Project complexity

the stakeholders' worlds

Abstract

Immediately after being assigned to a project by the sponsor, every project manager faces the first hurdle of such a challenging task: that is, to get in contact and therefore establish a relationship with each and every person involved in the project, i.e. with whomever has an interest in the project itself. The ability of engaging with the so-called stakeholders is therefore a critical factor for success and this is even more critical in an evolutionary context, which is dominated by both uncertainty and substantial unpredictability. The need of coping with complex scenarios characterized by a huge number of variables, whose relationships are non-linear, makes the capability of mediating among different interests harder and harder.

Having such assumptions in mind, is it still possible to follow the traditional approach for the identification and the analysis of the stakeholders, concentrating the efforts on the collection of their needs and on the matching between demand and offer of a product or service? The aim of the following chapters is to provide an answer to this question, based upon a research initiative led by the PMI® Northern Italy Chapter in 2009, in order to study relationships between complexity theory and project management (Varanini & Ginevri, 2009). The underlying assumption is that project scope is a picture resulting from the overlap of different «worlds», each of which is pertinent to a different stakeholder (Exhibit 1). In order to deal with this fact, traditional approaches have been extended, drawing on different disciplines (e.g. ethnography), picking those practices which facilitate the exploration and the understanding of such worlds: a different way to create a relationship with the stakeholders, concentrating the efforts on the “who?” rather than on the “what?”.

Individual and collective vision (Battram, 2003)

Exhibit 1 – Individual and collective vision (Battram, 2003)

Stakeholders and the PMBOK Guide®

With the evolution of PMI® standards, more and more pages have been dedicated to stakeholders, as confirmation of the fact that it is indeed a crucial topic. Comparing Third and Fourth Editions of the PMBOK Guide ®, two significant changes can be highlighted:

  • The Initiating process group has been extended: a new process, “Identify Stakeholders”, has been added, whose aim is to understand both the influence and the interest of every stakeholder towards the project, in order to define a correct strategy to manage corresponding expectations.
  • The “Manage Stakeholders Expectations” process has been moved from the Monitoring and Control process group to Execution. It is not just a marginal change, since it highlights the need of managing this topic both continuously and pro-actively.

Comparing the First and the Second Edition of the Standard for Program Management, the change is even more evident, since not only have processes been either added or modified, but a new knowledge area has been introduced, specifically dedicated to “Stakeholders Management” (and such a change might be included in the next revision of the PMBOK Guide ® as well).

Is it just enough? In our opinion, the “stakeholder map” should be redesigned: besides the evaluation of the influence and the specific interest of each stakeholder, the map should also explore other dimensions, like their history, their experience, cultural and organizational context, both formal and above all informal, inside which stakeholders act and work. Moreover, corresponding behavior over time should be traced as well.

Indeed, we strongly believe that both the evolution and the outcome of a project are strongly influenced by the interactions within the involved social group, its culture and the individuals it is composed of: each of these three entities, which are tightly and dynamically correlated, have their peculiar features which can be investigated by means of three different approaches, namely:

  • ethnography
  • informal networks
  • type-watching

The first two are useful to understand what should be monitored in relation to inter-project communications, while the third one provides an approach to allow us understand the real attitudes and intentions of the individuals and, therefore, of the organizations they belong to.

Ethnographic approach: observe organizations as if they were cultures

The aim of the ethnographic approach is to recognize and analyze the cultural codes which are peculiar to a group and to its context in order to understand why some phenomena happen, by finding out behavioral patterns inside the group being observed.

Thanks to the ethnographic approach, it is possible to get to a better comprehension of the culture of the social group we are operating in, to read its dynamics and interactions.

What does an ethnographer do? He mixes with the group under test and uses some research techniques, like observation or interview, in order to collect the information useful to understand the group culture and to explain the observed phenomena.

The sources for data collection can be grouped into three different categories: traces of organizational life, collective events and the subjects themselves.

Having an anthropological point of view and performing field research means considering each aspect of the social life of the culture under test, so that different meanings can emerge, depending on the specific point of view.

When this kind of approach is chosen, the concept of culture must be deeply investigated. Culture, from its widest ethnographic point of view, is a complex set which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, moral, laws, customs, and any other skills and habits acquired by a person as a member of a society.

As a member of a group, a person is something different from what he or she is as a single individual. Dynamicity and change are two constants in human culture, even when they occur in a framework of cultural stability. Sometimes the changes might seem enormous to the eyes of the persons belonging to the society where they occur, but often just a small portion of the cultural environment is affected.

New cultural models are accepted as long as they either blend with the old ones, or can be modified to adapt to the pre-existing cultural context.

In reality it is an endless, circular adaptation process, an iteration process between the individual and the corresponding group, which is favored by creativity, which is the fundamental expression of the restlessness of the individual.

If we want to support the change, we must consider that psychological dynamics are the real levers driving either preservation or innovation (Piccardo & Benozzo, 1996).

Informal networks

Whenever people get together, the need for rules emerges; formal structures are therefore created inside organizations, emphasizing three main topics: hierarchy, role definition and operational mechanisms.

It is not always taken into account that informal networks spontaneously emerge in a parallel way: flexible, adaptive structures which internally self-organize in order to react to external changes and which (despite their rules might even appear in contrast with the formal ones) represent the real engine of the organization.

Quite often such informal networks are responsible for achieving the expected result, using strategies which are different from the planned ones. It has been calculated that an average of 80% of the tasks carried out by an organization are performed by means of informal channels (Oriani, 2008).

Understanding the network of informal relationships is a way to seize the invisible mechanisms which are often the basis for the good practice.

Flexibility and adaptation are the intrinsic features of informal networks: in fact, the fact of being informal is the key for the relationship network to adapt and to model to actual organizational contexts.

Whenever it is necessary to either push on innovation or deliver non-standard performances, it is mandatory to implement more informal organizational configurations, which provide a quicker response to the increment in both the complexity and unpredictability of the context.

How can we define an informal network? For sure it is a complex system, where a set of players interact in a way which is not fully predictable.

This kind of network cannot be represented by organizational charts, but rather by “connection maps” which represent the learning mechanism of the organization: “who knows what”, “who knows who”, “who works with whom”, etc.

Informal networks can be graphically represented by a set of nodes and arrows where the nodes represent the single players, while the arrows identify a relationship.

Within an informal networks, individuals inevitably adopt roles which are determined by their place in the relationship context. This is maybe the most interesting topic in the study of informal networks, since it leads to identifying several profiles featuring precise characteristics:

  • Central Connector: a sort of hub which centralizes and sorts out, maintaining important network information. If everybody needs to pass through it, it just becomes a bottleneck.
  • Opinion Leader: (whom you would ask for advice?) Personal charisma and trust are key factors of this figure, which should always be identified properly whenever change and innovation processes are rolled out.
  • Broker: acting as a mediator between people and groups, a broker enables and control information flow, and can facilitate innovative processes.
  • Boundary Spanner: liaison between the organization and the external world, which provides both contacts and fresh knowledge. A key figure for innovation, and a precious resource to mitigate self-referencing inside the organization.
  • Pulse-taker: characterized by many direct connections and independent from mediators, especially from brokers. A sort of “free spirit” which wanders around the organization.
  • Marginal individuals: people living at the boundary of the network, characterized by few significant connections with the rest of the organization. They are often mature people who have not been able to keep up the pace, thus exhibiting obsolete knowledge, sometimes part-time resources.

In order to draw a significant picture of an informal network, a proper methodology should be followed, which collects useful information, elaborates it and finally delivers a graphical representation of the network itself. Such method, called “Organizational Network Analysis”, not only delivers an analysis of the informal network (which is both made visible and interpreted) but also allows for its modification.

It is clear that such approaches cannot be easily adapted to the project management context as a whole, but for sure it is useful to know them, in order to integrate the analysis of the stakeholders, thus understanding and simplifying relational dynamics.

Type-watching

You are speaking because people feel you have something worthwhile to share. You are in control of the process and will, ultimately, succeed or fail on your own. If you have compelling information to share, people will want to hear it. If you cannot share it in a way that maintains the audience’s interest, no matter how valuable the information is, no one will want to stay and listen. The best way to achieve that is preparation and practice.

Type-watching basically deals with the way the “others” should be approached in such a way that the resulting relationship turns out to be mutually satisfactory. Through type-watching, it is possible to seize both complexity and diversity using only the four dimensions of human behavior. This translates into a constructive answer to the inevitable classification of the behaviors and leads to a virtuous development of self-consciousness.

Therefore neither classification nor judgments are mentioned, but just observation of human types.

The theory originates from Carl Gustav Jung, who stated that human behaviors are not random, but they can be both predicted and identified (Jung, 1971). Unlike most of his colleagues, Jung developed theories which are not based on psychological problems or abnormalities, but rather are the result of behavioral choices pertinent to basic functions which everybody develops along the lifetime.

Jung’s theory was resumed in the ‘40s by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, who developed a psychological model aimed at explaining the behavioral differences, using a strictly scientific approach according to the “Theory of Personality Preferences” by Jung.

“Myers Briggs Type Indicator” (MBTI) was born, which identifies four types of behavior (Exhibit 2) that can provide a dynamic representation of any personality (Myers & Briggs, 1980).

Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

Exhibit 2 – Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The aim of the figure is to highlight the fact that personality (thanks to its flexibility and dynamism) is able to self-adapt depending on the context, on the people we relate to, on the current feeling, etc. A person can be, for instance, strongly extrovert, and such feature will be present for the whole lifetime, but such extroversion shows up at different degrees depending on the context and in the events the person has to face; under certain circumstances, the same person might even appear as introvert.

A brief description of the different types follows:

Extrovert vs Introvert – the source of the inner energy

An Extrovert is energized and revitalized by the external world, and the activities which are most exciting and stimulating for an extrovert are demanding for an introvert.

And the opposite is valid as well: reflection, introspection and loneliness are a source of energy, focus and attention for an introvert, while they provide no motivation to the extrovert.

Intuitor vs Sensor – information gathering

A Sensor prefers to be realistic and practical, collecting any information from the external world using the five senses, which provide a feeling of certainty. Everything is based on facts and corresponding details.

On the other hand, an Intuitor relies on the holistic vision, i.e. a higher perception of things and their relationships, based on intuition.

Thinker vs Feeler – making decisions

Such activity is pertinent to the Thinker, i.e. someone who seeks clarifications and objective truth. A Thinker values principles more than people, which often leads to an autocratic ethic.

On the other extreme the Feeler can be found, i.e. someone who prioritizes people’s welfare, harmony and well-being. Feelers promote a humanistic ethic, where the man has the first place, and is never subdued to higher aims.

Judger vs Perceiver – building relationships

A Judger is both determined and rigid, driven by both the objective and assigned priorities. A Judger sticks to the project, to the word he/she has given, is reliable and carries out the task.

On the other hand a Perceiver can be hesitant but flexible, an improviser who likes to explore, to gain further information deferring decisions, discovery-oriented. Perceivers are therefore used to having multiple objectives at the same time and proceed by incremental adjustments.

Since the characters of the individuals emerge along the project, type-watching can be the tool which helps the PM understand the predisposition of each member, making them work together to get to the objective.

For instance, if the one who sets the objective is an Extrovert-Perceiver, we should expect that the objective might change, or be better defined afterwards, since the idea gets refined and further feedbacks are sought after.

In case of a Sensor-Thinker, the objective must be interpreted, but it should also be based on facts and logical reasoning.

It is evident that the Project Manager cannot be an amateur psychologist, but nevertheless has to improve both the sensitivity and the comprehension of surrounding reality, in order to establish proper relationships depending on the personality of the other players.

Conclusions

Within a context which is more and more characterized by unpredictability, leading to the need of operating in situations which are temporary and ever-changing, project management has a great opportunity: to become the management of the future. To this aim, it must open up to other disciplines, not only scientific, but above all humanistic. Our advice for the project managers who believe in this evolution is that we recommend spending more time reading books which do not deal specifically with projects. We think that reading a good novel by Joseph Conrad (Conrad, 2002), rather than an essay by Edgar Morin, can be the best way to find great hints to learn how to explore the “stakeholders’ worlds” and to get in tune with them.

References

Battram A. (2003). Navigating Complexity, The Essential Guide to Complexity Theory in Business and Management. London: The Industrial Society.

Briggs K., & Briggs Myers I. (1980). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press,

Conrad J. (2002). Typhoon and other tales, Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press.

Jung C.G. (1971). Psychological Types, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Morin E. (1999). Seven complex lessons in education for the future, Paris : UNESCO.

Oriani G. (2008). La forza delle reti di relazioni informali nelle organizzazioni. L ’Organizational Network Analysis. Milano, Italy: Franco Angeli,

Piccardo E., & Benozzo A. (1996). Etnografia organizzativa. Milano, Italy: Raffaello Cortina Editore.

Varanini F. & Ginevri W. (2009). Il project management emergente: il progetto come sistema complesso. Milano, Italy: Guerini e Associati.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Walter Ginevri, Mariù Moresco, Carlo Notari
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy

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