Project management applications to civil systems problem solving

Recently, there has been considerable interest and controversy centered around the application of project management methods to the pressing socio-technical problems in the public sector.1 Interest in project management as an evolutionary management philosophy has arisen, In part, due to its demonstrated successes as the primary management vehicle in the Apollo Program and also due to the increasing awareness that traditional management approaches are often incapable of effectively managing complex social and environmental problems such as pollution, crime control, urban redevelopment, educational administration, economic development projects, etc. A recent and rather provocative article alluding to the potential broad-scale applicability of project management noted:

The really significant fallout from the strains, traumas, and endless experimentation of Project Apollo has been of a sociological nature rather than a technological nature: techniques for directing the massed endeavors of scores of thousands of minds in a close-knit mutually enhancive combination of government, university, and private industry.2

The article furthers this notion by stating this ability “is potentially the most powerful tool in man’s history“3. Within this framework, this paper has one major objective: to discuss the applications of project management methods in a broad generic vein to the “sociotechnical” areas. The term “sociotechnical” is used throughout this paper to describe many of the problems in the public sector since most of these problems have both social and technical dimensions. Furthermore, both social and technical management skills will be needed for effective problem resolution in these areas.

Some Basic Policy Issues

Although there are many advocates of the use of project management methods, the implementation of them to help deal with societal problems will in some cases be controversial. If controversy occurs it will probably center around those applications where project management involves direct people-to-people interfacing, for example, when project management approaches are used in family planning programs, crime prevention programs, urban relocation programs, and the delivery of family medical and welfare services. It is not advocated here that the basic function of sociotechnical project management is to force programs on an unwilling society although some fear this potential. It is stressed, however, that project management may make programs which are desired by society more effective and efficient than they have ever been in the past. If society desires various sociotechnical programs, why then not be operated to effectively obtain the objectives established for them?

Other areas where there is perhaps less controversy in the applications of project management are in the areas of oceanography, pollution control, and mass transportation programs. Few say, for example, that we should not control pollution and most advocate the desirability of having some strong, centralized operation to enforce and coordinate the various public agencies, governments, and industries concerned with pollution abatement. Much the same can also be said for oceanography and mass transportation. Other applications where little controversy is likely to occur is in the areas of managing various projects within an agency, i.e., the management of research and development activities for new programs within an agency. The following is an example where project management was used internally within an agency.

Agency X established a research and development operation to conceptualize and develop a program for eliminating malnutrition among an area’s pre-school children. The project manager had the responsibility for developing and staffing the program. He drew from a “pool of talent” within the agency and placed on his team a nutritionist, a sociologist and an economist. During the life of the project, the project manager was able to muster the best talent available for problem resolution. Once a viable program had been developed and implemented then the project team was disbanded.

Perhaps a conservative go-slow approach should be advocated in those areas where a high degree of controversy might exist. But the question must be asked—can we afford it? Perhaps the most important factor is to have several alternative approaches to project management articulated so that the most effective ones can be identified, discussed, and evaluated. Churchman advocates such an approach in finding solutions to society’s problems and notes the following:

Now, it is sheer nonsense to expect that any human being has yet been able to attain such insight into the problems of society that he can really identify the central problems and determine how they should be solved. The systems in which we live are far too complicated as yet for our intellectual powers and technology to understand. Given the limited scope of our capability to solve the social problems we face, we have every right to question whether any approach—systems approach, humanist approach, artist’s approach, engineering approach, religious approach, psychoanalytic approach—is the correct approach to the understanding of our society. But a great deal can be learned by allowing a clear statement of an approach to be made in order that its opponents may therefore state their opposition in as cogent a fashion as possible.4

As alternative approaches are employed, a “learning curve” will develop which will make the selection of the most appropriate management method easier to delineate.

Organizational Design Considerations

One area frequently ignored in discussions on the transferability of project management is the alternative methods or models that can be utilized. Three alternative approaches to project management will be briefly discussed simply to illustrate the variability in project organizations which can be employed. The specific organizational design selected should be dictated by the problem needing to be solved and the scope of the problem. In short, the problem determines how the project organization will interface with the involved organization(s).

Internal Model

One project management approach which (see Figure 1) would likely be employed when a project is undertaken completely within an agency is the internal project management model. An agency, for example, may have several project offices and each office draws upon a “pool of talent” from the various functional divisions within the total agency. This approach has the advantage of integrating high calibre talent directly into the project groups and provides for the maintenance of the agency’s talent base. Many project phase-down problems can be eliminated since members of the project team can be returned to their normal functional organizations once the task is terminated or when their own contribution to the task is completed. Generally the project manager operating under the internal model would have direct authority over his project team. In Figure 1, the project manager would utilize project team members (FA/ and FD/) from the agencies’ functional areas (FA) and (FD). A potential wide-spread use of this model would be in the management of sociotechnical research and development programs within an agency.

Matrix Model

The matrix model discussed below is an adaptation of the project organization so widely and successfully used in the aerospace industry. In Figure 2, a program office within an agency receives a charter to operate and is delegated the “authority” to accomplish program objectives. Next, the program office transfers these objectives into various projects. In such a situation the nature of the task may require the input and coordination of several agencies. The relationship of Project “X” to other involved governmental agencies is illustrated in Figure 2. Depending upon the charter given to the project manager and the intraorganizational arrangements necessary, he may or may not have direct authority over the participants in Agency A, B, and C. One approach would allow the project manager of project X to have authority over the principal project team head in each agency but not direct “working” authority over the participants on each team in each agency that is involved.

Popular Project Management Software Packages and Their Ratings (from Business Software, July 1985)

Figure 1 – – Internal Model

Popular Project Management Software Packages and Their Ratings (from Business Software, July 1985)

Figure 2 – – Matrix Model

Popular Project Management Software Packages and Their Ratings (from Business Software, July 1985)

Figure 3 – – Program Management Via Contractor Support

The matrix model would be a useful management vehicle in the intracoordination of several governmental agencies. Little needs to be said regarding the management advantages of this approach over many of the current hit-or-miss intra-agency coordination efforts.

Project Management Via Contractor Support

The final organizational model discussed here is illustrated in Figure 3. This model might be used by any organization which relies on external contractors to do much of the actual project work as in the case of private industry in urban redevelopment projects. When this arrangement is used the sponsoring agency will most likely serve as initial program developer, planner, and integrator. Matrix approaches may also be advocated for economic development projects and for projects in the area of educational administration. Once the project is contracted out, the project office would perform the critical role of monitor and contractor coordinator. This model can allow for maximum participation by both the agency and the supporting contractor. In addition, the governmental agency would not have to “get into the business” which would save it from making large capital expenditures necessary for accomplishing the objectives of the project.

Emerging Requirements for Project Management Leadership

It seems appropriate now to discuss the leadership requirements which will be necessary for managing complex sociotechnical projects. It is, of course, difficult to say specifically that these skills will be needed or that those characteristics will be required. It is possible, however, to point out some of the most likely leadership characteristics. The most appropriate leadership styles will depend upon the type of project, how it is organized, and the environment within which the project must operate. Nevertheless, one can delineate some of the leadership “patterns” required for managing these complex sociotechnical problem areas. It appears that Howard Johnson, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may have identified in part the emerging leadership style of tomorrow’s project managers as follows:

I believe that for managers of future organizations, the need for reshuffling of human resources, the emphasis on organic versus organizational solutions to problems, and the need to reorder priorities rapidly, amid-stream as it were, will require a special agility, and a competence to manage ambiguity and change. Above all, these conditions will require a transferability of management skills, from one task to another.5

Bennis has also alluded to a new concept of leadership which seems most appropriate for sociotechnical project managers. His basic model finds its rationale in the role of the leader rather than in any particular knowledge that he may have. This new role “is to build a climate where growth and development are culturally induced“6. To build this “climate” Bennis feels that the leader needs these skills:

1. Knowledge of large, complex human systems.

2. Practical theories of intervening and guiding these systems, theories that encompass methods for seeding, nurturing and integrating individuals and groups.

3. Interpersonal competence, particularly the sensitivity to understand the effects of one’s own behavior on others and how one’s own personality shapes his particular leadership style and value system.

4. A set of values and competencies which enables one to know when to confront and attack, if necessary, and when to support and provide the psychological safety so necessary for growth.7

In addition to the leadership characteristics advocated by Bennis and President Howard Johnson of M.I.T., I believe that there will be additional leadership skills required of those managers occupying the role of sociotechnical project manager. It appears imperative that this new generation of project manager must:

1. Be cognizant of the environment in which his project operates. He must be able to distinguish between social problems and engineering problems and that many of the sociotechnical areas require resolution by both social and engineering approaches. Further, he must be able to accept that there may be several viable solutions to sociotechnical problems.

2. Be an advocate of “free-form” management. This implies that the project operation techniques, systems and structure employed are dictated by the problem to be solved—and not viceversa. He must know that project management is only a means and not an end.

3. Be clear on the nature, scope and importance of his project’s charter. The charter of the project manager should clearly delineate his authority, his responsibilities, and his project’s objectives. He will use the goals of the project as the initial planning guide for the project and also as a basic control device to audit the final performance of his efforts. This requirement will be more difficult for the sociotechnical project manager because of the complex social and political variables which may influence the directions of his project.

4. Be able to possess a tolerance for ambiguous problem situations. The degree of ambiguity appears to increase as projects move from the technical area to the more loosely structured and often more elusive sociotechnical area.

5. Be a leader and perceive his role as planner, coordinator, and controller of the project. He must be able to ward off the detrimental influencers, especially the political influencers who may attempt to alter or change the project’s objectives for narrow political expediency. In short, he must be the general manager of his project.

6. Be cognizant of the critical importance of developing his own team. The project manager in the sociotechnical areas must surround himself with the best available managerial and technical talent. He will learn to depend upon “synergism” as a force in building a viable project team. The nature of the problem will be the chief determinant of his teams’ professional input.

7. Be able to accept and cope with the constant challenge and frustration of change. All projects are characterized by evolution and change. Managerial adaptability will be especially critical to project managers operating in the sociotechnical areas.

8. Be aware of and be able to use the potentially powerful management systems which have been developed in other areas regardless of their origin. He will use them only when needed and where they serve a legitimate and useful purpose. He needs, however, to be aware of the dangers of becoming overly enamoured with “management systems” which may only contribute marginally to the objectives of his project.

Enter the Professional Project Manager

The time is near when we shall see that the organizational position, “professional project manager”, will be a rather standard managerial role within many of our complex organizations. This does not imply that we have not had professionals managing projects for many years– –especially the technically-oriented projects. These managers have been our first generation of project managers. The second generation of project managers will not only be a “professional” in at least one discipline, but also will have, by necessity, a deep multidisciplinary appreciation. Equally important, proven ability in the management of complex tasks will also be among their most important credentials. As a consequence this new breed of project manager will have much to offer to the sociotechnical areas. These men will be able to satisfy the ever increasing demands for specialization while concurrently offering the integrative ability so necessary in project management.

Also we will undoubtedly see this new type of project manager shifting from one project to another as a project is completed and his skills are needed for another program. In the past, project managers have transferred their skills from one kind of project to another, but, the new breed of project manager will be able to drastically shift problem emphasis, i.e., some of the best ones may be able to shift from the management of a research and development technical project to projects in the socio-technical areas. His key in these transitions will depend heavily upon his abilities in project management and on his abilities to muster the “right team” for each project. In addition he also will be extremely adept at perceiving the “environmental mix” within which he will operate. It will not be necessary for him to be an expert in each area he tackles, but he will be an expert in managing complex projects.


In the future we shall see many changes, in the way project management and project managers are utilized in problem-solving. To summarize the focus of this paper, we shall see the full-scale realization of the following evolutionary changes in the near future:

1. A realization that project management and systems management are viable and acceptable management alternatives to managing various sociotechnical problem areas.

2. The depth of thinking regarding the management styles of project managers will extend far beyond the simplistic management notions of “Theory X” or “Theory Y” or whether project managers should use a “tight rein” or a “loose rein”. Rather, much emphasis will be directed toward how project managers perceive and respond to cues in their environment and especially to their own project team members and project interfaces. Effective skills in these areas will be basic requirements for this new generation of project managers.

3. Project managers participating in the solution of the sociotechnical areas will be some of the most highly motivated managers we have known. It will be necessary for them to develop a “holistic” view of all the processes performed in project management. Both the project manager and his team members will experience maximum involvement and committment to their roles.

4. A realization that project management is a fully acceptable and dynamic career, managers will be highly trained specifically for the position of project manager. This training process should make this new breed of manager far more effective than our present methods of training and selection have been.

In conclusion, project management and systems management offer potentially powerful tools for managing the burgeoning sociotechnical problems in society. These powerful management systems are not claimed to be panaceas for all of society’s ills, simply that they offer strong evidence that they are steps in the right direction. In recent years much has been said about the spin-offs and transfers from the space program. Perhaps this paper can best be summarized as follows:

Ever since the space program began to take shape there has been talk of technological spin-offs. It may turn out that the most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings.8


1   This article was supported in part by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (MGL 33-022-090) to Syracuse University to study the “Role of Apollo Project Management”.

2   Tom Alexander, “The Unexpected Payoff of Project Apollo”, Fortune, July 1969, p. 114.

3   Ibid.

4   C. West Churchman, The Systems Approach, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1968, pp. x-xi.

5   Howard W. Johnson, “Management for a New Environment”, The Conference Board Record, March 1968, pp. 23-24.

6   Warren G. Bennis, “Post-Bureaucratic Leadership”, Transaction, July-August, 1969, p. 51.

7   Ibid., pp. 51, 61.

8   Dael Wolfle, Ibid.


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