Project Management Institute

Are we getting any better? Comparing project management in the years 2000 and 2008

Abstract

This paper presents a study on the progress of project management. Progress has been explored by investigating descriptions of 74 projects from 2000 and 54 from 2008. The descriptions were in the form of an X model, which is an example of an IPO (inputs–processes–outputs) model. The X models were prepared by people closely connected to the projects, using their own wording.

The study concludes that the field of project management is moving ahead. The 2008 scenario looks brighter than its 2000 equivalent. Project team members are more knowledgeable about project work, project objectives are more clearly expressed, project organization is more appropriate, most work processes are improved, team members experience project work as rewarding and are more motivated for future projects, and the results of the project are more balanced, taking into account personal, technical, and organizational matters. However, there is room for improvement. The project results cannot be viewed as fully satisfactory. The study has not been able to show significant progress in achieving the project mission and goals or keeping to the project schedule and budget.

An X model allows for the study of causal relationships. It is shown that stakeholders' satisfaction with projects could be improved by better decision processes, better management and leadership, and closer cooperation with the stakeholders.

Keywords: Project management, performance, progress, IPO model

Introduction

Project management as a professional discipline is a young field. It is interesting to see how it has developed and continues to change. The history of project management has been written (see e.g., Morris, 1994 and more recently Morris, forthcoming). It shows that significant changes have taken place, but we also see a discipline still looking for its identity. Many studies ask for more research to improve project management: Winter, Smith, Morris, and Cicmil (2006), for example, point out five directions for future research (project complexity, social process, value creation, project conceptualization, and practitioner development). Shenhar and Dvir (2007), propose three views for project management research that may evolve as central in the next few years (the strategic/business view, the operational/process view, and the team/leadership view).

Many studies are available that shed light on the development of the discipline of project management. We have historical analyses on specific types of projects, especially on the success and failure of large projects. They reveal that there is still room for improvement within project management (see e.g., Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, & Rothengatter, 2003; Miller & Lessard, 2001). The historical development of project management within a single company has been studied (Söderlund & Tell, 2009). It introduces the notion of project epochs for a better understanding of the development of the use of project management within an enterprise. Even the development of certain lessons of project management (like Brooks's Law: adding resources to a late software project makes it later) has been studied (Verner, Overmyer, & McCain, 1999).

The most well-known quantitative studies of project success are the Standish Group reports (see http://www.standishgroup.com). Their latest report (Standish, 2009) shows the development in the twenty-first century. Table 1 illustrates the development from 2000 to 2008.

Table 1: Project success rate (measured as a percentage of all projects), 2000, 2006, and 2008. Source: (Standish, 2009).

Project result 2000 2006 2008
Succeeded (delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions) 28 35 32
Failed (cancelled prior to completion or delivered and never used) 23 19 24
Challenged (late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions) 49 46 44

Table 1 shows an advantageous development from 2000 to 2008; the success rate has risen and the proportion of challenged projects has been reduced. However, it also shows that the results were better in 2006 and that the development since 2006 has not been positive.

However, we should make a distinction between project success and project management. Our intention is not to discuss project success over the years, but whether project management is changing and, hopefully, progressing. It was said a long time ago (de Wit, 1988, p. 164): “In any discussion on success, it is essential that a distinction is made between project success and the success of project management effort, bearing in mind that good project management can contribute towards project success but is unlikely to be able to prevent failure.” The negative development of the project success rate from 2006 to 2008 may be due more to a declining economy than to poor project management. So, our focus will be on project management.

The Challenge: Determining Whether Project Management is Improving

However, it is challenging to determine which aspects of project management we should look into to ascertain whether the discipline is improving. One idea would be to look at the different knowledge areas of project management. The problem is that the different Bodies of Knowledge (BoKs) from for instance, PMI and APM, list different knowledge areas. Morris (forthcoming) calls this “ontological differences.” We might instead look at which project management factors are proved to affect project success, but even here we experience differences. Slevin and Pinto (1987) introduced their PIP (project implementation profile) with 10 different critical success factors. Cooke-Davis (2002) later listed 12 factors, which he claims are critical to project success. Andersen and Jessen (2000) presented a scheme with 60 different critical success factors, which they claim would give a good prognosis for the success of the project. (see http://survey.confirmit.com/wix1/p705317722.aspx?l=9 for the use of the Project Evaluation Scheme).

We find that the best way to study the changes to project management is to start without imposing restrictions on what might be in focus. In that way, we will be able to identify the aspects that people view as the most important. We will make use of a holistic description of project work with very few restrictions on what the description should cover. We will ask people observing the project or taking part in it to list the aspects of project work that they regard as the most important and describe how the projects are performing in these areas. In the next section, we discuss the design of such a description of project work.

Holistic Description of Project Work

We will argue that an IPO model is a good candidate for a holistic description of an enterprise, and consequently also of project work. An IPO model depicts the inputs, processes, and outputs of an enterprise. Figure 1 illustrates, in all its simplicity, what an IPO model shows. IPO models are said to be “the most popular way of framing relationships among variables associated with team effectiveness” (LePine, Piccolo, Jackson, Mathieu, & Saul, 2008, p. 278).

A general IPO model

Figure 1: A general IPO model.

For a long time, IPO models have been used to describe and assess organizations. The scope of this article does not justify an extensive discussion of the history and use of IPO models (for a presentation of the earlier general use of IPO models, see Andersen, forthcoming). However, we would like to present two applications of the model on project management. Both are actually based on the EFQM excellence model, which was introduced by the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) to help organizations in their drive towards becoming more competitive (Conti, 2007).

The International Project Management Association (IPMA) uses its project excellence model as a basis for deciding which project should be awarded the yearly project excellence award. The Project Excellence Model (see Figure 2) is an IPO model (Westerveld, 2003). The inputs are project objectives, leadership, people, and resources. The outputs are the traditional project results (time, cost, and quality), but in addition the satisfaction of different stakeholders (customers, people involved, and other parties) is emphasized.

The Project Excellence Model by IPMA

Figure 2: The Project Excellence Model by IPMA.

The Project Management Performance Assessment (PMPA) Model. Source: Adapted from: Bryde (2003)

Figure 3: The Project Management Performance Assessment (PMPA) Model. Source: Adapted from: Bryde (2003).

Figure 3 shows the project management performance assessment (PMPA) model (Bryde, 2003). We see a close similarity to the project excellence model. The PMPA does not specify the output factors; it only refers to key performance indicators. Regarding the input portion, the PMPA is quite similar to the former model; the factors are management and leadership (in the previous model leadership), staff (previously people), policy and strategy (instead of objectives), and partnerships and resources (previously resources).

Below, we present the IPO model that will be our model for highlighting project management performance.

The X Model

Our candidate for a general project management evaluation model is called the X model (Andersen, Baustad, & Sørsveen, 1994; Andersen & Sørsveen, 2003). It is based on two theoretical approaches, which may help us understand how an organization functions: systems theory and socio-technical theory. The X model combines these two approaches into a single and consistent framework.

The systems theory is represented by the IPO approach. Systems theory focuses on an entity and its parts and helps us to clarify how the different parts are interrelated (Langefors, 1966). An organization may be regarded as a system with inputs, transformation processes, and outputs as the main parts of the system. The input–transformation–output model is a causal model (Emery & Trist, 1965). The arrows of the model imply causal relationships. The outputs are the results of the transformation processes. They are based on the inputs available.

The socio-technical school (Mumford & Weir, 1959), also inspired by the systems theory, divides the organization into a social and a technical subsystem. The concepts of social and technical subsystems are broadly defined: the social subsystem incorporates every human aspect that may be of interest to a person in a work situation; the technical subsystem also covers economic and commercial aspects. These concepts are similar to what we call personal and factual in the X model. The main idea of the socio-technical school is that the social and technical subsystems cannot be regarded as isolated systems in a study of an organization; we have to consider the relationships between them.

The X Model

Figure 4: The X Model.

The X model is shown in Figure 4. The name of the model reflects its shape. It consists of five elements: personal inputs, factual inputs, work processes, personal outputs, and factual outputs. The inputs refer to the situation at the start of the project or to a situation prior to the present situation, while the outputs are related to the present situation. The personal inputs and outputs are the attitudes, needs, knowledge, skills, and experience of the members of the project organization, and their relationships to each other and to others. This is what may be called the “soft part” of the project organization. The factual parts of the model focus on the more formal or structural part of the project. The factual inputs describe tasks to be performed, problems to be solved or challenges to be met, project plans, and formal organization. The factual outputs should show what the project has achieved so far and what has not been accomplished. The work processes are project activities (in groups, meetings, or individually), decision processes, communication processes, and the general working climate. Processes integrate both personal and factual aspects and it is usually not possible to make a distinction between the two. We may say that the X model with its dichotomy (focusing on both personal and factual parts) expands the perspective compared with traditional analyses of projects, based on well-established socio-technical theory for analyzing organizations.

We call the X model an IPO model. There is a long tradition for studying organizations and groups using IPO models. Previous models are structurally more comprehensive than the X model; the X model is less detailed than other models and even the specific IPO models for project management we saw above. This is a deliberate decision. The idea is that the people who use the X model have to determine themselves what is of importance for inclusion in the description. The only guidance given is that both personal and factual matters should be covered.

This openness is in line with the philosophy of sensemaking (Weick, 1995). The classical expression within sensemaking is “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It is by writing down your thoughts about the organization that you come to realize what the situation is. The making of an X model for an actual project should follow the advice of the process of sensemaking, be focused on cues, and be driven by plausibility rather than accuracy.

An ongoing project may at certain stages of the project have an X model created. The best result is achieved when several participants first make their own independent descriptions of the project and decide which aspects of the project they will focus on. The participants then cooperate in combining the individual descriptions into a common description. We would claim that the X model gives an interesting view of the present situation of a project and highlights aspects that would not have been so obvious if only traditional control methods had been used.

The X model gives an overview of the situation of the project. It is also the starting point for an analysis of the project. The actual status of the presented project might be such that actions are necessary. The X model should help us to identify the causalities between the personal and factual outputs, on the one hand, and the work processes and the personal and factual inputs on the other. This insight into the project situation will help the project manager and the project team to decide how to proceed to improve the functioning of the project. The subsequent actions might be quite different from the results of a traditional project control.

We will use the X model to study the development of project management. The study will be based on X models of Norwegian projects from the years 2000 and 2008.

Research Methodology

We have been able to collect X models for many different Norwegian projects. The Norwegian School of Management BI is offering a part-time Master's program in project management. As part of the program requirements, the students have to write a thesis. It should be based on their observations of a real project over a period of nine months. Many students use the X model to evaluate their projects, and in this way we have had access to many X models.

The students are employees from companies, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Usually, three students collaborate on a thesis and they typically choose to observe a project of their own companies. Sometimes one of the students is the project manager or team member of the chosen project. The students collect information about the project by observing and interviewing project team members and people affected by the project. They also study project plans and other written material. The required scientific procedures for thesis work ensure that the students collect good and reliable information.

We have collected 74 X models for projects from the year 2000 and 54 models from 2008. The data from 2000 were collected in 2000 and 2001, while the later data were gathered in 2008 and 2009.

When making an X model, people use their own words to express the situation of the project. Two persons coded the X models independently of each other, using a coding scheme covering many different statements. The coders decided which statement best covered the intention of the original wording and whether the performance expressed by the statement was complied with completely, partly, or not at all. If there was a difference of coding between the two coders, a third person acted as judge and decided on the final coding. Altogether, the coding scheme covered 70 different statements.

What will we be looking for?

The collected X models will allow us to study which aspects of project management people regard as the most important ones. The model itself is such that people are free to describe whatever they think is of relevance. There are no restrictions on the content of the description, but people have to think in terms of personal and factual inputs, work processes, and personal and factual outputs. It is of great interest to see what people focus on when they are asked to describe the situation of an actual project in these terms. It gives us a good picture of what people see as the essence of project management.

Since we have collected data from years some time apart, we will also be able to study whether the view of what is the main substance of project management has changed over the years.

We are also able to see how the projects perform on the different aspects of project management that we are focusing on. Again, since we have observations from two different years, we are able to see whether projects are improving and performing better. We are able to respond to the question “Are we getting any better?”

Project Management in the Year 2000

We start by looking at the data from the year 2000. Table 2 shows which aspects of project management were most focused on in the X models of 2000. For each of the five elements of the X model, we present the four most frequently mentioned aspects. We might say that these are the aspects of project management that project people were most absorbed by at that time. Table 2 further shows how the projects were progressing on the selected aspects of project management.

Table 2: The four most frequently used statements of the five elements of the X model, based on 74 X models from 2000 (PI = personal inputs, FI = factual inputs, XP = work processes, PO = personal outputs, FO = factual outputs).

Statement Number of responses Yes (%) Partly (%) No (%)
Strongly motivated for the project (PI) 67 70.1 16.4 13.4
Good knowledge of the subject area of the project (PI) 60 56.7 26.7 16.7
Good knowledge of project work and project methods (PI) 51 54.9 29.4 15.7
Extensive experience with project work, methods, and tools (PI) 49 24.5 32.7 42.9
Clearly expressed project objectives/goals (FI) 56 30.4 19.6 50.0
Appropriate organization/clear lines of responsibility (FI) 53 18.9 24.5 56.6
Good plans/clear time schedule/fixed milestones (FI) 45 26.7 15.6 57.8
Enough resources allocated to the project work (FI) 45 26.7 15.6 57.8
Good feedback (WP) 60 28.3 48.3 23.3
Good cooperation between project team members (WP) 53 47.2 24.5 28.3
Good management/leadership (WP) 49 34.7 26.5 38.8
Good project control (WP) 40 20.0 22.5 57.5
Strongly motivated for further project work (PO) 48 27.1 27.1 45.8
Increased knowledge in general (PO) 37 73.0 13.5 13.5
Increased knowledge of the subject area of the project (PO) 34 79.4 8.8 11.8
Increased knowledge of project work and project methods (PO) 31 54.8 12.9 32.3
The mandate/charter/contract are fulfilled (FO) 39 59.0 12.8 28.2
Completion as scheduled (FO) 38 21.1 10.5 68.4
Plans are followed/milestones or phases are achieved as planned (FO) 36 25.0 5.6 69.4
Balanced results achieved (FO) 31 12.9 19.4 67.7

The majority agrees that, for project management, it is of the utmost importance to have as the center of attention the motivation of the team members and their knowledge and experience. These are the personal input factors that should be closely watched. On factual inputs, we see that the focus is on clarity of the goals, appropriateness of the project organization, good plans, and access to resources. The working processes are about good management and leadership, cooperation, feedback given in the communication process, and good project control. If we are looking at the personal outputs, we have to see whether motivation is upheld and knowledge acquired. Finally, the management of the factual outputs should be focused on following the plan, fulfillment of the mandate, the completion date, and a balanced result where both social and technical matters are taken into account.

Table 2 tells us the general situation of Norwegian projects in 2000. These projects had motivated and well-informed team members, who sometimes lacked project experience. Only 30% of the projects had clear goals. For the majority of the projects, there were no clear lines of responsibility, no good plans, and not enough resources allocated. The feedback given to project team members was not as good as most people would like, but on average there was good cooperation between them. The quality of the leadership differed and the project control was rather weak. People learned a lot from the project work, but their motivation for further project work was diminishing. The task was completed as described by the mandate or project charter, but most projects did not achieve this on time and within budget. The results were unbalanced; there was a greater focus on technical than on social factors.

The main results of Table 2 are summed up as an X model (Figure 5). We might say that this X model depicts the typical Norwegian project of 2000.

The typical Norwegian project of 2000

Figure 5: The typical Norwegian project of 2000.

Project Management in the Year 2008

We will make the same kind of presentation for the year 2008. For each of the five elements of the X model, we present the four most used statements; these are the aspects of project management that project members are most focused on when they are told to characterize the situation of the project. The results are shown in Table 3.

Table 3: The four most frequently used statements of the five elements of the X model, based on 54 X models from 2008 (PI = personal inputs, FI = factual inputs, XP = work processes, PO = personal outputs, FO = factual outputs).

Statement Number of responses Yes (%) Partly (%) No (%)
Strongly motivated for the project (PI) 42 76.2 16.7 7.1
Good knowledge of the subject area of the project (PI) 39 64.1 23.1 12.8
Good knowledge of project work and project methods (PI) 34 44.1 23.5 32.4
Extensive experience with project work, methods, and tools (PI) 30 43.3 23.3 33.3
Appropriate organization/clear lines of responsibility (FI) 46 32.6 34.8 32.6
Clearly expressed project charter/contract/requirements (FI) 44 36.4 43.2 20.5
Enough resources allocated to the project work (FI) 42 16.7 35.7 47.6
Good plans/clear time schedule/fixed milestones (FI) 41 39.0 26.8 34.1
Meeting schedules followed/meetings conducted in a good way (WP) 40 67.5 20.0 12.5
Good feedback (WP) 31 38.7 45.2 16.1
Good cooperation between project team members (WP) 30 56.7 26.7 16.7
Good work processes (WP) 28 42.9 35.7 21.4
Great ambitions for the project results (PO) 31 38.7 32.3 29.0
Good/better relations with the base organization/the users (PO) 28 64.3 14.3 21.4
Increased knowledge of the subject area of the project (PO) 28 78.6 17.9 3.6
Increased knowledge of project work and project methods (PO) 27 92.6 0.0 7.4
The mission achieved/good for base organization in the future (FO) 37 32.4 56.8 10.8
Plans are followed/milestones or phases are achieved as planned (FO) 31 48.4 29.0 22.6
Completion as scheduled (FO) 31 25.8 25.8 48.4
Satisfied customers/users/project owners (FO) 29 34.5 44.8 20.7

We see great similarities between what was focused on in 2000 and 2008. The personal input factors are the same. The factual inputs are nearly the same with one exception: the year 2008 focuses on the clarity of the project mandate/charter instead of the project objectives (maybe a slightly broader aspect). For the work processes, we see that the year 2008 is a little more specific; instead of focusing on leadership and management, the focus is on the quality of work processes and meetings. For the personal outputs, knowledge management is still an important topic. Instead of motivation for further projects, the focus is on ambitions for future work (taking for granted that individuals are motivated by new projects) and on establishing good relationships with the users and the base organization. On the factual outputs, the prioritized aspects are a stronger focus on mission accomplishment and having satisfied users and stakeholders. It is still of importance to keep to plans and schedules.

If we look at project management performance (how the projects live up to the good intentions described by the different statements), we see many positive signs. We see that the projects in the year 2008 are performing rather well on personal inputs, work processes, and personal outputs. There is certainly still room for improvement on factual inputs and outputs.

The main results from Table 3 are also depicted as an X model (Figure 6). It shows the typical Norwegian project of 2008. The model shows clearly that the performance of project management is better on the personal part than on the factual.

The typical Norwegian project of 2008

Figure 6 The typical Norwegian project of 2008.

Comparisons 2000 and 2008

By comparing the X models of 2000 and 2008 (Figures 5 and 6), we see that improvements have taken place in the twenty-first century. On all five elements of the X model, progress is reported, even if we still see the need for further improvements.

The X models present an overview. We would like to study the progress in more detail. When X models are made, people use their own wording. The responses were coded into standardized statements. For each statement, we made a comparison between the two data sets (2000 and 2008). Project management performance is expressed in the following way: 0=statement not fulfilled, 0.5=statement partly fulfilled, 1=statement fulfilled. The means for performance on each statement for the two years of 2000 and 2008 were calculated and we conducted an independent samples t-test to compare the means of the two years. Tables 4 through 8 present the results for the five elements of the X model. The tables show only the statements where there is a significant difference between the means of the two years (significance level <0.1).

Table 4: Statements concerning personal inputs in the X models with significant differences between performance in 2000 and 2008.

Statement 2000 2008 t Significance
n Mean n Mean
Good knowledge of project work and methods (PI) 51 0.304 34 0.559 2.773 0.007
High degree of unanimity and fellowships (PI) 12 0.917 28 0.589 -2.631 0.012
Good relations between project team members (PI) 10 1.000 21 0.690 -2.411 0.022

Table 4 shows that the knowledge of project work and methods has significantly increased from 2000 to 2008. The mean for 2008 of 0.559 indicates that there is still a need for more project management training and education. To our surprise, unanimity, fellowships, and relationships between project team members at the outset of the project have diminished over the years. This may be due to the project team being more diversified and close bonds not existing at the start of the project. We see few observations of this from 2000 (but those appearing were all very positive) and more from 2008 (and not so positive), indicating that the respondents of 2008 see this as a problem.

Table 5: Statements concerning factual inputs in the X models with significant differences between the performance in 2000 and 2008.

Statement 2000 2008 t Significance
n Mean n Mean
Clearly expressed project objectives/goals (FI) 56 0.402 31 0.790 4.118 0.000
Good acceptance of the project in the base organization (FI) 40 0.462 18 0.750 2.445 0.019
Appropriate organization/clear lines of responsibility (FI) 53 0.311 46 0.500 2.328 0.022
Good system of project control/ monitoring (FI) 13 0.308 14 0.643 2.051 0.051
Good plans/clear time schedule/fixed milestones (FI) 45 0.344 41 0.524 1.918 0.059
Existence of project work manual/ guidelines for project work (FI) 14 0.250 24 0.521 1. 881 0.071

We stated previously that there was still room for improvement in the factual inputs. Table 5 shows a favorable development. For several factors, we see significant progress. For all the factors shown, the performance of 2008 is on the positive side (means larger than 0.5). We see a particularly positive development in the clarity of the objectives/goals of the projects.

Table 6: Statements concerning work processes in the X models with significant differences between the performance in 2000 and 2008.

Statement 2000 2008 t Significance
n Mean n Mean
Team members have no problems in allocating time for both project and base organization work (WP) 27 0.148 12 0.708 4.829 0.000
Decisions are taken at the right time (WP) 8 0.000 21 0.595 4.092 0.000
Good financial control (WP) 10 0.100 9 0.722 3.962 0.001
Good project control (WP) 40 0.312 27 0.630 3.258 0.002
Good work processes (WP) 26 0.288 28 0.607 2.932 0.005
Plans are followed (WP) 18 0.417 20 0.725 2.336 0.025
Good management/leadership (WP) 49 0.480 26 0.673 1.942 0.057
Good quality control (WP) 18 0.361 8 0.688 1.936 0.071

Table 6 covers work processes and also reveals a very positive development. Better understanding of the importance of project work may have significantly reduced the problem for the project team members to conduct project and base organization work in parallel.

Table 7: Statements concerning personal outputs in the X models with significant differences between the performance in 2000 and 2008.

Statement 2000 2008 t Significance
n Mean n Mean
Strongly motivated for further project work (PO) 48 0.406 24 0.958 6.233 0.000
Positive experience with project work (PO) 28 0.446 28 0.875 4.038 0.000
High degree of similarity in views and attitudes (PO) 3 0.000 28 0.714 2.916 0.007
Great ambitions for the project results (PO) 14 0.250 26 0.635 2.800 0.010

Table 7 on personal outputs also reports significant progress. Project team members are more strongly motivated for further project work and have more positive experience with project work and greater ambitions for the future. We also see that project work develops similarities in views and attitudes. We reported above that there might be a feeling of lack of fellowship among team members in the early phases of the project, but it seems that the project work itself is repairing this.

Table 8: Statements concerning factual outputs in the X models with significant differences between the performance in 2000 and 2008.

Statement 2000 2008 t Significance.
n Mean n Mean
Balanced results received (FO) 31 0.226 37 0.608 4.605 0.000
Plans are followed/milestones or phases are achieved as planned (FO) 36 0.278 29 0.569 2.847 0.006

Table 8 is somewhat surprising. After having seen all the progress achieved on personal and factual inputs and work processes, we would expect great progress on factual outputs. This is not what we are able to report. Out of the 13 statements covering different aspects of factual outputs, we only have 2 significant changes. We are not able to report significant progress on achieving the project mission or project objectives or gaining more satisfied users. Neither can we report significant changes to the ability to keep to the budget or completion date.

This may be in line with what the Standish Group report for 2009 says. It seems that project management is improving, but, possibly due to external factors, the factual results are not following. However, a recent global survey completed in late 2008 by PMI Market Research Department reported a small, but significant, improvement. PMI (2009, p. 1) reports: “Since the 2006 survey, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of projects finishing on time (55 %, up from 53 % in 2006) and within budget (58 %, up from 55 %).”

Table 8 shows that projects are more focused on achieving a balanced social and technical result. The notion of PSO development, meaning that the project should cover personal, system (technical aspects), and organizational development, is a vital part of Norwegian project teaching. It was made popular by Andersen, Grude, and Haug (2004) and is also discussed by Winter, Andersen, Elvin, and Levene (2006). We see that this reasoning has had its impact.

Improving Project Work—Exploring Causal Relationships

One of the main intentions of the X model is to perform causal analyses, which means investigating why the results are as they are and what can be done to improve the situation. Our data give us an opportunity to study which work processes influence the different output factors and further how the work processes are affected by the input factors.

We were puzzled to see that there had not been more significant changes to factual outputs over the years. It might be of interest to use our data to study how factual outputs could be improved. In our analysis, we use all the data, from both 2000 and 2008.

As an example, we choose to look at the statement “Satisfied customers/users/project owners.” Table 9 shows which work processes significantly affect the satisfaction of the important stakeholders. The analysis does not reveal any big surprises, but still gives us important knowledge of what is of importance. Satisfaction is positively affected by a proper decision process, good management and leadership, and good cooperation with stakeholders.

Table 9: The output statement “satisfied customers/users/project owners” and its significant correlations with work process statements.

  Correlated with n Correlation Significance.
Satisfied customers/users/project owners (FO) Decisions are taken at the right time (WP) 14 0.660 0.010
Good management/leadership (WP) 25 0.493 0.012
Good cooperation with base organization/users (WP) 23 0.507 0.014

We also look at which input factors affect the quality of the influencing work processes. Figure 7 uses an X model to show the causal relationships. The relationships between the work processes and the input factors shown in the figure are significant at the 0.01 level (two tailed). We did not find any significant correlations for the statement “Decisions are taken at the right time.”

We see that good cooperation with the base organization is positively affected if the project team has good knowledge of the subject area of the project, if all are sharing the same views and attitudes, and if all know how much money they can spend on the project. Good management and leadership is strengthened by project team members having good relationships with the base organization and by a good starting point for the project, like clear goals, clear lines of responsibility, a good system of project control, good acceptance of the project, and good communication plans.

An X model illustrating the causal relationships for improving stakeholder satisfaction

Figure 7: An X model illustrating the causal relationships for improving stakeholder satisfaction.

We could carry out similar analyses for all the output factors. Here, we restrict ourselves to looking at the data indicate that we should do to improve personal outputs (Table 10) and factual outputs (Table 11). The tables show which work processes (at level .01, two tailed) significantly affect the output factors.

Table 10: Personal output factors and the work processes that significantly improve them. Significance level 0.01 (two tailed).

Dependent variable (personal output) Independent variables (work processes)
Increased knowledge of project work and project methods Good feedback
Increased knowledge of subject area of the project Good feedback
Positive experiences with project work Good management/leadership, good feedback, good project control
Strongly motivated for further project work Good cooperation between project team members, good management/leadership, good feedback, decisions are taken at the right time, appropriate tools for planning and control
Great ambitions for the project results Good feedback, good quality control
High degree of unanimity and fellowship Good management/leadership
High degree of similarity in views and attitudes Good cooperation between project team members

We see from Table 10 that good feedback, Good management/leadership, and “good cooperation between project team members” significantly affect several of the personal output factors.

Table 11: Factual output factors and the work processes that significantly improve them. Significance level .01 (two tailed).

Dependent variable (factual output) Independent variables (work processes)
The mission is achieved/good for base organization in the future Good management/leadership, Decisions are taken at the right time
Balanced results achieved Good cooperation with base organization/users, Good management/leadership, Good work processes, Good information, Team members do not experience problems in allocating time for both project and base organization work
Goals/objectives achieved Good financial control
Plans are followed/milestones or phases are achieved as planned Good management/leadership, Good feedback, Good financial control
Completion within budget Good cooperation with base organization/users, Good work processes
Products with quality as agreed Good cooperation with base organization/users
Good information to all involved Good work processes

Table 11 reveals that a better performance on Good management/leadership will also improve several of the factual output factors. Another message from the X models is that good cooperation with the base organization and the users is important for the factual outputs of the project.

Conclusions and Further Work

The X model is a valuable tool for describing and assessing an individual project. It should be part of the toolbox of every project manager. We have been able to collect a substantial number of X models for Norwegian projects. The data are from the years 2000 and 2008. We have shown that the X model could be used on the macro level. We have been able to present what the typical projects of 2000 and 2008 look like.

We conclude that the field of project management is moving ahead. The 2008 scenario looks brighter than its 2000 equivalent. We have seen that project team members are more knowledgeable about project work, project objectives are more clearly expressed, project organization is more appropriate, most work processes are improved, team members experience project work as rewarding and are more motivated for future projects, and the results of the project are more balanced, taking into account personal, technical, and organizational matters.

However, there is still room for improvement. The factual outputs should be improved. We have not been able to show significant progress in achieving the project mission and goals or keeping to the project schedule and budget. We have earlier expressed that this is strange. It deserves to be researched further. It is of great importance to identify what has to be done to improve project results.

To be able to make improvements, we need at least to know which factors affect the output variables. Analyses of the X model help us to map important causal relationships. To gain more satisfied users, we have to improve project management and leadership, make decisions at the right time, and secure good cooperation with the base organization and the users. Other output factors are also significantly correlated with good leadership and management. We have also seen that better feedback to team members, better cooperation among team members, and better work processes significantly improve several of the output factors.

This study is unique in that it contains 128 descriptions of projects where indiviudals have described project management in their own words. The data are from 2 periods 8 years apart. However, the data have their limitations.

The data are collected only from Norwegian projects, which limits the generalizability of the results. Norway is a small and open society. In that sense, the project management philosophy may be rather close to mainstream European thinking and this may support generalization. On the other hand, “the Scandinavian model” for leadership puts more emphasis on trust, care, and concern as key values and may emphasize the personal part of leadership more strongly than the factual (Buus, 2004; Gustavsen, 2007). It would be of great interest to see X models for other countries.

Taking into account that we have holistic descriptions of projects, the number is impressive. However, they still represent a rather small number compared with all the projects conducted during a year. We are not able to see any biases in the kind of projects we have data on, but it is not a statistical stochastic sample. It would be of interest to sample more data and also register the sizes of the projects and the kinds of application the projects belong to. In that way, we could gain an even more convincing picture of the status of project management and how it is performed in different fields.

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Bio

Erling S. Andersen is a professor of project management at the Norwegian School of Management BI, Oslo, Norway. He has published several books and articles on information technology, systems development, project management and management in general. His book Goal Directed Project Management is in nine languages. His most recent book Project Management—An Organizational Perspective was published by Prentice-Hall in 2008. He has been a visiting professor to the University of Tokyo, Japan and to the Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has been Associate Dean for BI's China activities and is now Associate Dean for his school's Vietnam activities.

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© 2010 Project Management Institute

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