Classifying improvisation

comments on managing chaotic evolution

This paper seeks to examine an accelerating phenomenon in the field of project management, namely, the assertion that a shift is occurring in our understanding of the important elements or constructs that influence the evolution of project management as an academic discipline.Management of projects is growing in importance to practitioners, but is accepted as a “young discipline” academically (Jugdev, 2004, p. 15), especially compared with the traditional areas of economics, strategy, and organizational theory. It is, however, a discipline where considerable research activity is taking place to position it within the existing academic landscape, and where the rigor of the research output is increasing significantly.Additionally, there is an emerging contested space where evidence points towards a shift from the planning and control embedded in traditional project-based work, towards a relaxation of process, and an appreciation of the evolutionary and emergent nature of progress based around environmental and behavioral actions driven by turbulent project contexts.This shift is resulting in an increased focus on complexity and ambiguity within the project domain, as project-based management of large and multifaceted activities becomes more accepted.The shift that is taking place within the global body of project knowledge generally is resulting in moderation of the traditional “plan, then execute” paradigm in favor of a more organic, composite framework that incorporates improvisation, and in an acceptance of the project as a complex adaptive system with many interlinking relationships.As evidence is indicating a shift away from process and towards behaviors within emerging project management research, these issues are becoming more salient. There is growing evidence that some traditional project-based organizations are uncomfortable with ceding the organization of project-based work to an emerging paradigm that places decision-making and situated action in the hands of project team members without the explicit “safety net” of consensus-based project plans and other control mechanisms. To help organizations deal with this changing landscape, we provide a classification scheme that characterizes organizations in two dimensions: by their improvisation activities or by their analytical activities. This allows project managers and, indeed, organizations to assess their position relative to other successful entities. They can therefore address the management, skills, tools, and techniques that need to be encouraged, developed, and nurtured.
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