Temporal misfits and project management

critical incidents in a complex public project

Jonas Söderlund BI Norwegian School of Management

Paper for the PMI Research and Education Conference, Washington DC

Abstract

A number of previous studies on project organizing have emphasized the critical aspects of studying institutions and time, but, to date, no comprehensive efforts have been made to combine these ideas in empirical investigations on projects. To develop the analysis of institutions and time, this paper departs from the notion of “isochronism” (“same time”) and that actors who belong to the same institutional field tend to conform to similar timing norms with regard to when and how fast things should be done. However, in collaborations across institutions, isochronism may cause profound organizational problems since actors with conflicting timing norms need to be operationally aligned. In that respect, contrasting time orientations cause temporal misfits. The present paper offers an analysis of temporal misfits in a complex project involving organizational units adhering to different timing norms. The paper discusses three primary measures of detecting, correcting, and escaping that project management makes use of to resolve temporal misfits among actors involved in the project. A typology is suggested to advance the analysis of the problems that projects need to respond to in institutionally bounded settings. In particular, we discuss the importance of different types of temporal misfits, in terms of phase and tempo, and different types of complexity in terms of analyzable and systemic.

Introduction

The empirical basis of this paper is an in-depth case study of a temporary inter-organizational project collaboration involving a number of public and private actors that represent different institutions and adhere to different and in some cases even contrasting “timing norms” (Dille & Söderlund, 2010). In such a context, project organizing takes on important institutional features that, in various ways, relate to time, timing and timing norms. These timing norms may lead to inherent “temporal misfits” that participants in projects need to resolve. Taking this as our starting point, this paper investigates how project management identifies and handles temporal misfits due to conflicting timing norms. The overall objective is to contribute to the understanding of project management in institutional settings and position such institutional analysis in the light of a temporal lens (Ancona, Goodman, Lawrence, & Tushman, 2001).

Our theoretical interpretation, to be elaborated below, focuses on the measures that the project management team used to resolve temporal misfits. The paper centers on three critical incidents in the studied project. These incidents were defined as critical since they halted the progress and in some sense even endangered the entire existence of the project. The three selected incidents shed light on the relationship between timing norms and project organization – a theme we argue is important to not only increase the understanding of project management in general, but also specifically to allow for a fine-grained analysis of the relationship between institutions and project organizing.

The paper is structured in the following way. In the first section, we present the context for our research and the applied research methodology. In the following empirical section, we begin with the background of the studied project, its context and process, and then turn to the three critical incidents that illustrate different temporal misfits, focusing specifically on how they were identified and resolved. The theoretical interpretation that follows draws on institutional theory and the literature on time and project management. The paper ends with conclusions and possible areas for future research.

Research methodology

This paper draws on an intensive, real-life case study of a carefully selected project. The project was selected because it involves a number of strong actors belonging to different institutions in both the private and the public sectors. The project has a relatively strict timeline that was divided into a series of phases. The managerial challenges are substantial due to organizational and technological complexities. These combined issues open up the possibility of linking the analysis of projects with institutional theory and, in particular, investigating how timing norms affect and are dealt with by the project organization.

The focus of our case study is the development of a new emergency telecom network in Norway. The project is financed through the state budget and is estimated to cost approximately NOK 3.6 billion (approx. € 400 million) – a huge public investment for a small country like Norway. The project's legitimacy lies, to a great extent, in its social utility function – its public “usefulness” – rather than its financial profitability, which has important effects on the institutional framework of the project. In addition, it is a complex project in terms of organization and technology: that is, the project involves several strong public bodies and authorities as well as external suppliers who have in-depth knowledge of particular technological areas.

To provide the background and a contextual understanding of the project, a brief case history is given below. To present and analyze some of the specific challenges with regard to temporal misfits, we use the critical incident technique (CIT) (Flanagan, 1954), which refers to a set of procedures for collecting, analyzing and classifying human behavior (Gremler, 2004). The technique has been used both in qualitative and quantitative research over a wide range of disciplines (Chell, 2004). This paper draws from Chell's (2004) elaborations of CIT and how it can be used qualitatively to improve the rigor and analytical power of case-study research. The overall intention is to facilitate the “investigation of significant occurrences (events, incidents, processes or issues), identified by the respondent, the way they are managed, and the outcomes in perceived effects” (Chell, 2004, p. 48). Accordingly, this paper gains an understanding of each of the identified incidents “from the perspective of the individual, taking into account the cognitive, affective and behavioural elements” (ibid). It should also be noted that CIT has been successfully used in previous empirical research on project organizing, in particular to present complex data and provide in-depth case interpretations and contextual analysis (e.g. Ahola, 2009; Hao, 2008). In this paper, we have selected three critical incidents for further examination, which, as mentioned earlier, were selected for their importance to the project and their relevance to our interest in time, institutions and project organizing.

The first phase of our field work consisted of interviews with project participants from the various institutions. We asked the interviewees to identify the situations in the project that they thought were critical and had considerable impact on the progress of the project. After a first round of preliminary analysis, we selected three incidents that relate to the overall intention of the present study. In the detailed data gathering of the next step, the respondents presented the background of the identified incidents and how the incidents were perceived, analyzed and resolved. In that respect, we were able to contrast different interpretations and perceptions of the same incidents. Since our study is based on a continuing project, we were able to follow the incidents in real-time. We interviewed key actors before, during and after the critical events. Thus, we were able to follow how the incidents unfolded and how they affected the cooperative atmosphere, action strategies, and perceptions of the actors involved during the course of the project. This has given us an in-depth knowledge of the incidents that would have been difficult to obtain by relying only on retrospective interviews. In this paper, we present our interpretation of the interview results for the three incidents and how they support our objective of tying institutional theory and time research.

The case study presented builds on an extensive set of materials: (1) public documents and reports, (2) interviews, and (3) media coverage. Since this is a public project and discussion and propositions from the national Parliament and considerations in the Parliament's committees are open to public inspection, we had access to a considerable body of unique data. In addition, several reports have been published, both internally by the Directorate for Emergency Communications (DNK-the unit having the operational responsibility for the project and the developed system), and externally by other entities without close connection to the project per se. In total, more than 10 extensive reports have been scrutinized as part of our data analysis.

Our research formally started in the beginning of 2009 with a number of meetings with the project manager and other persons involved in the project. To date, we have conducted monthly interviews with the project manager and additional interviews with staff members and key stakeholders. At the initial meetings, the focus was on the background to the project, its organization and implementation. Our objective was also to engage in a multi-level analysis (cf. Sydow, Lindkvist & DeFillipi, 2004). Therefore, some interviews focused on subproject managers while others involved actors at the very top of each of the participating organizational units. The analysis presented below draws on findings based on these interviews and documents. After the initial analysis of the interviews and project documentation, we became increasingly aware of the timing issues that the project was facing on different levels in addition to the types of challenges this created for project management. This led to further empirical and theoretical investigations – to allow for both inductive and deductive reasoning. As mentioned, we also relied on press material and media reports. The overall media coverage of the emergency communication project has been extensive. The first discussions in the media regarding the need for a new digital emergency network started in the late 1990s and there has been increased media coverage since then, typically peaking when difficulties have become critical in the project. In the process of examining the media coverage, we had access to the on-line news monitoring service and were able to create a database with more than 200 in-depth articles about the project and its development. We present the context of the project as a starting point to give the reader an understanding of the project and the studied incidents. We then turn to the three identified critical incidents, the details about their context and how they unfolded.

An Emerging Emergency System

In this section, we present the overall content and structure of the project. First, we provide an overall background to the project and the reasons for developing a new emergency network in Norway. Second, we introduce the different organizational units involved in the project. Finally, we describe three temporal misfits that we believe have implications for the study of projects and project management.

The need for a new system

The principal argument for developing and implementing a new emergency network in Norway was stated to be a need for improved safety and security for all the nation's inhabitants, regardless of where they live. Until the forthcoming completion of this project, the crews of the fire, police, health and other emergency services communicate by means of various radio systems based on analogue technology. Parts of the communication systems currently in use are more than 30 years old and the existing systems are generally regarded as having major weaknesses and do not meet the requirements for modern emergency communication. For example, the current system used by the police force is highly exposed to wiretapping. Hence, a new digital emergency network was considered necessary to deal with organized crime, the risks of terrorist attacks, complex accidents, and natural disasters. In particular, the need for a new emergency network became evident in a number of accidents and mishaps, which have received substantial media attention and have been frequently discussed topics in public debate. The general idea is that the new system will provide extensive improvements in the exchange and coordination of information among the emergency personnel working in the field, their communication centers, the heads of operations, and all other involved parties. However, as with all new systems, there are design and implementation problems due to technical problems in the early phase, as well as the need to adjust working routines and the learning of new technical functions by the people using the system.

The new emergency network is based on TETRA technology (TErrestrial Trunked RAdio), which has been developed specifically for emergency communication. This is an international technology that has been adopted by several European countries, including Sweden and Denmark. However, what differentiates the Norwegian system from its European counterparts is the synchronized implementation in three different emergency services, health, fire and police. Additionally, an important consideration in this project is the complex issue of assuring communication and collaboration across political bodies and independent, private-sector organizations. In public reports, it was stated that the Norwegian emergency network is ambitious compared to the other European emergency systems. Apart from the technical requirements, the chief challenge relates to specific and customized requirements. The technology needs to be adjusted to the requirements for each of the organizations that will use it. This means that the project is both a complex technical endeavor with thousands of specifications and requirements and, an organizational development project involving political processes, organizational adaptation, intense communication, and learning.

The involved organizational units

The project is a joint effort between the Ministry of Justice and Police and the Ministry of Health and Care Services. The ministries’ subordinate agencies, the National Police Directorate, the Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning (responsible for the fire agency), and the Norwegian Directorate of Health, take an active part in the project and represent the core users of the emergency agencies. Hence, many large and influential organizations are involved – organizations that need to be coordinated as well as satisfied in order to ensure the success of the project.

On behalf of the Norwegian Government, the Directorate for Emergency Communication (DNK) was established subordinate to the Ministry of Justice and Police 1 April 2007 to manage and organize the project as well as administer the emergency network when it is developed. Because of these responsibilities, DNK has established a project management unit consisting of several experienced project managers who are in charge of the project and have designated responsibilities. This unit has the overall responsibility for coordinating the activities across the different subprojects, i.e., across the subprojects in the health, police, and fire Directorates, the major end-users of the project.

The subprojects are responsible for implementing the system in the different emergency services, but as a further complication, the emergency services are embedded in different structures, ranging from municipalities to state ownership. The project management team at DNK is responsible for coordinating activities between the different subprojects and the main contractor, and to ensure that the Norwegian state receives the system and functionalities that are specified in the contract between the Norwegian state and the main contractor.

The project relies on several suppliers, although one of them has the overall responsibility. MultiCom (not its real name but a code name), one of the leading global players in the telecom industry, has signed a “turnkey contract” to deliver the system, including switches and radiobase stations. MultiCom is responsible for delivering a “total system” within the budgeted cost that works for all the three emergency services at different levels. Moreover, the company has the responsibility for the systems integration and for making sure that the different subsystems work well together. The specifications for the system encompass more than 4,000 specific requirements, including requirements for end-user equipment in control rooms. To deliver the total system, MultiCom has brought in several subcontractors and suppliers to provide the technical infrastructure, radio terminals, and control rooms.

Process and Progress

At the time of the project's initiation, the Parliament gave explicit instructions as to how the project should proceed. The Parliament decided that the project should first have an area of ‘rollout’ (Phase 0) in the southeast region of Norway. It also decided that upon completion of this initial phase and when the system is completely implemented in this region, there would be a thorough evaluation of the system to decide whether there would be a complete, nation-wide rollout.

The project and the rollout were divided into the following phases: (a) Phase 0, (b) evaluation and decision by the Parliament, and then (c) a series of consecutive rollout phases in different regions of the country. At present, substantial uncertainties exist with regard to progress and the ultimate time frame for the planned test-runs as well as when the system will be operational in all emergency services throughout the country. There are several reasons for the delay that the project has experienced, including political decisions and negative reactions from environmental organizations relating to potential radiation hazards from base stations. Additionally, as mentioned before, the project is subject to a high degree of uncertainty and complexity tied to technological solutions and organizational collaboration.

The technology for supplying the emergency network is complex which has created a number of commercial challenges for the contractors and their ability to handle the system deliveries. In particular, these challenges relate to major interdependencies. For instance, delays in one part of the delivery have caused delays in other parts of the delivery. Moreover, the need for specified and technologically complex solutions in the different emergency services has led to substantial difficulties. A number of changes and modifications to the system have been necessary to meet the variety of demands specific to the different emergency services. In addition, there are difficulties in reaching an agreement as to whether these adjustments are part of the initial contract, or if they are additional requests. Of course, many of these matters are everyday issues for complex projects in the telecom sector. However, for the focal project these matters are considerable and critical due to its organizational complexity.

The major delays have been due to temporal misfits on different levels. This has led to different action strategies and solutions that the project management has relied on to detect, escape, and/or correct the temporal misfits. In the following, we focus on three critical incidents that relate to the identified temporal misfits.

Critical Incident I: Project progress and macro pacers

One temporal misfit was between the project management at DNK and the Parliament. As mentioned, when the Parliament initiated the new emergency network, it gave clear instructions about how the project was to proceed. The project was divided into different phases, and a nationwide rollout was to be initiated after a thorough evaluation period following the completion of Phase 0.

However, the project management team expressed that it might be convenient to limit the evaluated specifications as a means to induce progress and get the approval from the Parliament as soon as possible for further implementation of the nationwide rollout. Some key individuals in the project feared that the specified evaluation process might go on for a long time, which would cause difficulties in keeping momentum in the project. Another risk was the fact that a loss in momentum might lead to a loss of competence, both because interaction was decreased and because people might leave the project for reasons of inactivity. In addition, it was pointed out that a one year pause for evaluation of the project would result in additional costs exceeding NOK 250 million.

Conversely, one of the subprojects (health) was highly reluctant to speed up the project. Instead, the representatives of this subproject wanted to stick to the “original” progress plan issued by the Parliament, since they had not yet come far enough to, as they saw it, accomplish essential elements in the evaluation. This created a tension between the project management team and the subproject, which, due to the lack of progress, escalated tension even further. A sign of this escalation was incorporated in a letter sent by the health directorate to the DNK in the last quarter of 2008. In the letter, it was stated that the health directorate advised against the idea that the Ministry of Health and Care Service should recommend that the Parliament provide more grants to the nationwide development before the health subproject had an adequate base for evaluation. In that respect, the health directorate criticized the entire foundation of the project. In the ensuing debate, it was also stated that the health directorate did not believe the project management had sufficient understanding of the complexity of the special needs of the health sector. The health directorate demanded a more comprehensive basis for evaluation to ensure the usefulness of the new emergency network for society at large. This issue led to intense discussions among the key actors within the project and a public debate.

Critical Incident II: Subprojects out of sync

One of the most pressing issues in the project was the temporal misfit between the involved subprojects. One of the subprojects (police) tried to advance the works as quickly and as effectively as possible, while the health subproject faced considerable problems in maintaining progress. This became particularly apparent when the health services required several sector-specific adjustments due to the organizational complexity of the health sector. As a result, the project management team at DNK was put in a situation where it had to reduce the misfit and try to synchronize the activities between the two subprojects. By following previous procedures, the project management team realized it would not be able to solve the escalating misfit. As a consequence, project management decided on a new project implementation strategy – a strategy that involved a stricter focus on time schedules. From the perspective of the project management, this was seen as a necessity in order to increase the overall project progress as well as to foster a better action-orientation throughout the project.

One important trigger for the change in the overall project implementation strategy was the measures taken by the police subproject. Specifically, the subproject decided that several entities in the police emergency service would start to use and test the system regardless of the actions and decisions in the other subprojects. As the project manager expressed it:

“One of the subprojects came to us and told us that they were going to put TETRA in operation. They told us: it is up to you to handle the contract, but we are going to use the system anyway.”

However, it was clear that this was a decision that had general support all the way at the very top of the ministry level. In that sense, it was a decision driven by a subproject but which attracted top management support over time. The project management at DNK felt it had to adjust to it and work its way through the problem even though one of the subprojects demanded to speed up the process. At the same time, the actions taken by the police subproject also seemed to open up a new direction in the entire project. In that sense, it was not only a problem for the DNK project management team, but an opportunity that could be used to move the project forward. As the project manger described it:

“When one of the emergency services moves in its own direction, they show that it is possible. It influences the other subprojects to focus on what is important and necessary to get the right speed and tempo.”

Thereby, the push from the police subproject made it possible for the project management team to change the implementation strategy and make use of a new set of project management mechanisms. Although the other parts of the project had a more complex structure and needed more complex technological solutions and adaptations, this seemed to be a necessary strategy in order to keep momentum and gain progress. As a result, there had to be a trade-off between functionality and time. The project management felt obliged to increase focus on time and final deadlines.

“When someone wants changes, we can now ask: “Is that really necessary?” “Do you really want to hold up the project and have a three months delay and have additional costs?” “Yes or no?” This approach enables us to focus on what is critical, what is necessary and what is not. It forces us to think through what has to be done now and what can be postponed?” (project manager)

The project manager and the rest of the project management team therefore spent a great deal of time sorting out the speed and tempo requirements of each subproject. The focus on time and tough deadlines played an important role here, which was aimed at detecting the speed requirements and the possibilities of aligning subprojects with the overall pace of the project.

Critical Incident III: Pacing outside forces

To deliver the total system, the main contractor brought in several subcontractors, to provide infrastructure, radio terminals and control rooms for the emergency agencies. The linkages among subcontractors, main contractors and the subprojects illustrate a third kind of temporal misfit. As an example, let us focus on the relationship between the project management at DNK and one of the subcontractors, Alpha Telecom (code name). Alpha Telecom stated that it had additional costs and penalties due to delays in the project. These delays were primarily related to delays in other parts of the project and not directly caused by the work of Alpha Telecom. In any case, Alpha Telecom wanted to renegotiate the contract. The project manager explained this in the following way:

“We noticed an increasingly sharpened tone from Alpha Telecom during the first and second quarter of the year. Alpha Telecom thought the situation was extremely difficult. They criticized the main contractor for not managing the project as they should have done and they accused us for the way we were handling the specifications from the emergency services. They wanted a better plan that we all could agree upon.”

According to the contract between DNK and the main contractor, this situation should have been solved between the main contractor and Alpha Telecom. However, it soon became obvious that this was not going to happen. The problem escalated and became increasingly difficult. Thus, the DNK project management had to negotiate with the subcontractor to avoid further delays.

One of the things the subcontractor demanded was to get acceptance for a project plan it originally had proposed. This was a plan, the representatives argued, that all parties in the project should accept and be able to follow. The managers of Alpha Telecom gave an extremely short time limit for the project management to accept their demand. However, the DNK project management team was unable to accept the proposed plan. There were a number of reasons for their reluctance or inability to accept the plan. First, the time limit that they were given was way too short. Second, they thought the plan was unrealistic due to the high degree of interdependency in the project. Third, the project management team was uncertain as to whether the three emergency services and their different organizational units and involved members would be able to receive the delivery on the strict time schedule the subcontractor had suggested. Fourth, the project management team was unable to make such a decision on behalf of the emergency services, since they needed to clarify and agree upon these issues together with the involved emergency services. The subcontractor, according to DNK representatives, did not seem to understand how the decision-making structures in the public sector worked. Alpha Telecom wanted and expected the project management team to be able to make this decision on behalf of the other stakeholders in the project. After intense negotiations, the situation was, to some extent, resolved. However, this situation highlighted a temporal misfit between the subcontractor and the project management with regard to what is thought of as suitable and realistic phases for the project.

Institutions in time

Generally speaking, we tend to think of projects as temporary, and institutions as permanent. This simple distinction is particularly interesting as more and more projects are actually embedded in an institutional context, often permanently. This calls for a closer scrutiny of the institutional side of projects to highlight the permanent aspects of a temporary organization (Engwall, 2003). This also brings to light the general role of institutions in the analysis of projects and project organizing. As described by Scott (2008, p. 48), institutions are “comprised of regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.” Institutions, therefore, offer guidelines and stability for social behavior within and across organizations and contribute to the way activities are “formed, understood and related” (Scott, 1995, p.52). To some extent, institutions are carried by written documents, such as rules, regulations, and policies. However, of equal importance are various authority systems and implicit expectations (ibid). Despite the obvious connections between project organizing and institutions, to date there have been few project management studies focusing on how interior project processes are influenced by their institutional connections (Engwall, 2003). Neither have projects been a particularly well-researched object of study among institutional theorists. This is interesting considering the empirical focus of the present paper – large-scale, complex public projects involving actors from different sectors (public-sector organizations and technology-providers and subcontractors representing the private sector). In such projects, institutions of various kinds play fundamental roles in setting the rules-of-the-game and the general boundaries of collaboration. In addition, with reference to institutional theory, the role of the project as an organizational innovation is sometimes positioned as an instrument to affect institutions and in some cases even change institutions, or even as an “institutional entrepreneur” (Czarniawska, 2009). In this respect, empirical studies of this kind of project may contribute to an enhanced analysis of the change and dynamics of institutions. In this paper, we suggest a particular kind of institutional analysis – an analysis that addresses time and timing norms, a key feature of project organization and the practice of project management.

Research on the impact of time on projects have so far been dealt with in a highly instrumental way, such as activity duration, task coordination, and optimization of throughput time, and seldom discussed in organization-theoretical terms. The latter has primarily revolved around the consequences of time pressure and deadlines. The nature of projects as temporary organizations, their institutional embeddedness and dynamics, has been accorded limited scholarly attention. This is surprising for a number of reasons. First, because temporary organizations play a fundamental role in industrial and societal development, political processes and transformation purposes, typically leading to the formation and change of permanent organizations and institutions. Second, since more interest has been shown in organizational dynamics in general and the organizational lifecycles in particular, this would then lead to an interest in the inherent dynamics operating in projects as temporary organizations - with their inbuilt birth and death as salient features. Third, because time orientations, despite the insights from Lawrence & Lorsch (1967), have a profound role in cooperation and coordination across organizational and knowledge boundaries (Ancona et al., 2001), yet seem to be a topic often ignored in organizational research (ibid). In that respect, researchers have called for a more elaborate “temporal lens” on organizational structures and processes. This call is important for institutional analysis and, in particular, the analysis of projects and project management suggested here.

Timing norms and temporal misfits

Dille & Söderlund (2010) focus on how actors represent different “institutional isochronisms” (“same time”) and respond to “timing norms” in their institutional environment. The concept of “timing norms” highlights that “each element of an organization's temporal structure – the explicit organizational schedules, sequencing patterns, and deadlines; the implicit cycles and rhythms of behavior; and the internal cultural norms about time – contributes to how time is understood by organizational actors” (Krohwinkel-Karlsson, 2008, p. 44).

In that respect, this notion can be used to analyze the surrounding rhythms and institutional beats affecting the project and how different actors and units involved in the project adhere to conflicting timing norms that cause problems to the overall project progress and which require managerial measures and action. Our principal argument is that the project and project organization in this type of institutionally-bound project as well as the perceived complexities and uncertainties typically involved, to a great deal, are related to problems with temporal coordination, timing, and time perceptions, and cause what we refer to as “temporal misfits.”

In such institutionally-bounded complex project settings, the dominant cycle functions as a macro pacer that essentially works as the ultimate definer and legitimator of the temporal cycles operating in the organization (cf. Pérez-Nordtvedt, Payne, Short, & Kedia, 2008). As such, the temporal cycles become entrained in these powerful, external pacers. And often, such macro pacers are provided by industry leaders, governing bodies, or governmental entities. These groups offer a macro pacer to which the involved actors need to respond. Institutional isochronism tends to lead organizations to the adoption of a timing norm to cope with such environmental macro pacers. When organizations cooperate across institutions, institutional isochronism might be problematic if the macro pacers are not aligned. Such lack of alignment could cause fundamental temporal misfits among the cooperating parties. In the empirical context discussed here, inter-organizational private-public projects involving actors from several different institutions are expected to cause problems relating to conflicting timing norms. These problems, we argue, are fundamental in understanding project organizing in these settings. Furthermore, linking the ideas of timing norms and temporal misfits and seeing how these are resolved at the project level offer novel insights into the role of project management, the measures taken by project management, and how institutions play at out at the operational, managerial levels.

In the following sections, we suggest an analysis of how project management can identify and handle temporal misfits, and accordingly, how project management can be viewed as a mechanism to institute measures that deal with temporal misfits.

The case revisited

Considering the specific project under study and the three critical incidents, several examples can be identified as to how the different actors involved in the project responded to different timing norms and thus had different time orientations and views of critical activities in the project. An important issue was that different subprojects operated with conflicting time orientations due to specialization caused by technological and organizational complexity. This difference led to major challenges for the project management team that had to synchronize activities across the involved units. Thus, a key role for project management was to identify temporal misfits and establish an overall understanding of the requirements with regard to time, pace, and rhythm. Although several of the subprojects were situated in public-sector organizations, they had different tempos of activities, which led to temporal misfits. This was, for example, seen in the discussion about when the next phase of the project was to be initiated. More specifically, one of the subprojects was “on time”, while the other subproject suffered from “major delays”, which created a misfit as to how the different subprojects responded to the overall schedule provided by the Parliament upon initiation of the overall project.

To handle the temporal misfit, the project management team approached the overall macro pacer to change the phases of the project. However, one of the other subprojects was highly reluctant to such change of phases. As indicated in Critical Incident I, one of the representatives for one subprojects thought the project was moving too fast. Due to organizational complexity, the managers of the subproject argued that the overall system should be thoroughly tested and evaluated before continuing with the next phase, i.e., roll-out activities. The representatives of the subproject, therefore, argued for a need of adjusting the entire pace of the project. This effort for dealing with the temporal misfit, however, did not succeed. As a consequence, the project management team decided upon a new project implementation strategy; a strategy with a greater focus on time schedules. From the project management's point of view, this was a necessity in order to improve the overall progress of the project. There was one important trigger that opened up the possibility for such a change in project implementation strategy. The subproject that was “on time” decided that it would proceed despite the activities or needs of the other subprojects. The decision by the subproject was supported by the directorate and ministry where the subproject was situated. In other words, institutional involvement represented powerful relationships to which the project management had to adjust. It was also a resource that the project management could use in discussions with the other involved subprojects. The project management team could begin to use project management mechanisms that would prevent the misfit between the different subprojects being escalated even further. With a strict focus on time and the use of non-negotiable deadlines, the project management team was able to align the other subprojects with the overall pace of the project. Our analysis then indicates that institutional involvement opened up a new project implementation strategy – the project management could “correct” the temporal misfit between the different subprojects by using “harder” project management mechanisms.

As indicated in the empirical account, the project management team had to renegotiate the contract to avoid a severe hold-up of the project. However, the project management team was in doubt whether the plan suggested by the subcontractor was feasible. Thus, to be able to respond to the demands from the subcontractor, the subprojects had to speed up the tempo of the other activities due to the high degree of interdependence between the different parts and activities in the project. If the project management team had accepted the suggested plan, and the other parts of the project would not or could not synchronize to the tempo of other activities in the suggested plan, it would endanger and create a “phase misfit” between the primary activities in the project. As a result, the subcontractor's delivery would be “out of phase” since it would not be aligned to the time intervals adopted by the other subprojects.

Furthermore, the project management team was not able to make such a decision on behalf of the other subprojects. Nor could the different subprojects make such a decision before they had reached an agreement with the different units relying on the new emergency system. In other words, this was a decision that had to pass through different organizational levels, both at the project and institutional levels. This would take some time due to the complex organizational and decision-making structures in the different organizational units involved in the project. It would activate a series of bureaucratic processes that could hinder the overall progress of the project. However, the subcontractor did not fully understand these complex decision-making structures and thought it was a decision to be made by the project management team or at least by the management of DNK. In other words, the subcontractor did not completely understand the institutional processes to which the project management had to adjust in order to meet the subcontractor's demands.

Our chief argument is that the management and organization in this kind of complex project and the perceived complexities and uncertainties typically involved to a great deal are interconnected with problems of timing norms, time orientations, and temporal misfits. Hence, we argue that the role of the project – and thereby the reason why projects are set up in the first place – is linked to the diversity in time orientations and the differences in timing norms. Project management from such a perspective will then importantly be a matter of dealing with “timing norms” and the subsequent temporal misfits among the parties involved. This, in a practical project management context, requires measures to detect and deal with temporal misfits on a continuous basis. Below, we discuss these temporal misfits in further detail and investigate what measures project management used to resolve them.

Three project management measures

Critical Incident I involved to a great extent “detecting” temporal misfits. When initiating the activities and the political processes, the project management team was largely unaware of the substantial temporal misfits within the project. By approaching the overall organizational levels, the awareness of the macro pacer increased. This also led to an increase of the macro cycle of the involved subprojects and forced them to reconsider the time plan on which the project was working. Although not intentionally meant to highlight the temporal misfits, the measures taken resulted in a major insight about the inherent temporal misfit in the project.

Critical Incident II was somewhat different. Here, the awareness of a temporal misfit existed and had been an ongoing issue at the meetings within the project. Basically, what occurred in this incident was that actions and decisions at the local level within one of the subprojects actually worked as a trigger to speed up the process in related subprojects rather than increasing the overall temporal misfit. We argue that the reason this was possible is primarily explained by institutional forces. The decision to go ahead with project implementation and to move the subproject forward was sanctioned by the upper level in the focal organizational unit. In that respect, there were institutional possibilities and even “resources” that the project management team could draw upon to reduce the temporal misfit in the project. We refer to this measure as an example of “correcting” temporal misfits.

The third critical incident, the conflict between one of the subcontractors and the involved subprojects within the respective directorates, generally shows how one can “escape” or reduce temporal misfits. At first, the solution that was discussed was primarily at the very system-wide level of the project, involving a general and tightly integrated solution. However, what was suggested and followed was a partitioning of the project to reduce the importance of the identified temporal misfit. Through task partitioning and sequencing (von Hippel, 1990), the temporal misfit was not fundamentally solved. Instead, measures were implemented to achieve progress despite the misfit.

This analysis presents and identifies the importance of three different project management measures: detecting, correcting, and escaping. Detecting is critical to create an awareness of temporal misfits and to better understand the specific institutional rules that govern the project as well as the involved parties. This measure also shows how project management seeks to increase the knowledge about the macro pacer and the dominant cycle governing the project. Correcting illustrates the importance of project management being able to use temporal misfits – that tensions can be sources of energy and provide resources to the project. However, an important point here is that this can be accomplished only if the necessary “institutional backup” is present. Escaping, the last management measure revolves primarily around the fact that temporal misfits continue to be present, but do not severely hinder the progress of the project. To be able to succeed with this measure, problems need to be decomposed and schedules redrafted to find the minimum level of commonality that results in being able to move the project forward without obstructing the schedule imposed by the macro pacer. In Table 1, we summarize the different project management mechanisms and elaborate on when, why, and how these come into play.

Table 1: Comparing project management measures to resolve temporal misfits.

Detect Correct Escape
When? In what situations is the measure typically used? The situation is difficult to oversee. The problem is known and can be resolved. The problem is known, but not possible to resolve.
Why? For what purpose is the measure used?

Understand institutional mechanisms.

Type of problem unknown: phase, tempo, or both?

-Complex situation

-Low experience

Type of problem known: phase, tempo, or both.

-The cost of correcting not too high

Type of problem known: phase, tempo, or both

-Too high costs of correcting

-Conflict on different levels, difficult to reach an agreement

-Many actors involved

How? What mechanisms are typically used by project management? Analyzing and becoming aware of temporal misfits, monitoring, scanning and trial-and-error. Use/rely on institutional mechanisms. Avoid institutional mechanisms

Find the minimum level of commonality

A tentative typology

Our concepts of different project management measures can be further elaborated using two-dimensional reasoning. The first dimension distinguishes between two types of temporal misfits, while the second dimension relates to the complexity of the project context:

In the first dimension, we build on the work of Perez-Nordtvedt et al., (2008, p. 786), and their distinction between tempo and phase misfit. The former “denotes synchronizing the period of a cycle to that of another,” i.e., the matching of the speed between entities. The latter “concerns aligning the periods of two or more activities” (ibid). In other words, phase misfit occurs when activities, for instance in a subproject, do not align with the same time intervals as activities in another subproject. The speed of activities is the same, but the period of the activities are out of sync. Consequently, overcoming a lack of phase fit implies aligning the timing of processes and activities. Contrarily, if there is a “tempo misfit”, the speed of activities is the problem. In such a situation, the speed determines whether there is a fit or not, and hence, achieving fit calls for acceleration or deceleration of project activities. Although tempo and phase misfits refer to different situations, it is worth noticing that a tempo misfit inevitably leads to a “phase misfit”. As Perez-Nordtvedt et al., (2008, p. 787) put it: “Tempo misfit always leads to phase misfit, although phase misfit can occur without tempo misfit.” Hence, at a more practical level, it might be challenging to identify whether there is a phase or tempo misfit that causes a particular temporal misfit.

Organizing activities in projects has generally been conceived of as a way of reducing complexity, a way of making action possible. Looking at the specific form of actions in the studied project, we note that such traditional assumptions about a project fall somewhat short obtaining a thorough understanding of the managerial difficulties involved. Instead of reducing complexity, the project in this particular study seems rather to produce and activate organizational complexity, hence, making project management a complicated and challenging task. Thus, our concept of the different project management mechanisms at play in the DNK project is an attempt to embrace organizational complexity, rather than to reduce it. As such, we respond to the demand of regarding projects as complex endeavors, which has been particularly stressed in reports on the large number of failures of projects, and the fact that more and more projects span organizational and national levels, be it “global projects” (Orr & Scott, 2008) or “inter-firm projects” (Dahlgren & Söderlund, 2001).

In the project under study, we note that ignorance of the projects participants’ local “timing norms” led to fundamental misunderstandings and missteps, resulting in temporal misfits. And as discussed above, temporal misfits are not always easily resolved. However, to come close to resolving such temporal misfits and gaining satisfying project progress, project management's understanding, approaching and relying on the institutional connections were vital. Correspondingly, project management's behavior in this case paralleled that of the ‘institutional entrepreneurs', as Czarniawska (2009) terms it, in that they combine action and perspectives from actors in to the different participating institutions and the timing norms set by these institutions. In the second dimension, we recognize this complexity, and build on the distinction proposed by Lindkvist, Söderlund, & Tell (1998) between systemic and analyzable processes. The former, systemic processes, “refer to situations where the relevant work activities and the causal relations and sequences between them are hard to specify a priori” (ibid, p. 942). Contrarily, “analyzable processes refer to situations where such a priori situations are relatively easy to establish” (ibid). In both cases, complexity becomes increasingly critical if a project involves a multitude of actors responding to different institutional logics. In such a situation, the level of complexity might, for instance, be affected by what Orr & Scott (2008) refer to as “institutional exception”, that is “an occasion when a knowledge void about pertinent institutional elements interferes with task completion, and requires troubleshooting” (ibid: 566).

Based on this, we propose the grid shown in Figure 1, where we relate the suggested project management measures in this case study to both the different types of temporal misfits and the different types of complexity.

Tentative typology combining complexity and temporal misfit

Figure 1: Tentative typology combining complexity and temporal misfit

In the first two cells (Situations I and II), both phase and tempo misfits are categorized as being analyzable. In these situations, the complexity is low and it is possible to put project processes and activities together in a relatively straightforward way. In Situation I, deviations in phase between project participants are easily interpreted and adjusted by traditional project management measures. By relying on planning activities, milestones and work breakdown structures, the timing of activities is manageable and would then reduce the risk of phase misfit. In other words, planning and minor adjustment should resolve the phase misfit in analyzable contexts.

In Situation II, the synchronizing of speed is the chief problem. Typically, in this situation awareness of the type of problem (tempo rather than phase) exists, but it might be especially difficult to resolve since the speeding up of activities requires more action than simply adjusting plans, as would be the case in cell one. As we saw in Critical Incident II, awareness of the misfit existed and the project management was able to accelerate the activities in the subproject that was lagging behind due to institutional involvement. As such, this situation relates to known problems where the cost of “correcting” is not excessive.

In stark contrast to this, the third and fourth situations describe instances where tempo and phase misfits are hard to specify a priori due to the systemic complexity involved. Hence, in these situations, interdependencies between activities are high, technologies are complex, and deliveries of products involve a multitude of actors that must work together for the project to function properly. In such situations “the outcome will depend on the relationships and interactions between the different specialties and units involved” (Lindkvist et al., 1998, p. 932). In these situations, problems are often unforeseeable. Relying on standard project management tools and planning activities are generally insufficient in these cases. Consequently, maintaining “tight coupling” between sub-processes might be challenged by temporal misfits, especially if the involved actors have a limited experience in working together, which typically is the case in unique, inter-organizational projects. Moreover, as was the case in the studied project, participants might even belong to different institutional fields (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983) and thus be activated by contrasting “institutional isochronisms” (Dille & Söderlund, 2010). As such, we might even expect that problems with time and time orientations are grounded in differing cultural-cognitive elements, and that project participants find themselves being “on a different wavelength” (Orr & Scott, 2008, p. 566). In these situations, understanding the institutional logics and “timing norms” at play might be vital for project progress and management performance.

In both Situations III and IV, we see that a project management measure resembling a “detecting” logic prevails. Here the type of temporal misfit is unknown due to the systemic context. This requires a project management measure that calls for substantial resources in order to analyze and become aware of the temporal misfit. However, we expect that a tempo misfit paired with systemic complexity might be associated with severe difficulties to detect, compared to detection of phase misfits in a systemic context. This has largely to do with the fact that tempo misfit often leads to phase misfit, while phase misfit can occur without tempo misfit (Pérez-Nordtvedt et al., 2008). In the studied project, this became obvious as the project management team had major problems detecting temporal misfits. The situation was highly complex and what the managers first addressed as a phase misfit between the project and the macro pacer changed character when they to tried to resolve it by approaching the macro pacer. This activated one of the subproject institutions, which consequently made the project management realize that there was a fundamental misfit between two of the subprojects. As expected, the subprojects seemed to have different speed rates. In other words, in systemic contexts, the situation is difficult to comprehend; hence, detecting who and what is causing the temporal misfit can be a challenging task. Moreover, since the cost of reducing a tempo misfit is usually high, “escaping”, as described in the fourth cell, may be the only solution. Here the project processes become highly problematic not only due to the unsynchronized speed, but also because of the many actors involved - it might be difficult to reach an agreement as to what is the right speed. To avoid the different perceptions and institutional mechanisms at play, the project management might rely on “escaping”. Consequently, problems might be decomposed and schedules redrafted to find the minimum level of commonality to move the project forward.

Concluding Discussion

This paper presents findings from an in-depth study of a complex public project. The project is interesting for several reasons. Foremost, the project involves a number of different public and private organizational units that have molded unique isochronisms which lead to contrasting timing norms. As a case in point, this project would then lend itself to closer scrutiny of the institutional forces that affect the interior processes of projects and project management. In particular, the forces highlight the importance of linking institutions to the analysis of time in projects. This type of approach would be beneficial for the study of institutions at the operational level and for the study of the dynamics of institutions – how they change, how they are interpreted, and how they play out at the local level. It would also be relevant in the study of complex projects, since such projects normally involve a number of different actors representing different organizational fields that adhere to different timing norms. This is, to a great extent, a neglected problem in the existing literature on project organization, despite the general and critical importance of time and progress in projects (Lindkvist et al, 1998). The conceptual development laid out in this paper focuses on temporal misfits emerging from institutional differences. These misfits have substantial effects on project organization and the act of project management.

To further the analysis of temporal misfits in complex projects, we investigated three critical incidents in the focal project. These incidents led to a detailed analysis of the measures that project management took to resolve temporal misfits. Accordingly, we argued that project management, to a large extent, involves the detection and management of temporal misfits, singled out as adjustments of cycles to fit the macro pacer of the project and make tradeoffs between the different units involved in the project. Several of the mechanisms that project management uses revolve around the foci of management as (1) detecting, (2) correcting, and (3) escaping. These measures were compared and defined further by the use of a tentative typology relying on a two-dimensional reasoning: on the one hand temporal misfits, and on the other hand, type of complexity. Four ideal-typical situations were discussed and related to the suggested project management measures.

Several implications of the study are presented. First, the analysis sheds new light on the linkages between project organization and institutions. To date, only limited scholarly attention has been devoted to these linkages – linkages that are critical to the development of a theory of project management and time in project organizations (Rämö, 2002). Second, the paper acknowledges the importance of addressing the ways that the project and its progress are bounded in institutional contexts and how management seeks to respond to these institutional requirements. At the same time, management, within limits, seeks to initiate processes that affect the timing norms among the actors involved. Third, the specific measures that project management uses would then also need to be readdressed and viewed in light of how they efficiently contribute to the resolution of temporal misfits in systemic complexity situations.

References

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