Finding the right person for the job

rethinking work-worker fit in PPM

Co-authors: Sergio Pellegrinelli, Dr Harvey Maylor


In the quest for improving levels of program and project performance, one logical contributor is the matching of managers to the nature of the work being undertaken. The argument is that the better the work is suited to the abilities of the manager (the worker), the more likely high performance results. There are a number of challenges with this is practice concerning the highly subjective nature of “the work” and “fit” between the worker and their work, the dynamic nature of the work, and whether there is any evidence that better fit really does lead to better performance. The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to explore the linkage between the core concepts of the work and the worker and to use existing frameworks to evaluate a potential operationalization of this linkage. The work is evaluated using an assessment of the complexity or difficulty of the task, and the worker is evaluated by using an assessment of their conception level. An exploratory study provided some useful indicators of the challenges and limitations of the operationalization, which are described here. The paper concludes with a research agenda for developing the operationalization and exploring further the arguments around fit and performance.

Keywords: work-worker fit, competence, complexity, phenomenography


Assigning the right person to the job is the Holy Grail of human resource departments. The topic has been researched for decades in organizational behavior and organizational psychology (e.g., Edwards, 1991). However, it is not until relatively recently that this stream of work has been applied and empirically researched in a project and program management context.

Early work in the field was directed at identifying and codifying general project management competences (Gadeken, 1991, 1994; Project Management Institute [PMI], 2002) and formed the basis of professional bodies of knowledge and supported most professional qualifications. The many forms, contents, and contexts of projects and perceived failures, though, have called into question the universal applicability of a standard set of project or program management competences. Later work (Dvir, Sadeh, & Malach-Pines, 2006; Malach-Pines, Dvir, & Sadeh, 2009; Müller & Turner, 2007; Swink, 2005) has attempted to match individuals to the work or to understand how individual project managers with specific attributes or competences affected project performance.

In response to perceived shortcomings in the dominant rationalist approaches to identifying project and program management competence, Partington, Pellegrinelli, and Young (2005) used an interpretive frame to study the conceptions (theories-in-use) underpinning the work of program managers and others involved in program work. Their research suggested that project and program managers hold four qualitatively distinct conceptions of their work that are set in a hierarchy of performance. They argued that project and program managers perceive, shape, and enact their work based on their individual conceptions—worker and work are inseparable.

This paper reports on exploratory research that has attempted to link the core concepts of the worker (in this case the program or project manager) and some critical characterization of the work. It differs from previous work in this area by recognizing the inseparability of worker and work and adopts an interpretive approach.

The characterization chosen for the assessment of the work is the complexity or difficulty of the managerial task. This area has received significant attention in project and program management (PPM) in recent years and provides one approach for operationalization that should be explored. An existing framework for assessing complexity is used.

It was expected that this would be a challenging project, as both of the core concepts are highly subjective. Furthermore, we will argue that the concepts are mutually dependent—there is no independent variable here. For instance, one implication of the interpretive approach is that project and program managers, holding what they describe as lower-level conceptions, may not perceive some of the challenges or complexities of their work that others, holding more holistic and inclusive, higher-level conceptions, may perceive.

This work is important because there is evidence that the matching of complexity and competence is problematic. For instance, Pellegrinelli (2002) documented the failure of project managers in a professional services firm who took on program roles but lacked the social, political, and strategic awareness and skills to accomplish the work to the satisfaction of their clients. This suggests that matching or fit does have an impact on outcome.

Following from the discussions and exploratory study, we propose a research agenda, grounded in an interpretive frame, which will provide further insights to organizations on both whether ‘fit' is a useful construct (as would logically be expected) and how better to allocate individuals to projects and programs to improve the chances of successful outcomes for organizations and individuals.

Competence Studies in Project and Program Management

The study of competence dates back nearly a century to the introduction of the concepts of scientific management (Taylor, 1911). One strand takes the work as starting point and decomposes it to its basic elements—the essential activities for the undertaking of the tasks or role. The skills, knowledge, or attributes required to perform the role are inferred and codified.

Project management bodies of knowledge published by the Association for Project Management (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards Competency Model are examples of such work-oriented studies. The defined skills and attributes are dependent on a clearly specified and contained role, but lack a direct link between possession of the analytically inferred knowledge, skills, and attributes and actual performance in the role.

Another strand of competence research starts with the worker and seeks to identify the attributes (typically knowledge, skills, and abilities) possessed by competent workers. Gadeken (1994) studied the characteristics of top-performing project managers in the U.K. and U.S. military acquisition commands as an example of the worker-oriented approach in the project management domain. Such competences were also compared and contrasted with personality traits developed in psychology. For example, based on project management literature on competencies, Gehring compared traits theory of leadership assessed by Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) model and PMI's (2007) Project Manager Competency Development (PMCD) Framework—Second Edition. Project management competence was related to 7 out of 16 traits proposed by the MBTI model. Geoghegan and Dulewicz (2008) started to link competencies and success. They assessed the leadership profile of 52 project managers and the success of their projects in a company through the leadership questionnaire (LDQ), which was developed by Dulewicz and Higgs (2005). Geoghegan and Dulewicz identified that certain leadership traits have a more significant impact than others, especially EQ dimensions, such as self-awareness. However, these studies were based on limited empirical data. In general, the worker-oriented approach is criticized for producing descriptions of competence that are too general or abstract and disconnected from the context in which work is undertaken.

A more recent strand draws on a contingency theory to investigate the fit between the work and the worker based on the premise that a better fit should lead to better project performance. Publications in the area also include standards, such as The Complex Project Manager Competency Standards (Dombkins, 2008), as well as an emerging stream of empirical studies. For instance, Malach-Pines et al. (2009) study that was based on a survey of 289 Israeli project managers indicated a significant influence of the fit between project types and project managers personalities on the performance of new product development projects. The authors studied the fit between work and worker but started from a work-oriented approach. They defined project types by clustering projects according to their novelty, complexity, technology, and pace. Personality traits were derived from what would be expected to be relevant to cope with each of the project's dimension. These included intuition, extroversion, etc. However, the study suffered from a typical challenge of contingency approach, namely the definition of fit. Fit was defined by the match between personality and types of projects that led to higher success; therefore, it is not surprising that the conclusion was that fit would lead to higher success.

Müller and Turner (2007) undertook a similar study but across sectors and with different operationalization of variables. They combined work and worker approaches and classified projects around several dimensions, including importance and complexity. They assessed leadership profiles of more than 250 project managers through a well-established psychometric tool measuring their MQ, EQ, and IQ. Instead of looking at the fit like Malach-Pines et al. (2009), the authors searched for the traits of successful project managers according to different contexts and identified that project managers with a higher EQ were most likely to succeed, regardless of project type and context.

Similar studies were also conducted with portfolio managers (Closs, Jacobs, Swink, & Webb, 2008) and project teams (Scott-Young & Samson, 2008, 2009).

Critiques of Mainstream Competence Studies

The mainstream work on understanding project and program management competence, outlined previously, is set within a rationalist frame. In relation to project and program management, a number of implicit assumptions may be called into question:

  1. Objectivity: it is possible to define and measure work, worker, fit, and performance objectively;
  2. Independence of work and worker: there are no mutual influences or dependencies between the work and the worker;
  3. Causality and fit: there is a best fit between work and worker and this will lead to higher performance; and
  4. Focus on static nature of the relationship work-worker: the fit is measured at a point in time.

Each of these assumptions is explored in the following.


In keeping with the dominant rationalist philosophy of management science, the phenomenon of interest is presumed to exist, an objective reality—separate, bounded, and independent of the observer. The presumption is that the researcher can decompose the object of study into its constituent parts without loss of essence or substance, and reconnect them based on a rational view of the nature of fit and performance. Such a stance ignores, or at least underplays, the socio-political processes that generate and give shape to the project, the reflexive, intuitive nature of praxis in complex situations, and the many potentially conflicting, poorly or not articulated expectations that are used to gauge performance. Contextual influences and pressures are presumed absent, distinguishable, or separable from the conduct of project work. Often the search for objectivity, and the methods used to attain it, obscures the covert, manipulative, and back-stage (Buchanan & Boddy, 1992) aspects of project and program management work.


The presumption is that the project can be studied independently of the project manager and vice versa. Such a stance underplays the transforming nature of the recursive interaction between the project manager and the project—the other individuals and artifacts that collectively make up what is referred to as the project. Project managers bring project structures and events into existence and make them work.

However, prescribed the routines, there remains the possibility for agency, even if only noncompliance. Project circumstance and incidents may prompt reflection, inquiry, and learning, and set in motion new ways of operating.

Causality and Fit

The prevailing assumption is that the fit between work and worker can be defined and measured by looking at those pairs of work-worker. This ignores or minimizes the influence of contextual factors, for example, the culture of the company and that of the client in the case of professional services firms. Contextual factors can also influence performance, such as long-term relationships with the client, contract framework, and top management support in both client and supplier organization. Causality may be difficult to establish; the work may be characterized by uncertainty and emergence making it difficult to ascertain the root cause of events. This is compounded by the uniqueness of projects—there is no control, and they cannot be exactly replicated. It is also difficult to argue that there is a best fit since a project might achieve the same perceived performance in many different ways with different project managers given the myriad contextual and intervening factors.

Static Nature

The mainstream work on project and program management competence presumes a static definition of the work, worker, and fit—the analysis is undertaken at one specific point in time, and therefore, is not good in examining the dynamics of the project. Projects and programs, though, change and often have trouble; therefore, what seemed to be an optimal fit in one point in time might lead to misfit later.

Interpretative Approach to Project and Program Management Competence

The interpretive perspective presumes that the individual and world are inextricably related through the person's lived experience of the world (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Husserl, 1970; Schutz, 1945, 1953). Thus, competence is not seen as constituted through the lived experience of work—the meaning the work takes on for the worker in his or her experience of it (Dall'Alba & Sandberg, 1996; Sandberg, 1994). The interpretive approach to studying human competence known as phenomenography gives rise to an alternative way of understanding human competence at work without invoking assumptions of objectivity, independence, and causality. The consequence of adopting an interpretive approach is that worker and work are seen as inseparable. An individual's competence cannot be reduced to objective lists of activities, but is constituted by the subjective meaning that work takes on for workers in their lived experience of it. The task of the researcher is to understand what individual workers conceive of as work and, through the elicitation of examples, how they conceive of it. An individual's conception of an aspect of reality is a cohesive self-contained way of seeing it, making sense of it, and acting upon it.

Sandberg's (2000) pioneering study of the competence of engine tuners in a Volvo factory suggested that individuals who had the same job held different conceptions of their work, and these could be related to perceived performance, as perceived by themselves and their peers. Their conceptions led the engine tuners to enact their work in different ways. Sandberg (2000) cited work by Schon (1987) who found that “when workers encounter their work, they frame and set the problem situations of the work through their experience of it. In other words, as workers frame their work, the attributes used in performing that work are not separate from their experience of it, but internally related to work through their way of framing the specific work situation.”

Investigation of competence in nonrepetitive environments, such as programs and projects, would be expected to produce a much wider array of dimensions, Partington et al. (2005) drew upon Sandberg's (2000) work that applied the phenomenographic method to study the competence of program managers. Their research comprised phenonmenographic interviews with program mangers, their superiors, clients, peers, and team members as well as observations of program managers in the workplace. Through their research, they developed a model of program management competence, with 17 attributes at 4 qualitatively different levels of conception (competence). This was a useful starting point for this work as their competence framework has already been applied in other research (Pellegrinelli et al., 2006). The 17 attributes and 4 levels are shown in Table 1.

Partington et al. (2005), pp. 91–92

Source: Partington et al. (2005), pp. 91–92

Three key aspects of conceptions were found by Partington et al. (2005). First, people who hold lower-level conceptions can sometimes articulate the rhetoric of higher-level conceptions but can only explain the superior competence of people who held higher-level conceptions in terms of their own conceptions. Further, they behaved in ways consistent with lower-level conceptions. Second, people who hold higher-level conceptions express and enact not only those conceptions but also lower-level conceptions, and so can explain shortcomings in performance in terms of those lower-level conceptions and behave according to a lower-level conception where deemed appropriate. Third, position in the organizational hierarchy is not necessarily related to position in the conceptual hierarchy. Partington et al. (2005) argued that success, or even excellence, in project management is unlikely, on its own, to be a reliable guide to prospective or potential performance in managing complex programs. Individuals may simply recreate the approach and environment used successfully for simpler, more defined initiatives. Second, the direction of senior managers who hold lower-level conceptions may be holding back the development of competence—poor role models, setting limited expectations and exhibiting lower-level behaviors. Higher-level behaviors may go unrecognized and unrewarded, and they may even be deemed inappropriate or disruptive. Third, organizational processes based mainly on project management principles may be sustaining and encouraging lower-level conceptions.

The conceptions and arguments put forward by Partington et al. (2005) add to the challenges faced by organizations in allocating managers to projects and programs. If the track record in a role cannot be relied upon as a reasonable indicator of future performance and senior managers are not necessarily well placed to assess competence, then is obtaining a good match or fit between manager and program/project just a lottery? Will the application of further research improve this?

Limits of the Interpretive Approach

The inseparability of worker and work, inherent in the interpretive perspective, poses a conundrum. As mentioned previously, socio-political processes generate and sustain the project and what is perceived as performance and success; therefore, an individual's actions based on his or her personal conception of the work may not be deemed adequate or acceptable by others. The malleability of project and program work, hinted at earlier, is a double-edged sword: it enables managers to shape what they do, but allows others to claim that the work is not performed well (enough). Individuals holding lower-level conceptions may miss technological challenges and political ramifications spotted by others holding higher-level conceptions. Even within this frame, a purely subjective perspective is not sufficient—reality is still contained by the binding nature of physical laws and resource constraints, and the existence of pervasive structures of signification, domination, and legitimization (Giddens, 1984). Socially reality may be constructed, but any construction can be negotiated and contested, as much as it can be consensually formed and sustained (Smircich & Stubbart, 1985).

For organizations, the way to maximize the chances of project and program success is to recruit and deploy individuals holding higher-level conceptions or develop individuals internally. Neither option appears easy, if even feasible. However, individuals holding lower-level conceptions do perform well on certain work, so project and program managers holding higher-level conceptions are not needed for every project.

In Search of a Pragmatic Step Forward

Building on the interpretive approach and more specifically the work of Partington et al. (2005), some exploratory research was conducted to link individual project and program managers' conceptual levels to descriptions of their work and contexts in terms of a complexity model.

In the last few years, the term complexity (or complex) was incorporated to the vocabulary of the project management community to describe the nature of projects as something comprising both constructed dynamics and social meanings and the rational existence of aspects of project. Much of the interest in the work on complexity is its ability to evaluate the nature and intensity of challenges involved in a project or program.

There are several models to describe complexity of projects. The first journal publication explicitly focusing on complexity in a project management journal was in the mid-1990s, as Baccarini (1996) proposed integration and differentiation based on Lawrence and Lorch (1967). Since then, the majority of the studies in the area defined complexity in abstract terms involving structural complexity, uncertainty, dynamic, pace, and social political complexity. For example, Williams (1999, 2005) defined complexity in terms of structural complexity (number of elements in the system and their interdependence), uncertainty, and pace. Similarly Shenhar, Dvir and colleagues (Shenhar and Dvir, 1998, 2005 among several publications in the area) proposed the project diamond, including complexity (similar to structural complexity, novelty, technology and pace. Lee and Xia (2005) defined complexity in terms of structural complexity and dynamic. Geraldi and Adlbrecht (2007) added social-political factors (empathy and transparency) as part of what makes projects complex.

However, all these work abstract from project reality and provided a set of general indicators for complexity assessment. Maylor, Vidgen, and Carver (2008) had a grounded approach to the definition of what makes projects complex to manage. Their work drew on the experience of practitioners and academics and developed a range of indicators of complexity, as proxies, to grasp the challenges faced by projects. The result was the MODeST framework of managerial complexity. The framework involved over 100 proxies that are very close to the day-to-day life of a project and program manager: number of time zones involved in the project; constraints in terms of health and safety; and how realistic are the budget and schedule of projects. We decided to access complexity based on the work of Maylor et al. (2008) because, first, it provides the most comprehensive set of indicators of complexity, and second, because these proxies are close to the language of practitioners.

The various MODeST complexity factors were operationalized through a set of questions which are included in Appendix A.

The MODeST framework is shown in Figure 1.

The MODeST Model of Project Complexity (Maylor et al., 2008)

Figure 1. The MODeST Model of Project Complexity (Maylor et al., 2008)

The model demonstrates a static representation of complexity, but as already noted, there are dynamic elements to program and project work. Table 2 shows the MODeST model including examples of both structural and dynamic elements of managerial complexity.

Table 2. Examples of MODeST Structural and Dynamic Complexity Elements

  Structural Dimension Dynamic Dimension
Mission Are the requirements clear? How frequently do the requirements change?
Organization Is there a mismatch between matrix structure of project and department structure of organization? Is there ongoing organizational restructuring that affects the project?
Delivery How well does the project team understand the project management methodology? Is a new project management methodology being introduced?
Stakeholders How many stakeholders are there? Are the stakeholders changing?
Team Are the team members motivated? Is the level of motivation of team members changing?

Six project managers from the same organization and same business group, but three separate programs (low, mid, and high complexity), were interviewed. The aim of the interview was to explore any linkage between conception level of project management and their as-lived experience of project complexity. The assumption we had was that project managers with higher-level conceptual level would perceive certain areas of complexity higher than others, as they would understand and pay more attention to a broader span of project complexities than those with lower levels of conception. Therefore, we sampled projects that were considered to have different complexities and project managers with different conceptual levels. The project managers completed the questionnaire about the complexity of the project before the interview, and the conceptual levels were uncovered during the interview. In the analysis, we explored whether the perception of project complexity was in line with the results from the MODeST assessment and whether project managers with different conceptual levels indeed rated complexity differently.

The limitations we had thought was that the project managers we have chosen did not have the same conceptual level, 2, and one had higher conceptual levels.

Overview of Findings

While only indicative, there were a number of observations that were made during this study: They include the following:

  • The interviews suggested that the high-conception level individual appears to perceive complexity from an informed position. This was demonstrated by a more extensive narrative about the nature and scale of the complexity than the project managers with a lower-level conception. Further, there were complexity attributes where the manager was confident that they would not make the project more difficult to manage. This approach was notably different from the low-conception level individuals, who when asked about the complexity of their project, gave less reasoning for their ratings. We suggested that from this, high-conception individuals rate complexity based on a high level of understanding, whereas lower-level conception individuals perceive complexity from a position of not fully understanding the implications of that complexity.
  • The perceptions of complexity of different people involved in the same project converged in the majority of cases. Some differences could be observed:
    • The project director (the only interviewee with higher-level conceptions) showed a better strategic understanding of project, i.e., he rated the project with more a clear vision and better aligned with organization's strategy than those with a lower level conception.
    • Differences also emerged in more operational aspects of the project. For example, people with lower-order conception rated the constraints such as confidentiality and health and safety considerably higher than the project director. The project director also perceived the delivery aspects of project as more complex than the other managers did.

Lessons Learned

In the following, we share some of the more interesting lessons from this exploratory pilot.

  • From an interviewee perspective, the research made sense and there was no noticed sign of perceived incongruity—practitioners, as might be expected, are neither aware of the nuances of research methods nor possible paradigm incommensurability. However, the quantitative evaluation of complexity along the various questions/dimensions shown in Appendix A, did not provide rich descriptions of the perceived complexity nor the reasons for such perceptions. Such an understanding would be valuable in helping to interpret convergent and divergent views of complexity. A deeper exploration of the perceived complexity would also enable the researcher to surface mediating factors such as knowledge, perceived control, and/or proximity, which are known to skew decision making and assessment of risk in projects (Hammond, Keeney, & Raiffa, 1998; Hillson & Murray-Webster, 2007; Lovallo & Kahneman, 2003; Slovic, 2000). Therefore, the MODeST questions did not effectively solicit salience. As prompts, the questions triggered reactions and assessments. Some opinions could have been formed in the moment while others have been the source of concern and deliberation for a long time. While there might be expected to be a correlation between importance/severity of the aspect of complexity (as indicated by a high score), this remains speculative and not fully captured by the relative scores.

This observation questions the future use of the quantitative assessment of complexity through MODeST. While it has been demonstrated to be relatively comprehensive, it appears to be inappropriate for elucidating the aspects of complexity that are associated with conception level.

Areas for Further Research

Provided a more appropriate assessment of complexity can be found, then the following could be conducted to explore the relationship between the manager and the work further.

  • A significant number of managers, working on the same project/program, should be interviewed to allow some assessment of convergence, either across the group or a within conceptual level. The nature of convergence and divergence would yield insights into the subjective nature of the work and its complexity.
  • A number of instances—projects/programs—should be examined to explore the existence or trends in assessing complexity based on conceptual level. In particular, it would be interesting to discover whether on some projects and programs all parties perceived approximately the same degree and type of complexity, while on others it varied according to conceptual level.
  • A number of projects/programs should be tracked over time to explore if, and how, perceived complexity and conceptual level changes over the life of a project or program. It would also be interesting to understand the dynamics of the worker-work relationship and if and how project and program managers enact their work and transform the complexity of their project. What is the extent of possible agency? Does this relate to the existing or acquired (higher) conceptual level?

Our contention is that the interpretive approach and the models or competence developed by Partington et al. (2005)—that treat the worker and the work as inseparable—offer the best way forward. However, the perceived effective shaping and conduct of work is not purely subjective, but has a strong inter-subjective element. This is accentuated where the work straddles organizational boundaries and there is an external client and multiple external and internal stakeholders gauging performance.

Our challenge will be to introduce and defend contingency within an interpretive frame, and to understand the dynamics of the worker-work relationship. We would expect that both worker and the work are shaped through the mutual interactions. Our work will be exploring the nuances of if, and how, this happens.

Emerging from the lessons learned of the exploratory study is a tentative framework for the next stage of the research. Our fundamental aim is to conduct research with a view to exploring conceptual levels and the perceived complexity of project and program work. We plan to undertake multiple interviews of practitioners at different organizational levels, in relation to specific projects or programs – an instance, and multiple instances to enable comparison between conceptual levels within instances and between instances. As noted, this will require a different operationalization of complexity for it to be successful.

Final Thoughts

From an academic perspective, this paper has argued the case for an interpretive approach to exploring the relationship between the worker and the work in program and project management. This goes beyond the overly simplified, and largely empirically unproven, rationalist models of fit. Practically, we argue that the original logic behind this study holds that informing the program manager, project manager, or team of an initiative advances knowledge in the field and offers tangible pragmatic benefits for organizations. A program or project with good fit with its manager has the potential to be more successful than one with a poor fit. This study has taken a small step towards realizing this potential.


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Version 1.7 – Live and Completed Projects Only


This questionnaire is aimed at evaluating what makes your project complex to manage.

Please answer the questions below relating to a project (or your part within a larger project) that is RECENTLY COMPLETED. Please mark the most applicable answer with a cross (X).


© 2010 Project Management Institute



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