Perspectives on projects



Erling S. Andersen
BI Norwegian School of Management, Oslo, Norway

There exist at least two different perspectives on projects and project work. The traditional and the dominant perspective is the task perspective: It focuses on the work or the task itself; it is a perspective of those executing the project's activities and uses a rational approach. But the increase in project work has over recent years and its expansion into many new industries has given rise to another perspective—the organizational. This second perspective regards a project as a temporary organization that is established by the sponsoring base organization and that is charged with carrying out an assignment for the sponsor. This perspective focuses on the relationship between the sponsor (the base organization) and the project team (the temporary organization); it does not, however, fully define the project's task. The paper examines the differences between the two perspectives.

I claim that the differences between these two coexisting perspectives represent a challenge to the field of project management: What are the consequences for project management theories and standards? The intention of the paper is not to answer this question but to build awareness of its challenges and to encourage future research.


By perspective I mean a certain approach to—or perception of—reality. That means I acknowledge that there are more ways than one to see the world. I accept that reality depends on “who you ask”, that reality, as Berger and Luckmann (1967) put it, is a social construction. Because reality, or knowledge of reality, is structured (or constructed) by the spectator, each spectator is affected by his or her social background. I speak of here social in the wider context that includes childhood, training, and experience. A spectator's perspective is not necessarily a clearly defined and static entity. Instead, it is generally flexible and sensitive to circumstances.

I do not claim that one perspective is generally the best one. Although I may, however, argue that in specific cases one perspective might be more fruitful than another. I see reality as a question of one's particular background, of one's particular knowledge and experience. My background affects what I see and what something particular means to me. Another person may see things which are invisible to me because his or her perceptions are guided by information and experience different from my own. What I focus on is governed by past experience. And it influences what I find important.

We adopt perspectives to help us explain and understand. But in relation to social constructivism, this perspective also means that we each adjust reality in line with our own perspective. In a new situation, we use our perspective to tell us how to act. When we start acting in a particular way or pattern, we build institutions and organize groups to conform with our preferred perspective. Perspectives not only help us explain things but also create impressions. Furthermore, one's perspective is self-fulfilling: I see what I want to see and create the reality that fits my perception.

The Task Perspective

The Project Management Institute (2004) offers this definition of a project: “A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service” (p. 5). This is a typical task perspective definition, one that identifies the production of a product or the performance of a service as the important aspect. But what is important to notice is the use of the term “endeavor.” According to Webster (1988), an endeavor is “a determined effort” (p. 311). This definition reveals the nature of the task perspective: The focus is on the work or the task itself. It is a perspective seen from the point of view of those making the effort. In relation to the history of project management, only those trained in engineering originally ran all projects. (Most early projects involved large building and construction undertakings or large defense installations.) The Project Management Institute's definition of “project” reflects a particular way of looking at the challenge of the endeavor confronting those responsible for implementing it. One way to better understand a typical task perspective is by describing the function of the work breakdown structure (WBS) and the network plan that binds all the diverse project activities together.

The task perspective implies more than the definition tells us. The endeavor preferably uses a wholly rational approach: Organizations should define their goals when starting a project to deliver a product or service that meets outlined and required specifications and specified time and cost restrictions). To accomplish this effectively, organizations evaluate various plans of action, then select and develop one that meets their needs. From this, they allocate resources, implement the plan, and work to deliver the project as expected, meeting time and budget constraints.

It might not always turn out this way, but this is the goal that the project team strives to achieve. The ideal is Homo economicus—economic theory's concept of the Economic Man. This is a model that assumes the ideal project, the one comprising perfect rationality and perfect information, the one realizing perfect self-interest, as far as self-interest means that the effort is viewed from the perspective of the project itself, where creating the specified product or service within the limits of time and budget is the project team's overriding concern.

The Organizational Perspective

The alternative outlook is the organizational perspective. It is a perspective widely advocated by Swedish researchers (Lundin & Steinthórsson, 2003; Lundin & Söderholm, 1995; Packendorff, 1995). It defines a project as a temporary organization, established by its base organization to carry out an assignment on its behalf.

To understand this perspective, think of two organizations, one permanent and one temporary. The temporary organization receives its inputs from the permanent one and delivers its outputs to the same organization. In practice, the permanent organization can comprise more than one temporary organization and can run several renewal projects simultaneously.

Establishing a temporary organization is explained best by understanding the factors comprising the base organization: The base organization must function as an enterprise that simultaneously pursues change and stability (Leana & Barry, 2000). This may seem like an impossible undertaking, but it is the construction of a temporary organization that allows the base organization to implement change activities and protect its daily operations. The temporary organization serves as a proper way for the base organization to release its creative forces (Kreiner, 1992). The founding of a new (temporary) organization gives momentum and inspiration to base organization's renewal processes.

Because of this, the project is not well defined. Its rationale, when viewed from the organizational perspective, is to create a foundation that supports the base organization's positive development. We could call the given directions an assignment that varies considerably, one that should focus primarily on the purpose of the project, perhaps even outlining a vision or presenting a picture of a desired future. But it would certainly not outline the project's list of required activities. In some instances, it may involve the nature of an idea rather than a well-defined outline of what should be achieved.

Executing such a project's assignment is not based on the project's self-interest; instead, the base organization's best interest will determine the action. This might cause the temporary organization to deliver the project later than originally indicated, which in turn could drive up project costs and render the project open to criticism. However, if doing so produces deliveries of higher quality and greater relevance to the base organization, then the temporary organization can justify the project's delay and cost overrun.

The organizational perspective holds that that the members comprising a temporary organization will not behave rationally. The most we can expect—as is the case with most organizations—is limited rationality. As such, the people working on projects lack perfect information. This is because it is the permanent organization that gives the temporary organization an assignment and the resources it needs to complete project work. Furthermore, the permanent organization will—either directly or indirectly—describe the project's areas of authority and responsibility; it will also define the project's boundaries, thus giving the project an embryo of an identity (Brunsson & Sahlin-Andersson, 2000; Engwall, 2003). But the identity of a project develops over time as it faces the challenges that come with completing it. The final result might take on a form very different from that initially expected by the permanent organization.

Differences Between the Perspectives

In Figure 1, I have outlined some of the differences between the two perspectives. In doing so, I focus on the differences discussed above. The other differences that I identify in Figure 1 are detailed in the following section. Most of my attention focuses on the way the organizational perspective differs from the traditional perspective. Aspects that I could have discussed, but did not, include issues relating to stakeholders, organizational learning, and economic matters.

Some differences between the task and organizational perspective

Figure 1. Some differences between the task and organizational perspective

Project Success Criteria: Goals and Mission

The task perspective interprets project success as project delivery on time, in budget, to specifications. Such goals are set at project inception and serve as the project's main driving forces, directing the actions of the temporary organization—the project manager and the project team. These goals are the criteria that the base organization uses to evaluate the temporary organization's performance.

The organizational perspective views goals accomplishment as inadequate or insufficient determiners of project success. This perspective rejects the self-interest as the project's dominating force; it instead focuses on the interplay between the project and the base organization. This implies an extended concept of project success: Project success is defined as the combination of project management success (Munns & Bjeirmi, 1996) and project product success (Baccarini, 1999). Figure 2 illustrates this view.

The concepts of project success

Figure 2. The concepts of project success

In the organizational perspective, project management success is linked to the goals of the project, which should express what the project should deliver at what time and to what cost. So far this is in line with the traditional view. But the organizational perspective differs from the traditional in that it calls for an evolutionary approach (Gilb, 1988; MacCormack, 2001; Matta & Ashkenas, 2003): It requires several deliverables to appear at different times. This complicates the task of managing the project, especially during the planning stage. The organization perspective proposes that projects have more than one deliverable. It also suggests that that the user feedback for an early deliverable may cause necessary changes to later deliverables. Thus, project goals are unstable. And therefore, project managers must constantly adjust their project's course and deliverables. Such as view sees project success as the equivalent of attempting to hit a “moving target” (Lereim, 2003), an act that makes definitive project planning an impossibility.

Because of this, project product success is related to the effects of the deliverables. And the degree of success depends on how the base organization takes advantage of—and uses the potential of—the deliverables. Base organizations embracing the organizational perspective must measure the effects of the deliverable in relation to the project's mission or purpose. For it is this mission or purpose that answers the initial project questions: Why is the base organization launching the project? What kind of changes or renewals is the base organization looking to make through the project?

Project management success is in the hands of the project manager; project product success, however, is dependent upon the efforts of the base organization. What determines project management success is project outcome. What determines project product success is how the base organization uses the deliverables. Because of this, the base organization may not understand for many years the degree of success it achieves through its project product.

Plans and Planning

WBS and network planning are cornerstones of the task perspective. Plans developed using these methods presume that they planners can know perfect information about future activities, particularly in regard to resource and calendar requirements. But the organizational perspective does not assume such perfect information. That requires a different planning approach. What it does need is a planning approach that gradually accumulates information about preferred activities as the project is implemented. This requires level-based strategic, tactical and operational planning, a solution in which strategic planning precedes tactical planning, which in turn precedes operational planning.

According to the organizational perspective, the base organization and the project must clarify its project strategies—before even thinking of which activities to implement—and use two kinds of strategies: positioning strategy and implementation strategy (Grundy & Brown, 2002).

Positioning strategy outlines the base organization's desired future situation (position), which the temporary organization—together with the base organization—should strive to achieve. Mintzberg (1987) identified position as one of five definitions of strategy: As that which defines the match between the base organization and its environment, between the internal and external contexts. Positioning strategy should ideally comprise part of the project mission. If this is not the case, the temporary organization must develop the desired positioning in its work.

Implementation strategy, on the other hand, outlines the way in which the temporary organization should generally approach its work. Mintzberg (1987) described this as a set of guidelines explaining how project managers can resolve the challenges involved in managing projects. This strategy supports the idea that temporary organizations can approach any project work from multiple directions, from the evolutionary (gradually delivering its results) or the revolutionary (simultaneously delivering all results), to the iterative (conscientiously repeating some of the activities so as to refine the results) or the strictly sequential (finalizing one activity before starting on the next). Implementing this strategy can also require user participation or expert involvement as well as experimental or analytical analyses. Implementation strategy is usually a deliberate strategy. It delimits the degree of freedom in project work, but it also makes it allows temporary organizations to formulate tactical plans.

Since it is not possible to know which activities temporary organizations need to implement before the project begins, project managers cannot develop the tactical plan as a sequence of activities. Instead, they should use as their tactical plan a milestone plan (Andersen, 1996; Andersen, Grude, & Haug, 2004), a plan that identifies the project's important milestones, those project checkpoints that help project managers determine if the project is on the right track and show the state of the project during a particular stage. Milestones identify what the temporary organization should achieve, but it does not explain how they should achieve it. (Milestone plans should not directly reference specific activities). The milestones comprising a tactical plan should neutrally list—as much as this is possible—how the temporary organization could achieve the milestone.

But how then should the temporary organization identify its project milestones? Andersen et al. (2004) advocate developing a milestone plan in conjunction with logical precedence analysis. This is a backward-focused analysis, one that moves from the project's end to its start. The analysis involves describing the preferred end result of the project work. The next step is describing which previous event or situation— which milestone—the temporary organization will reach in order to get into position for the end result. The analysis moves forward by examining the milestone in reverse order. The final plan then shows all the milestones and their logical relationships. A rather similar approach is taken by Pitsis, Clegg, Marosszeky & Rura-Polley (2003). They introduce the concept of future perfect to project management, which means a process where the future is imagined and the project is implemented to realize it. Throughout implementation it is subject to continuous revision. This method of reasoning is contrary to network planning, where the plan is created through forward activity-based thinking.

A traditional way of identifying milestones is to focus on the project life cycle. Typically, a project progresses as it passes through such phases as start-up, planning and organizing, execution, and termination. With this approach, achieving a milestone is linked to completing a certain project phase. This concept is based on the presumption that all similar-type activities are organized into one phase and these activities are all completed before the project moves towards the next phase. For example, all planning phase activities are completed before the execution phase starts. This excludes iterations. Because of this, the project life cycle is not an appropriate concept for determining milestones in regards to the organizational perspective. Instead, the project would reflect the relationship between the base organization and the temporary organization; the project would serve as a provider of different deliverables, all of which contribute to the base organization's desired changes.

The life cycles of different perspectives

Figure 3. The life cycles of different perspectives

Figure 3 illustrates how a temporary organization implements several deliverables simultaneously. For example, the start-up activities for one deliverable parallel the planning activities for second deliverable and the execution activities for a third. The notion of sequential stages is meaningless in such an environment because it is the milestones that function as the stepping-stones to achieving the project's final deliverable. Milestones serve as early deliverables or preconditions for achieving these. The milestone plan is typically a stable plan throughout the project, meaning that it is not affected by changing operational circumstances.

The Timing of the Deliveries

The timing of deliverables is a core concern in managing project. All stakeholders want to know when the project manager will deliver the project to the users. This concern is traditionally addressed through network planning, the method that is the pride of the project management discipline. Knowledge of it distinguishes project managers from other kinds of managers.

So then what could possible be wrong with using it? Is it really possible to see this from a different angle? First of all, it is a method where the delivery time of the project's output is based solely on the interests of the project. The optimal schedule is based on what suits the project and its activities. Secondly, it presumes that all activities are known at the start of the project.

The organizational perspective would reject both presuppositions. Not all activities are known at the outset. Therefore, the temporary organization must adjust its activities during execution in order to identify those activities that will enable it to realize the project goal. Even more importantly, the temporary organization should adopt a pace that suits the base organization. It is most important to deliver output when the base organization expects to receive it. Doing so might mean that it is delivered later or earlier than the network plan concludes, which means that the temporary organization must adjust its level of ambition in order to deliver output at the appropriate time.

According to the organizational perspective, project managers should base their time scheduling on the philosophy of entrainment (Ancona & Chong, 1996), which involves adjusting the pace of one activity so as to match or synchronize it with the pace of another's activity. Here I adapt it to cooperating organizations. Entrainment is thus the adjusted pace of the temporary organization so as to match the needs of the base organization.

The implications of entrainment are several: Rather than thinking of change solely as a result of what has changed and how change has occurred, we must think about when change takes place. The temporary organization's work is not an event isolated from the base organization's pace. Everyday life in the base organization is rhythmic: Frantic and fast at one moment, quiet and slow the next. The project must adapt to this rhythm. The base organization's needs may also depend on the events in its environment; changes to the project's pace may reflect external events. Ancona and Chong (1996) summarize this well: “Entrainment suggests that the timing of change has a big impact on the nature and outcome of the change process” (p. 269).

Organizing—Action and Political Organization

How do the different perspectives regard the project organization? Brunsson (2002) distinguishes between action and political organizations. These categories may help us to explain the views defining the different perspectives.

Within the action organization, every individual fully supports its goals and mission. Agreement is the principle of recruitment. There is no room for disagreement and conflict. This powerful ideology dominates this type of organization, an organization which cuts down the need for decision-making. This ideology chooses the actions; no other choice process is needed. The strategy discussion detailed above is irrelevant since this ideology determines strategy. The action organization is specialized and solution-focused.

The political organization, on the other hand, reflects a variety of ideas and demands. It also strives to satisfy the expectations of many different groups. Conflicts are part of its daily life. The opportunity for its members to voice adverse opinions is a vital part of the organization and the main reason why people with different views still want to belong to it. Decision processes are time consuming and meticulous but accepted as objective. The decisions are ideological by nature. These are conveyed with rhetoric and even hypocrisy (explaining the decision in different ways to different groups). The decisions are not always followed by actions.

The task perspective is the ideal format for the action organization. It allows all participants to fully ascribe to the project's goals and mission. The project manager leads a group of loyal followers. And the ideology manifests itself as a strong wish to present the specified project output within time and budget constraints. The action organization turns a project into a very efficient way to deal with a specified task.

The organizational perspective sees project work as a different kind of challenge, one which is not successfully handled by an action organization. The work is usually surrounded by contrasting views. Some people are even openly negative to the initiative. In this perspective, the project must adopt many of the qualities of a political organization, allowing diversified participation, accepting different opinions, making room for dialogue, having an open and objective decision-making process, and ensuring that all participants still find something beneficial to themselves in the project results.

The political process is not only concerned with the project's output but also involved in its pure existence or survival. Eskerod (1998) shows that resource allocation is a continuous negotiation process. Within the task perspective, allocating human resources is regarded as a (more or less mathematical) scheduling calculation at the planning stage. This is not the way this activity is viewed by the organizational perspective. The project's manager must continually use his or her political skills to convince all project stakeholders (owner, base organization, future users, and project team members) of the project's benefits.

However, politics is often not enough. All projects must also strive for efficiency. Projects do provide an efficient way to address problems, and the base organization will expect its temporary organizations to deliver results within a reasonable time frame. The organizational perspective accepts that projects must have elements from both ideal organizational types. This is not a surprising conclusion. Brunsson (2002) found that “… the kind of units which are generally regarded as whole organizations generally have a dual basis for their legitimacy, both politics and action. It is expected that they should reflect a variety of values and that they should be reasonably efficient operations” (pp. 32-33).

This, however, creates an organizational dilemma. Brunsson (2002) further explained that “If they try to satisfy one legitimating base, they will mismanage the other. The demand for action requires an integrative structure; the demand for politics requires dissolution. This is a genuine dilemma, an insoluble problem. It is not possible to be good at both politics and action. It is not possible to solve the problem, only to handle it” (p.33).

Transformational and Transactional Leadership

The organizational perspective calls for a project leadership that is transformational (Bass, 1985, 1999). The leader's ability to articulate an attractive possible future is a core element of transformational leadership. Such talents generate support for projects that advocate organizational change. A transformational leader presents the vision, defines the need for change, and mobilizes the commitment needed to achieve it. This kind of leadership typically produces followers that show a strong personal identification with their leader.

Transformational leadership is often contrasted with transactional leadership, which is primarily based on exchanges of rewards for compliance. Transactional leadership plays on the self-interest of the employees. This leadership style is well suited for projects that focus on costs and deadlines. Pawar & Eastman (1997) have suggested that an organization is more receptive to transformational leadership during adaptation orientation than during efficiency orientation.

Controlling: Getting the Right Picture

Traditional project control focuses on controlling cost, time, and quality. This is natural when the center of attention is project management success. It is the temporary organization that controls the project and reports project progress to the project owner or to the base organization's managers.

When the focus of controlling projects is changed to include project product success, then the temporary organization must extend the control measures to include a broader view of the project work. The most complete picture would involve an IPO (Input—Process—Output) model (Day, Gronn, & Salas, 2004; Gladstein, 1984; Hackman, 1987). Temporary organizations can use this model to outline—in a condensed manner—their input, processes, and output. The description may also form the basis for a causal analysis: It provides the material needed to discuss project results in relation to processes and input factors. As part of the controlling processes, this could lead input and process changes that enable temporary organizations to accomplish better results.

Numerous projects have used the IPO model. Examples include the X Model (Andersen, 2002) and Project Excellence Model® (Westerveld, 2003). The special feature of the X Model is its distinction between personal and structural factors. The Project Excellence Model is based on the EFQM-model, which was developed by the European Foundation of Quality Management to improve an organization's overall quality. The Project Excellence Model uses a definition of project success that includes project management success (time, cost and quality). It also takes a broad view on project product success, one which covers stakeholder (client, project personnel, users, contracting partners) appreciation.

The Challenge: Handling the Different Perspectives

This paper has discussed two fundamental different perspectives on project and project work, both of which exist side-by-side in the field of project management. The challenge to the profession is in understanding how to handle coexistence. More important, the field must consider the way in which ways this coexistence affects project management theories and standards.

There are at least two different approaches for considering this coexistence. The first one involves developing a general project management theory, one which has room for both perspectives. The Project Management Institute (2004) claimed that its descriptions of good practices “are applicable to most projects most of the time …” (p.3). A similar ambition could be valid for a general project management theory. Some researchers have supported the idea of a general project management theory (Morris, 2003; Shenhar & Dvir, 1996).

Another approach would involve creating different project management theories and standards based on different perspectives. With this in mind, it is important to understand that the task perspective is best suited for building and construction projects and the organizational perspective is most apt for internal renewal projects. Therefore, it is possible for different theories based on specific perspectives to coexist. The field could consider this as a contingency approach to project management.

Project management is still a very young discipline. During the past few years the field has grown tremendously. It is not surprising, therefore, that the field's fundamental theoretical foundation is developing and expanding. This growth, covering so many different types of projects, presents a huge challenge to the professionals working in this discipline.

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©2006 Project Management Institute



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