can not know from the start exactly what the quality system will “look like” in the end, or even what we want it to be in the end. It is more like a successive design process where all the actors will influence the outcome. It is a process of “change of minds” (Deming, 1986; Ho et al., 1999).

Implementation—A Process of Translation

The interpretative flexibility in fuzzy projects, and the tendency for the goals to drift, makes it difficult to view the implementation as a detailed planning of activities, spanning the lifetime of the project. In order to manage these problems and to get a deeper understanding of the management of fuzzy projects the concept of translation will be used. The concept of translation reflects the fact that the destiny of an idea is in the hands of its potential adopters (Latour, 1986, p. 267): “the spread in time and space of anything—claims, orders, artifacts, goods—is in the hands of people; each of these people may act in many different ways, letting the token drop, or modifying it, or deflecting it, or betraying it, or adding to it, or appropriating it.”

The fuzzy project, or any project, can be seen as a translation of a problem, where the assumed solution is the idea or the vision of a project. But, in order to realize the idea a forum has to be created for the continuing translation of the idea. This forum can be expressed in terms of an actor network, where the idea is translated over time and space. In this process of translation, four interwoven stages can be identified (Callon, 1986, p. 203): problematization, interessement, enrolment, and mobilization of allies.

At the stage of problematization, an issue is defined as a problem by a group of actors. To solve this problem, it is necessary both to identify which actors are indispensable, as well as what their roles and relations are in the problem-solving network. However, actors can have different goals for their participation in the network. Thus, it is crucial to find a question, whose solution is of common interest for the participating actors, despite their different goals. This question is called an obligatory passage point (OPP), which means that the actors have to recognize that their alliance on the question can benefit each of them (Callon, 1986, p. 205). This also implies that there is not one answer why the project would be beneficial.

When a problem has been defined and participating actors and their tentative roles are identified, the next step in the process is to stabilize the network. Callon (1986, p. 207) calls this step interessement: “the group of actions in which an entity attempts to impose and stabilize the identity of the other actors it defines through its problematization.”

It is important to emphasize that the actors’ formulation of goals and roles do not appear in an independent manner, instead, they are adjusted and molded during action. This is logical if we consider that an individual organization can be seen as part of a wider system in society (Brunsson & Olsen, 1993). At the stage of interessement, Callon argues for the necessity of weakening the actors’ links with other entities, since these might negatively influence the roles of participating actors.

The third stage, enrolment, is described by Callon (1986, p. 211) as: “multilateral negotiations, trials of strength and tricks that accompany the interessement and enable them to succeed” and a set of interrelated roles are defined and attributed to the actors who accept them. This means that the question described as the obligatory passage point has to be transformed into a series of statements, which are more defined. If the enrolment of others succeed, a black box will slowly be built, and the others are kept in line. A black box can be described as a situation where many elements are brought together and act as one (Latour, 1987, p. 131), or there things put in the black box no longer has to be testified (Callon & Latour, 1981).

In the fourth stage, mobilization of allies, the question is raised whether the spokesmen for the actors are representative. Are they authorized to speak legitimately for the rest of the actors? A critical point here is to “silence” actors in whose name the spokesmen speak. If there is a lack of authorization, or if other actors are not silenced, the network can be contested at any point in time. But if the process of translation has succeeded, a constraining network of relationships has been built and the room for maneuver has been limited for the entities concerned (Callon, 1986, p. 214). This network of constraining relationships is also an expression of the black box.

We argue that a traditional perspective on implementation of projects is problematic and to really understand what happens when realizing fuzzy projects we suggest that it would be more appropriate to view these projects as a nonlinear process where the vision inherent in the projects are translated over time into action in an actor network. To illustrate this we have analyzed four “fuzzy” projects from two completely different sectors, two IT-projects from the healthcare sector and two quality projects from the building and construction industry.

Descriptions of the IT Projects

The two IT-projects studied concern the implementation of telemedicine in healthcare organizations. Telemedicine can be defined as (From, 1993): “The investigation, monitoring and management of patients and the education of patients and staff using systems which allow ready access to expert advice and patient information no matter where the patient and relevant information are located.”

The IT-projects are two cases in a north Swedish County Council located at five sites: two health centers, two county hospitals, and one university hospital. The data collection has been accomplished through semi-structured interviews and participant observation during 1994 to 1999. During 1996 to 1999 interviews with both medical specialists and general practitioners were carried out on four occasions at the sites where the systems were used. Three hospital managers and three politicians were interviewed one time each. In total 30 persons have been interviewed and 63 interviews have been accomplish. Additional data collection has been accomplished by participant observation during 18 meetings of the project group. Ten of these meetings were held before the installation of the systems.

The telemedicine technology engaged a few people in the county council since the beginning of the 1990s. In the autumn of 1994, concrete ideas were formed about which medical specialties that could be appropriate for participation in the telemedicine projects. The specialties were dermatology (skin diseases), orthopedics, otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose and throat diseases), pathology, cytology, surgery and gynecology. A project group was formed consisting of physicians and personnel from the department of medical technology. The main task for the group was to find the adequate equipment and to plan the practical issues for the introduction of the technology, e.g., the physical location, need for education. In August 1996 the telemedicine equipment was purchased and installed.

During this period the project was divided into two sub-projects: general telemedicine (GTE) and telepathology (PAT). In both subprojects, the technical platform was a videoconferencing system that could be connected to medical equipment. The GTE-project concerned communication between general practitioners at health centers and specialists at the county hospital, or at the university hospital. The specialties involved were dermatology, orthopedics, and otorhinolaryngology. The specialists were located at the university hospital, except for the orthopedists who were located both at the university and county hospitals. By connecting optical equipment to the videoconferencing system it was possible for general practitioners to examine, for example, the ear, or the skin, of patient and transmit pictures, live or still, to the specialists. These could thus advise the general practitioners about the further treatment of the patient, and if the patient should be admitted to hospital.

The PAT-project concerned communication between medical specialists. Gynecologists and surgeons at a county hospital could communicate with pathologists and cytologists at the university hospital. In this case there were two major applications. The first application was remote examination of frozen sections, or cytological sections. A microscope placed at the county hospital could be maneuvered by the pathologists and cytologists at the university hospital. The microscope was connected to the videoconferencing system and it is used for examination of sections. The standard question from the gynecologists and surgeons was whether a section contained cancer or not. During an operation, a surgeon may find something that he or she thinks is cancer. By getting immediate access to the pathologist, or cytologist, the operating physician will knows how to continue the operation, depending on whether it is cancer or not, and in some cases a second operation of the patient can be avoided.

The second application was pathology conferences, a common feature of university hospitals. Surgeons and gynecologists of the county hospital send a large amount of different kinds of sections to the university hospital, and often require further information from their colleagues. Sometimes when the answer arrives, the surgeons and gynecologist want more information or want to give more information. In this case, a pathology conference can be arranged via the videoconferencing system, for which the pathologist can mobilize appropriate specialists at the university hospital.

Activities in the Telemedicine Projects

One hundred and fifty-six consultations were done from the health centers to the specialist departments at the hospitals, from September 1996 to December 1998 in the GTE-project. The specialists considered that in 81% of the consultations it was possible to make a satisfying diagnosis, with regard to the quality of the pictures. The patients evaluated the “worth” of the consultation to 5,5 of on a six-degree scale.

In the PAT-project, 14 conferences were arranged during January 1997 and April 1998 with the department of gynecology. During the conferences, 54 patients were discussed. The conferences implied consequences for the treatment for 54% of the patients, and for 22% of the patients a possible faulty treatment was avoided. The gynecologists estimated that their competence was increased in 90% of the cases.

Description of the Quality Projects

The study concerns the development and implementation of quality management system, including ISO certification, in two small construction companies in Sweden. The data was collected during 1996 to 1998. The semi-structured interviews were carried out with the project managers and the users including managers at all level in the companies, at the head office and at the sites where the systems were put into use. In total 39 interviews were carried out. Additional data was collected through participant observations at the sites and during meetings of the project group. The relevant documentation has been analyzed. Both cases concerned small construction companies with 50-100 employees in the building industry. The head offices were situated in western Sweden and the building sites were spread all over the country.

The projects concerned the implementation of a managing system, with the character of a TQM (Total Quality Management) system, which had to be compatible with ISO 9000. In addition, the aim was to find a more efficient way of “doing their projects” and thus improve their business. In some way we could say that the projects were aimed at transforming the organizations structures and integrating “quality thinking” at all levels in the organizations similar to the TQM thoughts (Deming, 1986). The project outcome was to be an agreed and documented managing system with a formal control mechanism of the routines and roles, workflow processes and information processes. The system had to ensure knowledge formation and knowledge transfer. The customer should be in focus.

In the early months of 1996, the project was initiated in both companies and the project manager was chosen. The companies used different approaches to their choice of project manager. Company A chose to hire a person specifically for the job as project manager for the quality project. She has a university diploma in chemistry and has previous experience in quality management from her former job but no experience from the building industry.

In company B one of the younger engineers were chosen. Besides his experience in construction and design, he had also worked with some early, smaller change initiatives in the organization.

The task of these project managers was to be responsible for the development of the quality system and for the implementation of the system in the company both in the head office and at the sites. They were both to be full time change agents.

The project process was characterized by the project managers’ efforts to collect data for the documentation of the work routines and work processes, and to define different roles in the organization. The project managers mainly through interviews gathered this information with co-workers both in the office and at some of the building sites. The identified and agreed roles, routines and processes had to be implemented and tested before the final documentation and incorporation in the quality system. Thus, the system slowly expanded and took form. The documentation of the quality project would be presented in loose-leaf in folders but also in an IT version at the companies Intranets. However, in company A the access to computers and to an intranet was limited only to a few persons.

At the end of 1998 the initial project in company A was hard to identify. In most parts it was replaced by new similar projects. The initial project did not reach its objectives. The management of the new quality projects was transferred from the project manager to managing director and to the heads of department. The reason for this was that there were a lot of resistance both to the project manager and the initial project. Even the vision of the project was questioned.

However, some parts of a quality system have taken form and have been used by the organization, but no complete documented system was used by the whole organization and the project process has, so to speak, been stopped or at least slowed down in the company.

The situation in company B was different. At the end of 1998, the company had a documented quality system and ISO 9000 certification. The system’s documentation was presented in folders and as an IT-version on the company’s Intranet, even if the system was in use in most of the company there was a lot of resistance to use some parts of the quality system. The system was considered “more of the same” and the company had not reached all of the projects objectives.

Mobilizing Support for the Ideas of the Project

The early history of the projects studied was difficult to track, but it is clear that the presence in the organizations of spokesmen for the ideas underlying the projects is crucial to the realization of the project. These spokesmen advocated these ideas as a solution to some existing problem in the organization. But if a decision was to be made about the implementation of the projects, support had to be mobilized for the ideas. In order to mobilize support for a decision to start the projects, the ideas had to be translated into interests for other indispensable actors. The idea was also, occasionally, aligned with forces in the surrounding context.

There were some points of similarity between the goals formulated in the telemedicine projects and the goals of the quality projects. In the telemedicine projects, the technology is seen as a means of reducing long distances between units in the county council. By reducing the distances positive consequences were expected and expressed in the goals of the telemedicine projects, as formulated by the county council, and could also be seen as questions about what could be done with telemedicine in general. The goals were as follow:

• Increase value for patients through immediate access to medical specialists

• Support the development of competence in the organization

• Decrease the costs of the county council

• Investigate the long-term effects telemedicine may have on the structure of healthcare in the county council.

The goals of the project can also be seen as translations of the idea of sending pictures into desirable consequences of technology usage toward this means.

In the quality projects the documented managing system is seen as a way to control and foresee the work processes in the organization, and to adjust to formal demands from customers and regulatory authorities. In company A the goals were formulated, by the managing director and by one of the departmental head, and in company B by the managing director and by the person that later become the project manager. The general goals were the same in both companies and can be expressed as:

• Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of products and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs

• Do “the right thing” the first time around and by that decrease costs in the company

• Achieve customer satisfaction, by meeting new demands from the customer

• Increase project predictability.

The goals of both the telemedicine projects and the quality projects can be seen as translations of the ideas into current concerns of other indispensable actors. In the telemedicine cases these actors could be patients, physicians, politicians and administrators and in the quality cases customers, site managers, construction workers and administrative personnel.

The goals of the projects can be seen as the OPP in the translation process. The OPP reflects the different actors’ interests in participation in the network, and initially, convinces decision-makers to make resources available for implementation of the projects. Even if the ideas are translated into the other actors’ interests, this is no guarantee for a decision to start the projects. It is just a pre-condition. What should be noted here is that the actors in the project groups have made themselves spokesmen for other actors: i.e., the physicians in the project groups for their colleagues and patients in the telemedicine projects and the managing director for colleagues and customer in the quality cases. However, the network that has to be mobilized for a decision about the projects is further stabilized when the ideas of the projects are aligned with more or less institutional forces inside and outside the organizational field. In both the telemedicine case and the quality case, contemporary trends in society are aligned with the ideas of the projects.

The telemedicine projects can be seen as an expression of the IT-trend in society. However the healthcare sector has been slow to adopt IT, compared to new medical technologies, despite it being highly information intensive at all levels (see e.g.,Brophy & Souder, 1992; Gammon, 1993; Nymo, 1993). Two of the managing directors of hospitals confirm that it has always been easier to obtain money for “hot” technologies, compared with more basic technologies. This “fascination” for hot technologies, in combination with the IT-trend, strengthens the actor network that would make the decision about the projects. Another force that is aligned with the projects, is a prevailing mimetic isomorphism (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991) in the organizational field in both the healthcare sector and the building sector which is expressed by a managing director for a hospital: “The county councils are very sensitive to different trends. It doesn’t matter if you drive into the ditch, as long as the other county councils do the same.”

Or, by the managing director in one of the construction companies: “it is important to have an ISO certificate ‘on the wall’ to show the customer.”

In the IT cases, this mimetic isomorphism is reflected, in the fact that a majority of the Swedish county councils are planning to introduce some kind of telemedicine projects, and that the goals of the studied telemedicine projects bear a close resemblance to expected goals and effects of telemedicine usage that can be found in the literature about telemedicine (see, for example, Gammon, 1993; Olsson, 1992). In the quality cases this mimetic isomorphism could be seen in the fact that, at that time, a rapidly growing number of companies were working towards ISO certification (Carlsson & Carlsson, 1996) and a number of companies in the building sector were involved in some kind of renewal initiatives towards quality thinking in the organizations (see e.g., Ekstedt & Wirdenius, 1995).

However, the goals of the projects studied are general and could be described as visions, that are formulated in order to attract all groups of actors, who would also recognize the solution to their problems: telemedicine or TQM. But the question can be asked if telemedicine and TQM will be an OPP for the actors? Further, nothing is known yet about whether the outcomes of the projects are the solution to the formulated problems and visions. Attempts have been made to identify concrete situations of usage, but the actors realize that this identification has to be done in the concrete situation of usage, due to the openness and interpretative flexibility of the projects.

What is obvious in the telemedicine- and the quality projects is that the goals of the projects must be further translated, if the vision of the projects are be to realized. Until now the result of the translations are expectations of desirable consequences of the projects and activities on an overall level. In proceeding process, competence development, increased patient service, or quality improvement, customer satisfaction and increased efficiency have to be translated into concrete activities and given a meaning for the actors. This chain of translation can be seen as an attempt to reduce the fuzziness of the projects.

The Ideas of the Project Meet “Reality”

In the previous section we describe one cycle in the process of translation where the decision to start the project was the mobilization of allies. In the next phase, the process again starts with problematization, but the first obligatory passage point remains intact in both in the telemedicine cases and the quality cases. However, new OPPs can appear in the future if the actor network would be further stabilized and expanded (see also Callon, 1991). By the return to the problematization, the ideas of the project have to be translated into concrete activities and given a meaning for the actors. The overall vision is transferred to a series of operational subgoals and indispensable actors have to be identified by the initial actor or the project manager. Which in the quality cases means that the work flows, roles and procedures have to be identified, tested, agreed and documented and after that the new parts of the system have to be put into use in the rest of the organization, and in the IT cases that the telemedicine equipment has to be placed at the sites and the technology explored and put into use. New actors have to be enrolled and mobilized.

Until now the ideas of the projects have been aligned with institutional forces that have manifested the expectations of outcomes, and resulted in the decision to start the projects. But the forces, which the project idea was aligned with, seems to be weakened and instead circumstances in local contexts where the projects would be implemented, have come to play a vital role for the further translation process. What now is appearing at the studied sites, are the importance of fiery spirits and prevailing programs of action in the local contexts. These have come to play a vital role for the possibilities to mobilize the actor network. A fiery spirit can be seen as an actor who is a spokesman for the project in the local context and who also has a will to develop the project. In one of the IT-cases, the GTE-project, one of the fiery spirits expressed this in the following way: “You must have fantasy and power of imagination in order to see how this [telemedicine] can be used. If you do everything as before, you do not see any advantages.”

The role of fiery spirits is also obvious if taken into consideration that 75% of the consultations in the GTE-project was accomplished from the smaller of the two health centers, due to a fiery spirit. However, while telemedicine is a synchronous technology, someone has to answer the consultation by a specialist department and there is a need for a fiery spirit at the specialist department too, but the risk is that the accomplishment of activities will be highly depending on the fiery spirits. The department of ear, nose and throat, has been the specialist department where it has been a highest availability on medical specialists. This fact has two major explanations. First, the fiery spirit and chief physician is the same person. Second, there has been a prevailing program of action this facilitate the management of a consultation. The doctor on duty, who normally is an experienced specialist, has to answer questions that are coming from health centers, or the department. This physician has the responsibility to answer telemedicine consultations, and the telemedicine equipment is located in the room of the doctor on duty. In this case it can be claimed that the available routine has facilitated the use of telemedicine in the department, in other words it could be seen as a supporting program of action.

By the department of dermatology, there has been a lack of fiery spirits and prevailing programs of action that facilitate use of telemedicine. Instead, a conflicting program of action was established when a consultation should be carried out. That was the consequence of the location of the equipment in a room far away from the department, which implied that no urgent consultations could be done.

In the quality cases the fiery spirits, or the lack of them, played a crucial role for the progress of the projects. Especially when taken into consideration that the translation process has to take place over a geographically large area, between different building sites that “comes and goes over time,” which means difficulties for the project manager to control and influence the process.

The project managers in company B put a lot of effort into finding and mobilizing actors in the local contexts especially at the sites. These actors could bee seen as representatives for the other actors on the building sites. These key actors or fiery spirits have a crucial role in when the quality system is further tested at new sites. The fiery spirits that were identified believed in the idea, even if they did not have the same argument for the accepting of the OPP, and put a lot of effort into developing and testing the intending programs of action. They did not only mobilize actors at one site, they also took the project to the next site and continued the process of translation without intervention from the project manager.

The project manager in company A did not find these fiery spirits. Even if the actors on one site seamed to be mobilized and were using parts of the system they did not take the idea to the next site and did not try to enroll and mobilize new actors. The translation process had to take a new round, and was dependent of the project manager. However, there was one person in company A that seamed to be a fiery spirit and that had real impact on the project. He was the head of one department and was one of the initial actors in the initiation of the project. He believed in the idea and took an active part in trying to get acceptance for the system amongst his colleagues and did succeed in his own department. The problem was that he was not legitimated to speak for actors in the other department and they therefore refused to be mobilized. Instead, another actor network with other OPPs starts to expand where the head of that department was the initial actor. The actors in this competing network agreed on the problems and they had the same vision, but did not see the quality system as a solution. They refused to abandon their way of working and saw the quality system as a threat. In this group, they traditionally used informal way of planning and communicate so the demands from the quality system and project manager, the intended programs of action, was clashing with their prevailing programs of action.

A similar problem would be seen in the IT case at one of the county hospitals. An ortopedian was a fiery spirit who believed in the project. He not only used telemedicine, but he also put a lot of effort into exploring and developing it. Nevertheless, it failed to mobilize other actors.

However, there are not only circumstances in the local context that influence what happen with the ideas. Institutional forces in the respective organizational fields continue to have an influence on the mobilization of the actor network.

The translation process in the quality cases was a neverending struggle for legitimacy for the project idea, the project manager and for the project process itself.

In the quality case the influence of institutional forces are clear when the quality project is compared with the institutionalized view on projects in the building and construction industry. The “normal” view of a project is that it is a process with clear goals and objectives that are constant over time and with a well-defined duration in time, and with well-defined roles and organization (Engwall, 1995). This view clashes with the idea of the quality project as a process of continuing improvements with unclear goals and flexible roles where both the implementation process and the definition of goals are different from the “normal” project.

To solve the problem with lack of legitimacy for the project process the project manager in company B tried to get the quality project process to look like the normal projects. By doing this he actually changed a conflicting program of action into a supporting program of action. In company A the project manager never recognized or identified this conflicting program of action. The project was carried out in a completely different way from what usually would be the case at the company.

During the translation process it was obvious, in the IT cases as well as the quality cases, that institutional forces facilitated or constrained programs of action. However, over time the same institution can have a dual impact. This could be seen in the PAT-case where the scientific study is used as an argument for not using the possibilities of the examination of frozen sections to a greater extent, and to enhance the usage of the method. The surgeons’ primary argument for not using the method is the lack of validation of the system. But, after a delay of more than one year, the system was validated, which in turn removed the primary arguments for not using the system to a larger extent. The validations of the system came to be an OPP in the PAT-project, because without a positive result of the validation, it had been more or less impossible to continue the PAT project. The validation of the system can also be seen as a test of the technology’s role as an actor, to transmit pictures of a sufficient quality, and thereby fulfill expectations of the spokesmen.

In the quality cases, the lack of possibility to validate was a problem. A new program of action could mean more work for one actor or group of actors and look inefficient but could be efficient for the organization as a whole. But more important was if the system could be validated as positive for the customer. The question if the customer wants the system or not, or thought of it as something good, become an OPP in both quality cases. It did affect the way they use the system. If the quality systems were validated as positive for the customer the actor saw that as a strong argument for being mobilized and using it to some extent but only the part that they immediately could connect to customer satisfaction.

Another example of the dual impact of programs of action became clear in the department of dermatology there the main argument for not using telemedicine to a larger extent was the location of the equipment. However, new equipment will soon be installed in the department, which implies that the argument of the location is falling and the conflicting program of action may be transferred to a supporting program of action. But, an institutional argument has also been visible. From time to time the dermatologists have been complaining that they cannot touch and feel the skin of the patients, which clearly is a conflicting program of action to the intended program. This argument may come to play a vital role in the future, depending on the dermatologists other attitudes to telemedicine.


In fuzzy projects such as those described in the four related cases, the project managers have to handle a situation with a translation process that is synchronous. The process was in different stages at different sites at the same time. The project manager’s influence decreased and the importance of the fiery spirit increased. The meeting between the intended programs of action and the prevailing programs of action came to have a crucial role for the success of the translation process.

Programs of Action

The analysis sections above describe how the intended programs of action, which are embedded in the ideas of the projects, meet programs of action in the local contexts where the projects are to be implemented. The meeting between these programs of action will have significant implications for the process of mobilizing actors and to stabilize the actor network. The programs in the local context are either conflicting or supporting and they are reinforced by local or institutional sources. A program influenced by a local source can be exemplified by local variations in the way similar tasks are solved in similar organizations. The programs influenced by institutional sources are those that possess a deeply embedded stock of knowledge, norms and rules guiding practical applications, logistics and the division of labor, in other words programs of action.

In the projects studied, we see that many the problems are rooted in conflicting programs of action, both institutional and local. The ideas of the projects give rise to new programs of action, which actors might find incompatible with the behavior inherent in prevailing programs of action, and thus refuse to get mobilized in the network. Therefore, a crucial task during the translation process will be to identify conflicting programs of action in the local context, and try to go around them or do something about theme. However, the mobilization of actors may be more or less difficult depending on whether conflicting programs of action are local or institutionally rooted. Institutionally rooted programs of action are more difficult to change or ignore (Mullern & Östergren, 1995). That could have a significant impact on the project because one conflicting program of action does not just effect the program it clashes with, it might also have a major influence on the project and as a consequence the project as a whole could be questioned.

However, programs of action do not only have negative influence on the project. Of equal importance are the supporting programs of action that have a positive effect on the project. These supporting programs of action could, in the same way as the conflicting, be institutionally rooted or rooted in the local context. It is important for actors not only to identify and make these programs visible, but also in a deliberate way construct new supporting programs of action to support the mobilization of new actors and the stabilization of the network

In order to discover programs of action in the local context, one crucial precondition is the actor’s ability to identify programs of action that are evolving from the ideas of the project. However, these programs of action may not be wholly identified at the beginning of the project. Some programs of action may be anticipated, while others will evolve during the process of translation. This is a direct implication of the interpretative flexibility of the project, and its tendency to drift. These circumstances further underpin the difficulties of the detailed planning of a fuzzy project.

The Fiery Spirits

Actors that come to play a crucial role for the progress of the projects were the fiery spirits. In the previous section, the role of programs of action and their influence on the mobilization of the actor network was discussed. However, programs of action that are conflicting are not necessarily seen as conflicting of all actors in the local context. In the studied projects, there were actors who avoided, or did not seam to care about some of these conflicting programs. These actors are the fiery spirits. They believed in the vision of the project and they were also willing to expand the actor network. The fiery spirits had a significant importance for bringing back the translation process to the problematization stage in order to further explore the ideas of the project. This is done by creating subgoals without questioning the vision of the project. This is an important difference between the fiery spirit and other actors, who accept the ideas, but to a lesser extent will work actively to expand the network. A characteristic of the fiery spirits is that they seam to be willing to work for the progress of the project without seeking self-interest. Instead they realize that there are benefits for the organization as a whole.

Implications for Project Management

In a fuzzy project, outcome does not depend on how the project is planned or organized, or whether the goals are well defined. It is a process of translation not an implementation.

In this kind of project, goals are only and should only be a vision or an idea. During the project process this vision is developed or translated by the actors into subgoals.

The overall mission of the project manager is to get legitimacy for the project. Therefore, an important task during the process will be to identify conflicting programs of action, go around them or do something about them. Important as well is to identify the supporting programs of action or in a deliberate way construct supporting programs that reinforce the project process.

Fuzzy project, are projects with limited possibilities for the project manager to control and influence mainly because the project manager has to handle a situation with a project process that is in different stages in different local contexts at the same time. To be able to manage this it is crucial to identify and find fiery spirits that could further explore the project vision and speak legitimately for other actors in the local context, at the sites. In the studied projects, the role of the project manager has been weakened during the process and the role of fiery spirits has been given a greater importance for a successful accomplishment of the project. But it should be noted that a characteristic of a fuzzy project, that could be a problem, is the difficulty to know and decide when it is completed and how it should be evaluated.

Concluding Remarks

The analysis of studied projects calls for an elaboration of contemporary theories of project management. Following are the main conclusions of this paper. First, fuzzy projects need to be viewed from an alternative perspective. The main reason for the fuzziness is the interpretative flexibility of goals and that the projects organization in some sense can be seen as virtual, which means that members of the project organization to a varying extent, still have to fulfill their ordinary duties in the organization. Second, the interpretative flexibility of goals required a process of translation of the goals into concrete activities. In order to realize these activities, an actor network has to be mobilized, where the translation has to be aligned with interests of the indispensable actors. Third, the translation of the vision of the project implies that new programs of action are to be developed in the local contexts, where the project is implemented. These programs of action can, however, be in conflict with prevailing programs of action. Therefore, a crucial task for the spokesmen for the vision of the project is to identify conflicting and supporting programs of action in the context. Fourth, a crucial task for project managers is to identify fiery spirits in the local contexts, who may become spokesmen for the ideas of the project, and also identify and avoid the conflicting programs of action. The fiery spirits also play an important role in bringing the project forward, by continuous translation of the vision of the project into concrete activities in the local context.

Acknowledgments—The author would like to thank the Swedish Transport & Communications Research Board (KFB), for financing the study about introducing telemedicine in healthcare organizations.


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