Describing and assessing projects

the X model

Erling S. Andersen, Professor of Information Systems and Project Management, Norwegian School of Management BI

Projects strive for excellence, yet are by definition unique tasks, subject to serious restrictions in terms of budgets and time; success is not easy to achieve, and many projects fail. It would be very helpful for project managers in critical stages of their work to be able to assess whether they are on the right track and, ideally, to receive an early warning signal if the wrong course has been chosen.

Different approaches are available, however, further tools may be needed to assess the situation of a project and to advise the project manager about what should be done to achieve project success.

The aims of this paper are twofold. First, it will present a method for describing and analyzing the present situation of a project (the X model). Several projects have used this model. Based on empirical data from seventy-four Norwegian projects, the paper will then present a comprehensive picture of these projects based on the X model.

Existing Approaches to Project Control

Traditional project control is focused on performance, costs, and quality, and instruments such as Earned Value Analysis and Critical Ratio are important tools for the project manager (Meredith and Mantel 2000; Fleming and Hoppelman 1996). This type of control will continue to be imperative, but the problem is that they are based on retrospective information; all data tell us what happened yesterday.

The Project Implementation Profile (PIP) of Pinto and Slevin (1988) made a valuable contribution to the field of project management insofar as they demonstrated how to use critical success factors to diagnose a project's status. PIP or similar approaches should be used as a supplement to traditional monitoring of projects (Andersen and Jessen 2000).

Requirements for a General Project Evaluation Model

The weakness of most models for project control is that the model itself determines what type of problems you must focus on. As a consequence, the model does not give a complete picture of the whole project or an unbiased starting point for analysis. Models for cost control naturally focus on describing and discussing costs, and so on.

There is a need for a general model, which does not determine at the outset what type of problem the project is facing. The model should allow for descriptions of all aspects of a project and in that sense provide a solid basis for further analyses of the situation. Every model must of course be based on some kind of structure, but the structure should not predetermine what type of problem the project has to tackle.

A good way to ensure that all the important aspects of a project will be scrutinized is to have project team members and users describe the actual situation of the project. And there should be no restrictions as to what they are allowed to bring up. This means that the modeling technique should be so simple that all involved should be able to make a description after a short introduction.

The X Model

A potential candidate for a general evaluation model is the one presented in this paper, called the X-model (Exhibit 1). It consists of five elements: personal inputs, factual inputs, work processes, personal outputs, and factual outputs (Andersen et al 1994). The name reflects its shape.

The personal inputs and outputs are the members of the project organization and their attitudes, needs, knowledge, skills, experience, and relations to others. This is what may be called the “soft part” of the project organization. The inputs refer to the situation at the start of the project or a previous situation, while the outputs are related to the present situation.

The factual parts of the model focus on the more formal or structural part of the project. The inputs may describe the tasks to be performed, the problems to be solved or the challenges to be met, the project plans, and the formal organization. The outputs should show what the project has achieved so far and what has not been accomplished.

The work processes are the project activities (in groups, meetings, or individually), the decision processes, the communication processes, and the general working climate. Processes integrate both personal and factual aspects and it is meaningless to make a distinction between the two in a description of the present status of a project.

Exhibit 1. The X Model

The X Model

The project manager may at certain stages of the project have an X model created. The best result is achieved when several participants first make their own independent descriptions of the project and decide which aspects of the project they would focus on. The participants then cooperate in combining the individual descriptions into a common description. This model is then used for analyses of the connections between outputs, work processes, and inputs. This insight into the project situation will help the project manager and the project team to decide how to proceed to better the functioning of the project. The subsequent actions might be quite different from the results of a traditional project control.

The Theoretical Justification of the X Model

The X model is based on two theoretical approaches, which may help us understand how an organization functions: systems theory and socio-technical theory. The X model combines these two approaches in a single and consistent framework.

Systems theory focuses on an entity and its parts and helps us to clarify how the different parts are interrelated (Langefors 1966). An organization may be regarded as a system with inputs, transformation processes, and outputs as the main parts of the system. Seiler (1967) used systems theory in this way to design an elementary framework for diagnosing human behavior in organizations. His organizational system distinguished between inputs, actual behavior, and outputs. However, he did not develop this framework into an easy-to-use modeling technique.

The input-transformation-output model is a causal model (Emery and Trist 1965). The arrows of the X model imply causal relationships. The outputs are the results of the transformation processes. They are based on the inputs available.

The socio-technical school (Mumford and Weir 1959), also inspired by the systems theory, divides the organization into a social and a technical subsystem. The concepts of social and technical subsystems are broadly defined: technical subsystem also covers economic and commercial aspects; social subsystem incorporates every human aspect that may be of interest to a person in a work situation. These concepts are similar to what is called factual and personal in the X model. The main idea of the socio-technical school is that the social and technical subsystem cannot be regarded as isolated systems in a study of an organization; we have to consider the relationships between them.

Alternative Approaches

It is a well-accepted approach to use a theoretical model to create a condensed picture of the whole organization. The most similar approach to the X model may be the Business Excellence Model. It is developed by European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) and is therefore often referred to as the EFQM model (EFQM 2002). It is a tool suited for evaluating of an organization and may very well be used for the evaluation of a project.

A Balanced Scorecard approach can also be used to perform health checks throughout the project life cycle (Stewart 2001). The scorecard looks at four different business aspects: financial, organizational, customer relationship, and training and innovation.

Two other examples mainly used for evaluation of organizations may also be mentioned. The Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change distinguishes between twelve factors: external environment, mission and strategy, structure, tasks and individual skills, leadership, management practices, work unit climate, motivation, organizational culture, systems (policies and procedures), individual needs and values, and individual and organizational performance (Burke and Litwin 1989). The 7S model presented by Peters and Waterman identifies seven important elements in understanding organizational performance: strategy, structure, systems, style, staff, skills, and shared values (Peters and Waterman 1982).

One of the advantages of the X model is its simplicity; it imposes very few restrictions on a description. It allows the evaluators to bring forth their most important viewpoints without having to worry about many different kinds of questions. Of course its simplicity is also its disadvantage. The different elements of the Burke-Litwin model or the 7S model may be helpful in identifying the weaknesses of a project.

Another advantage of the X model is that we are making a causal model—without thinking about it. The X model opens up for an analysis of causalities; we are able to discuss which work processes that are responsible for the quality of the personal and factual outputs.

Exhibit 2. Responses to the Different Elements of the X Model

Responses to the Different Elements of the X Model

Exhibit 3. The X Model of a Project

The X Model of a Project

The Data

Participants in the part-time Master's program in project management at the Norwegian School of Management BI have to write a thesis as a program requirement. The thesis should be based on their observations of a real project over a period of nine months. Many students use the X model to evaluate their project, and in this way we have been able to collect X models for seventy-four different Norwegian projects.

The students are employees from companies, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Usually three students write their thesis together and they typically choose to observe a project among their own companies. Sometimes one student is also a participant in the chosen project or the project manager. They collect information about the project by observing and interviewing project team members and people affected by the project and by studying plans and other written material. This means that they have good access to information. The students use all their information about the project to establish an X model, where the present situation usually refers to a point in time before the project is finished.

The empirical data will allow us to study which aspects of the personal and factual inputs, the work processes, and the personal and factual outputs are regarded as the most important in order to understand the status of the project.

Exhibit 2 illustrates how extensively the X models are filled in. It shows the average number of statements that are given for each of the five elements of the X model.

We see from Exhibit 2 that the most attention is given to the work processes (measured by the number of statements used to explain the situation). Furthermore, the inputs are described more extensively than the results. The typical X model also gives more weight to the presentation of the factual situation than the personal part of the project. The differences have been tested by paired samples t-tests and they are all significant at the level 0.000.

This may reveal some interesting features about evaluation of projects. We tend to focus mostly on the work processes (the activities), which tend to be the most concrete aspects of a project. We find it more difficult to give a thorough presentation of the results. We also tend to focus more on the factual part of the project than the personal aspects.

Exhibit 4. The Most Frequently Used Statements of the Five Elements of the X model

The Most Frequently Used Statements of the Five Elements of the X model

An X Model for A Single Project

The purpose of the X model is primarily to describe the present situation of a project. An example, derived from our collected sample of X models, is shown as Exhibit 3.

We would claim that the X model gives a clear picture of the present situation of the project. The X model would also be a starting-point for an analysis of the project. We see that the actual status of the presented project is such that actions are necessary. The X model should help us to identify the causalities between the personal and factual outputs on the one hand and the work processes and the personal and factual inputs on the other.

The X model shows that the quality is not as good as expected (factual output). We may hypothesize that this is caused by the lack of focus on quality and that all project members are not involved in the decisions (work processes). This might be caused by the attitudes to quality (personal input). When conducting a further causal analysis there may be a need for more detailed descriptions of the conditions presented by the model.

The Norwegian Project Scene Based on X Models

All the collected X models enable us to get a comprehensive picture of Norwegian projects, as described and experienced by people familiar with the projects. The X model contains descriptions made be people in their own words, but in order to have them processed we have to perform a coding of all the statements.

Two persons coded the X models independently of each other. They used the scheme presented in the appendix. They had to decide which code that best covered the intention of the original statement and whether it was complied with completely, partly or not at all. If there was a difference of coding between the two, a third person acted as judge and decided on the final coding.

Exhibit 4 shows which aspects of the project situation were most focused on. For each of the five elements of the X model we present the four most frequently mentioned aspects. We may say that these are the aspects of project work that project members are most focused on when they are told to explain the situation of a project. The majority agrees that it is very important to have as the focus of attention the motivation of the team members, the clarity of the goals, the feedback given in the communication process, if the motivation is upheld, and if the mandate seems to be fulfilled.

Exhibit 4 tells us how Norwegian projects are in general: They have motivated and well-informed team members, who sometimes lack project experience. Only 30 percent of the projects have clear goals. For the majority of the projects there are no clear lines of responsibility, the plans are inadequate, and not enough resources are allocated to the project. The feedback to project team members is not good enough, but for the most part the cooperation between them functions well. The quality of the leadership differs and project control is rather weak. People learn a lot from project work, but their motivation for further project work seems to be reduced. The task is completed as described by the mandate or project charter, but most projects are not completed on time and within the budget. The results are more focused on technical than social factors.

Exhibit 5. The Two Most Frequently Used Output Statements and Their Correlations to Other Statements

The Two Most Frequently Used Output Statements and Their Correlations to Other Statements

One of the main intentions of the X model is to perform a causal analysis, which means investigating why the results are as they are and what can be done in order to improve the situation. Our data give us an opportunity to study which input factors and work processes influence the different output factors. Exhibit 5 looks at the personal and factual output factors, which were most focused on. The table shows which input and transformation factors are significantly correlated with these output factors.

Exhibit 5 shows that different factors affect the two chosen output factors. Motivation for further project works depends on how well the team members are kept informed and given feedback as well as the quality of the project meetings and the co-operation within the team. Strong motivation at the start and predetermined budget help to keep up the motivation. Motivation is also of importance in fulfilling the mandate. Other important factors are good cooperation within the team and with the base organization, good management, experienced people, good plans, and clear goals.

Conclusions and Further Work

This paper has presented the X model. It is a tool designed primarily for evaluating (describing and assessing) an individual project. We would claim that the X model should be part of the toolbox of the project manager. Further research should be conducted to determine the strength and weaknesses of the X model compared to other tools for project control or evaluation.

We have been able to collect a substantial number of X models for Norwegian projects. The data show that many projects have serious shortcomings from the start such as vague goals and unclear lines of responsibility. Only about 20 percent are completed as scheduled. Our data show which factors to concentrate on to obtain better project results, and to achieve good results on several output factors a broad range of factors have to be improved.


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Personal Inputs

101. Good knowledge of project work and project methods

102. Good knowledge of company/base organization

103. Good knowledge of subject area of the project

104. Good knowledge in general

105. Extensive experience with project work, methods, and tools

106. Positive experiences with project work

107. Strongly motivated for the project

108. Great ambitions for the project results

109. Good relations between the project team members

110. Good relations with the base organization/the users

111. High degree of unanimity and fellowship

112. High degree of similarity in views and attitudes

Factual Inputs

201. Clearly expressed project charter/contract/requirements

202. Clearly expressed project mission/purpose of project

203. Clearly expressed project objectives/goals

204. Existence of project work manual/guidelines for project work

205. Good plans/clear time schedule/fixed milestones

206. Completion date determined

207. Budget/costs determined

208. Quality requirements determined

209. Enough resources allocated for the project work

210. Appropriate organization/clear lines of responsibility

211. Stable group of project team members

212. Good system of project control/monitoring

213. Good acceptance for the project in the base organization

214. Good communication plans

215. Appropriate system of rewards and incentives

Work Processes

301. Good cooperation between project team members

302. Good cooperation with base organization/users

303. All team members are doing their job as agreed

304. Strong efforts/hard work

305. Meeting schedules are followed/meetings are conducted in a good way

306. Plans are followed

307. Good management/leadership

308. Formal way of managing

309. Good work processes

310. Good feedback

311. Good information

312. Good quality control

313. Good financial control

314. Good project control

315. Decisions are taken at the right time

316. Team members are involved in the planning process

317. Appropriate tools for planning and control

318. The team members do not experience problems in allocating time for both project and base organization work

319. Training is given

Personal Outputs

401. Increased knowledge of project work and project methods

402. Increased knowledge of company/base organization

403. Increased knowledge of subject area of the project

404. Increased knowledge in general

405. Positive experiences with project work

406. Strongly motivated for further project work

407. Great ambitions for the project results

408. Good/better relations between the project team members

409. Good/better relations with the base organization/the users

410. High degree of unanimity and fellowship

411. High degree of similarity in views and attitudes

Factual Outputs

501. The mandate/charter/contract is fulfilled

502. The mission is achieved/good for the base organization in the future

503. The base organization will be able to take over

504. Satisfied customers/users/project owners

505. Balanced results achieved

506. Goals/objectives achieved

507. Plans are followed/milestones or phases are achieved as planned

508. Completion as scheduled

509. Completion within budget

510. Products with quality as agreed

511. Used resources as agreed

512. Good information to all involved

513. Rewards to the team members

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