Defining a project management system

University of Pittsburgh

Project management has attained a legitimate place in the evolution of management theory. Concurrent with the emergence of project management has been the “systems approach” to management. The purpose of this article is to suggest a way of bringing project management and the systems approach together in terms of a project management system. First, a brief look at the “systems approach.”

The Systems Approach

The “systems” approach describes a way of dealing with complex problems and opportunities in organizations; this approach has received much publicity in recent years, in the professional journals and in the popular press. The literature ranges from esoteric prescriptions of the nature of the systems approach in the professional journals to “cookbook” recipes in the popular press.

The systems approach is often described as a disciplined way of viewing the world, and the solution of problems and the exploitation of opportunities in that world. Some writers describe the systems approach as a process of blowing the problem up to its largest dimensions” and then redefining problems, analyzing, synthesizing, improving through feedback, and finally verifying the alternative courses of action in the decision process. Others view the world and its problems and opportunities in the systems context as “everything” being related to “everything else.” The definition of a system in dictionary terms as an “organization or complex whole; an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole” provides a good point of departure to relate the meaning of a “system” to project management.

If project management is viewed in its systems context, we might speak of a project management system which inherently contains a set of sub-systems that make up the larger system. The effectiveness of that larger system depends on the effectiveness of the supporting subsystems individually, as well as how these subsystems are synergized into the larger system as it functions as an entity. It is the way in which a project management system operates as an entity in its environment that ultimately determines the success or failure of project management in the organization.

Developing a concept of project management in systems terms requires that the project management system be viewed in as large a context as possible. This context of the “systems viewpoint” must be considered when project management is introduced into an organization. Too often a manager will realign his organization into a “matrix” form of structure without giving any real thought to what happens in the environment by way of a total “systems” change. After a period of time has gone by the “matrix” form of organizational structure is not working. For example:

— Members of the organization may not fully understand the diverse patterns of authority and responsibility that have emerged. There is interpersonal conflict; people resist the change in personal and organizational relationships that project management brings about.

— The information flows, reporting work accomplished on the project within the organization, have become more complex and interwoven, crossing different organizational functions and levels as the information is sought on a project basis.

— Managers become overly protective of their organizational functions and levels as the information is sought on a project basis.

— Managers become overly protective of their organizational “territory” and their belief in the unilateral right to commit resources in that territory.

— Control of the work in the organization becomes difficult and confused. Uncertainties arise concerning the question: “Who’s really responsible for the work on a project when the work is divided up into several different functional elements of the organization?”

— People are bothered by the apparent violation of unity of command by having to work for two bosses. The question, “Who works for whom?” is often raised.

— There is an unstable “cultural ambience” in the organization. People really do not know what is acceptable behavior — particularly with respect to their reporting relations in the matrix organization.

After a period of time has gone by people begin to realize that project management is not working as was hoped. Things are still pretty much done in the traditional manner, but with more controversy, frustration, and friction. The matrix organization is not understood! People in general are not comfortable with the idea of project management; they yearn for the “good old days” when everyone knew what was going on!

The general state of discomfort that the members of the organization feel has probably come about for a couple of reasons. First, project management was not recognized in its total systems context; it was introduced into the organization without any assessment of what the total “systems effect” would be. Second, inadequate attention was given to preparing the people for the cultural changes that result when project management is introduced in an organization. In subsequent sections of this article the “systems approach” of project management will be suggested through the definition of project management in systems terms.

Defining A Project Management System

If one takes the notion of a “system” as the basis for describing project management, one could describe the “subsystems” as follows:

The Facilitative Organizational Subsystem or the organizational arrangement that is used to superimpose the project teams on the functional structure. The resulting “matrix” organization portrays the formal authority and responsibility patterns and the personal reporting relationships aimed at providing an organizational focal point for starting and completing specific projects. Two complementary organizational units tend to emerge in such an organizational context: The project team and the functional units.

The Project Planning Subsystem which deals with the selection of projects, identification of project objectives and goals, and the formulation of the strategy by which these objectives and goals will be accomplished. Project plans prescribe both the ends and the means for successful project accomplishment. The project plan deals with how resources will be allocated to support the project drawing upon organizational resources wherever located.

The Project Control Subsystem provides for the selection of performance standards for the project schedule, budget, and technical performance. This subsystem deals with information feedback to compare actual progress with planned progress and the initiation of corrective action as required. The rationale for a control subsystem arises out of the need for monitoring the various organizational units that are performing work on the project in order to deliver results on time and within budget.

The Project Management Information Subsystem contains the intelligence essential to the effective control of the projects. This subsystem may be informal in nature — consisting of periodic meetings with the project participants who report information on the status of their project work — or a formal information retrieval system that provides frequent “printouts” of what is going on. This subsystem provides the intelligence to enable the project team members to make and implement decisions in the management of the project.

Techniques and Methodology is not really a subsystem in the sense that the term subsystem is used here. Techniques and methodology such as: PERT, CPM, PERT-Cost related scheduling techniques, modeling, simulation, linear programming, regression analysis, and such management science techniques which help to evaluate the risk and uncertainty factors in making project decisions.

The Cultural * Ambience Subsystem in which project management is practiced in the organization. Much of the nature of the cultural ambience can be described in how the people — the social groups — feel about the way in which project management is being carried out in the organization. The emotional patterns of the social groups, their perceptions, attitudes, prejudices, assumptions, experiences, values, all go to develop the organization’s cultural ambience. This ambience influences how people act and react, how they think, feel, and what they say in the organization, all of which ultimately determines what is taken for socially acceptable behavior in the organization.


Figure 1 depicts a project management system model showing the focal position of the project team and the interacting subsystems. These subsystems are interdependent; their interactions are ultimately reflected in the efficiency and effectiveness with which the project objectives are accomplished. Success of the project depends on the interactions of these subsystems and how the people perceive the adequacy of the cultural ambience to facilitate effective management of the project.

The Cultural Ambience Subsystem — A Further Look

From a sociological viewpoint, a culture develops from the social and intellectual patterns within a group of people having a degree of common purpose, goals, language, customs, mores and traditions. In its organizational context, cultural ambience for project management deals with the social expression manifest in the participants engaged in managing projects. Within such organizations a cultural system emerges which reflects certain behavioral patterns characteristic of the members of that organization. Such behavioral characteristics influence the attitudes and the modus operandi of the people. A project management organizational society is made up of many participants in different organizational roles. Superiors, subordinates, peers, associates — all working together to bring a project to completion. The cultural ambience that ultimately emerges is dependent upon the way participants feel and act within the organizational environment.

An organization’s cultural ambience is not just the people involved. It is the people united through policy, plans, procedures and formal organizational reporting relationships for the purposes of accomplishing project ends through a matrix organization. The intended formal relationships of the matrix organization are portrayed in organizational charts, project management manuals, job descriptions, policies, plans, procedures and such documentation. This documentation is developed to establish the “formal” way of doing things in the organization.

There are other cultural forces which are not explicitly stated in any formal documentation, and which emerge through the “informal” organization. In the cultural sense, these informal ways of doing things help to develop or inhibit a particular behavior on the part of the people. This behavioral attitude is often demonstrated by the statement: “Well, this is just the way we do things around here.”

This cultural ambience reflects the prejudices and modus operandi of key people in the organization, both those who hold formal leadership roles and those individuals who have emerged as “informal” leaders, able to influence others through their personal charisma, knowledge, expertise, interpersonal skills, social ties, and so forth.

The cultural ambience for the project management system is important for this culture ultimately determines what is to be accomplished and how it will be done. This ambience affects the manner in which decisions are made and implemented in the matrix organization. A descriptive summary of the cultural ambience which can facilitate successful project management reflects certain factors such as the following :

A consensus approach to decision making through which the project participants actively contribute in defining the question or problem as well as designing courses of action to resolve problems and opportunities in the management of the project.
An explicit formal model of matrix organizational relationships which delineates the formal authority and responsibility standards of the project managers, general managers, functional managers, and others working on the project.
An adversary role which is assumed by any project participant who senses that “something is wrong” in the management of the project. Such an adversary role questions goals, strategies, objectives — and asks the tough questions that have to be asked during the management of a project. Such spontaneous adversary roles can provide a valuable “checks and balances” to guard against decisions which are unrealistic or overly optimistic. A socially acceptable adversary role facilitates the rigorous and objective development of “data bases” on which decisions are made.
People truly participate in the management of the project. They allocate their time to it, and become ego-involved in planning for and controlling of the project resources. As active participants in the project deliberations, they are quick to suggest innovative ideas for improving the project or to “sound the alarm” when things do not seem to be going as they should.
The structure of the organization and the lines of authority and responsibility defining that structure tend to be flexible. There is much give-and-take across these lines with people assuming an organizational role that the situation warrants rather than what the position description says should be done. Authority in such an organizational context gravitates to the person who has the best credentials to make the judgment that is required.
The project manager is more of a facilitator than an active “manager” of people. He carries out the management functions of planning, organizing, and controlling by seeing to it that the necessary decisions are made and that strategies are designed for the implementation of decisions in the project. He facilitates an environment for the participants on the project to work together with economic and social satisfaction.
A process for the resolution of the conflict that inevitably arises over the allocation of resources among the various projects has been developed. The project and functional managers know that they will have their “day in court” to negotiate on how the scarce resources will be assigned to the various projects in the organization.

The introduction of a project management system into an organization brings about many changes in the cultural ambience. To improve the chances for success, project management should be considered in a “systems” context and the strategy for its introduction developed accordingly.

* The term culture was introduced in a strategic planning context in the paper: David I. Cleland and William R. King, “Developing a Planning Culture for More Effective Strategic Planning,” Long-Range Planning, September, 1974.



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