Project management research

experiences and perspectives

David Wilemon, Director, Innovation Management Program, School of Management, Syracuse University

The purpose of this paper is to share one researcher's perspectives and experiences on project management research. The paper begins by identifying some of the early issues examined and how these studies helped identify and explain some of the underlying managerial and theoretical foundations of project management. The paper also discusses four areas of research currently under way, which should add to the growing knowledge base in project management and help those charged with managing today's complex projects.

Project management became part of my life in the late 1960s when I was asked to join a multidisciplinary team to study NASA‘s Apollo Program (Moon Landing Program). James Webb, the administrator of NASA at that time, believed that NASA was doing something remarkable and worthy of scholarly research attention. Syracuse University, MIT, and Northwestern University, among other universities, were invited to participate and “use NASA as a living laboratory.” I was asked to join the, “Management of the Apollo Program,” study team at Syracuse University, consisting of three aerospace and mechanical engineers, a sociologist, a political scientist, and two researchers from our school of management. For the next four years we studied NASA‘s project management system extensively, e.g., NASA‘s Headquarters in Washington; D.C., Houston (spacecrafts and the Lunar Excursion Module Program (LEM Program)); Huntsville (engine/rocket programs); Cape Kennedy (launch programs); and several supporting contractors, e.g., Boeing, McDonald-Douglas, Rocketdyne, IBM, North American Rockwell, etc. My specific responsibility was to study the role of the NASA project manager.

Some of the major highlights resulting from our work on NASA‘s Manned Spaceflight Program follow (Syracuse University/NASA Research Program 1973(A) and (B)):

• NASA project managers faced major challenges garnering support for their projects. Many of the experts who could contribute to specific projects were often located in other functional groups as well as in the companies (the contractors) who supported NASA. Project participants often had to deal with conflicting agendas, priorities, multiple bosses, political agendas, etc.

• Intense conflicts often occurred over schedules, priorities, administrative procedures, budgets, and technological choices. NASA project managers often spent considerable time negotiating with people and organizations beyond their project teams.

• Team performance and dynamics varied greatly.

• Project control systems were often crude and labor-intensive.

• Problems were often required to be resolved in “real-time.”

• There was a massive amount of experimentation and learning involved in each major project.

• The concurrent management of multiple projects was, perhaps, the major managerial challenge.

This initial experience in studying one of the most complex programs ever undertaken helped provide this author with a foundation and the desire to research a number of issues associated with the field of project management. During the next several years we, and many other researchers around the world, continued our efforts to add to the emerging project management knowledge base.

Contemporary Project Management Research Issues

Using these earlier experiences as a platform, we have continually reinvented our research agenda and are currently focusing on four areas, which will be briefly explored in this paper, and our results to date examined. These research areas include, project team performance assessment, project partnering, stress in project management, and project team member experiences. The context and setting for each research area discussed are new product development project teams.

Project Team Performance Assessment

Managing project performance has traditionally focused on how well a team met its intended objectives, e.g., cost, schedule, and performance targets. While much work has been conducted on these traditional performance appraisal methods, there are many opportunities to assess a project's performance during the project as well as at its completion (Lynn & Reilly, 2000). While there are several instruments that can help evaluate project performance, a fairly comprehensive assessment approach is discussed in Project Skills (Elbeik & Thomas, 1998). A similar instrument can be found in Project Leadership (Brier, Geddes, & Hastings, 1990). Elbeik and Thomas have devised an instrument that measures how well project managers perform in six areas:

1. Managing Senior Management Expectations and Meeting the Business Needs of the Project

2. Managing Stakeholder Relationships

3. Managing Progress and Reviewing Achievements

4. Planning and Managing the Future

5. Managing the Project Team

6. Self-Management—Managing Individual Effectiveness.

Project leaders in completing this instrument respond to several items under each of the above groupings on a scale of: “Often,” “Sometimes,” and “Rarely.”

While the above self-analysis offers many supplemental advantages over many of the more traditional means of assessing project performance, there are important limitations of the Elbeick and Thomas Instrument. First, their instrument focuses primarily on the project leader and his or her activities. While such a focus is helpful, a more robust approach would involve all team members and all key functional interfaces that participate in the project. Second, the authors do not stress the importance of benchmarking a project's progress over time. Assessment of a project, for example, needs to be accomplished several times during a project. The scores can be posted on a project website or bulletin board and the results studied and corrective action taken as needed. Such data also can be useful in team development sessions. These periodic team assessments give a more dynamic, accurate assessment of capabilities and concerns (Lynn, 1998). The notion of multiple assessments during a project aligns well with the notion of continuous improvement programs. This is far better than when the evaluation comes at the end of a project when little corrective action can be taken. Third, there is little or no assessment of learning in the Elbeick and Thomas Instrument. Fourth, a critical factor in project success is how customers perceive the progress of a project team. It is suggested that customers and, in some cases, suppliers need to be involved in the ongoing assessment of project teams.

Another limitation of the Elbeik and Thomas Instrument is that the role of the project leader as “entrepreneur” is ignored. While some of the dimensions of this role may be implied in the Elbeick and Thomas Instrument, more emphasis is needed on how well the leader performs as entrepreneur and as business manager. Dimensions of this role might include how well the project leader is able to sell and build support for the project. Also, how well is the project leader able to garner and efficiently use scarce organizational resources? And, how effectively does the project leader use his or her capabilities to build future business opportunities with customers?

In using similar instruments in several in-company and public programs for project managers, we have observed that many project leaders may have two or three strong areas and lack capabilities in others. When asked if these strong areas are ones where they enjoy working, the response most often is “yes.” In a similar vein, project managers often will have two or three areas where they do not score well on the instrument. More often than not, the low-scores are in areas where project leaders feel less confidant and enjoy less. These insights can be important since project leaders can actually see how they “invest” their time and energy in their projects.

Research on Performance

The focus of our research is to improve upon existing instruments and methods in order that project managers and their teams can engage in continuous improvement activities. Our research approach involves a review of the literature on performance assessment; interviews with senior managers who manage project managers; and a field study of 50 project leaders and at least two to three members of their teams. The project leaders are all responsible for managing high-technology based projects, e.g., telecommunications equipment, medical devices, and electronic components. We are using a multiphase design as follows:

Phase 1—Review of Literature

Our first task is reviewing the literature and identifying the various metrics discussed in the literature to measure project performance (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Levi & Slem, 1995; Cordero, Farris, & DiTomaso, 1998; Elbeik & Thomas, 1998). In addition, we are reviewing the measures used in the commercially available project management assessment tools. We are currently classifying and rank-ordering the various performance measures we identify from these sources.

Phase 2—Senior Management Interviews

Our second task is conducting interviews with 30 senior managers who manage, supervise, and/or sponsor project managers in the three industries previously noted. The purpose is to identify the metrics these managers actually use and the measures, which they see as potentially useful but which are not formally used. Based on these interviews we will develop a ranking of the actual and desired performance metrics used by these senior managers. In Phase 2 we are searching for “gaps” that may occur between actual and desired performance metrics.

Phase 3—Project Leader Interviews

This phase entails interviews with 50 project leaders and two or three members of their teams to identify how they perceive that they are actually evaluated and what type of assessment metrics would be most useful to them. As with the senior managers, we will obtain a ranking of performance metrics—actual and desired for team leaders and team members. We also will have project leaders, team members, and senior managers evaluate various commercially available team assessment instruments. In this phase we will examine how project leaders and their team members experience project evaluation process. What types of feedback appear helpful? What forms of feedback are not helpful, even destructive?

Phase 4—Performance Assessment Instrument

Based on the results of Phase 1, 2, and 3 a performance assessment instrument will be developed that can be used to evaluate project leader performance, project team performance, and overall project performance. As noted, this instrument also will help various stakeholders assess and contribute to project performance at multiple points during a project.

Stress in Project Management

There has been considerable anecdotal evidence that project managers and their teams often experience high degrees of stress in carrying out their assignments. My colleague and I have been studying stress and its potential impact on project team members (Kim & Wilemon). Project-oriented stress is likely to increase in the future due to the emphasis on shorter project lifecycles, technological changes, rapidly changing customer demands, and increasing project complexity (Millson, Raj, & Wilemon 1992, Ivancevich & Matteson, 1980).

In our study of stress in project teams, we conducted an extensive review of the general literature on stress (see Driskell & Salas, 1996) and performed exploratory interviews with several project teams. In this process, we identified 15 potential stressors. We then had the members and project leaders of four different product development teams evaluate the stressors on a five-point scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree regarding the extent that each stressor caused stress for the respondent. Fifty-eight project team members and their leaders participated. What we found was that a “lack of clear objectives,” “poor communication among team members,” “schedule pressures,” “lack of information to perform adequately,” “poor intergroup cooperation,” “failure of others to perform,” “lack of resources to carry out tasks,” lack of senior management support,” “work overload,” “changes to the scope of the project,” “personality conflicts,” and “participation on multiple projects” were the stressors most commonly experienced.

While difficult to ascertain, we also wanted to know if and how stress affects performance. Using a five-point scale, which ranged from “a very great extent” to “not at all,” 69% of the project team members indicated that stress affected performance from “some” to “a very great extent.” When we probed how stress impacted performance, project members noted that high stress levels often affects concentration, decision-making performance, productivity, and that it can negatively impact interpersonal relations. Some respondents noted that stress also could lead to “burn-out,” “negative attitudes toward work,” and “nervousness.”

We also studied how the degree of stress experienced changes over a project's development cycle. We used a framework, which we have used in prior research projects, to denote a generalized project development life cycle (Thamhain & Wilemon, 1975). This framework defines a project as consisting of four phases namely, (1) Project Formation—the project is just getting started and the team is being assembled; (2) Build-Up—the project is under way and prototypes are often developed during this phase; (3) Main Phase—the majority of the work occurs here and much integration is required; and (4) Project Phaseout—the project comes to closure. We asked our respondents to identify the degree of stressed experienced in each of the four phases and give examples of typical stressors by project life-cycle phase. In the Formation Phase stressors included creating the plan for the project, team development issues, gaining goal and role clarity, dealing with incomplete and in some instances conflicting information, and lack of resources to carry out the project's requirements.

In the Build-Up Phase, we found that gaining team member cooperation was particularly stressful as was communicating with other groups and departments. Dealing with unanticipated problems and schedule pressures also were frequently mentioned stressors.

Lack of authority, resources, and management support were examples of major stressors in the Main Phase of projects. Several project team members noted that firefighting, crisis management, and keeping the project focused also were important stressors in this phase. In addition, attempts to maintain a team's energy and motivation also were found stressful in this phase.

The final stage, Project Phaseout, revealed several stressors. Performance concerns and doubts, for example, were frequently noted sources of stress. As expected, bringing closure to a difficult project, documentation, project performance assessments also were stressors.

Stress Research Questions

Based on our work and others’ research there are several questions about stress and its impact, which warrant further study (Jex & Boehr, 1991).

1. What role does stress play in project performance? Is stress a positive contributor to individual and team performance? When does stress become a barrier to performance?

2. Can measures be developed to assess a team member's tolerance for stress? If so, how can these measures benefit team members and their team? Would such a measure be useful in making project assignments?

3. How useful might periodic checks on stress levels be for project teams and their members?

4. Since many project teams devote considerable energy and time to team-building activities, how, if at all, does team building affect the capabilities of individuals and teams to deal with stress and its potential consequences?

5. Do different types of development projects influence the degree of stress experienced by team members? For example, do more complex projects (radical innovations, disruptive, or new venture projects) increase the stress team members’ experience (Bodenstein, Gerloff, & Quick, 1989)? How functional/dysfunctional is the stress experienced in these complex projects?

As noted, we suggest that the potential for project-related stress is likely to increase in the future (Driskell, 1996). As several recent articles have acknowledged this topic is too important for managers and organizations interested in maximizing project management performance to ignore (Cole 1998; Driskell, Salas, & Johnson, 1999).

Project Partnering/Alliances

While partnering has been practiced for many years, empirical work in new product development projects alliance management has been somewhat limited. We have recently begun a program to study the process of partnering in NPD. Usually, when two companies or two organizations partner an individual or a team will be charged with the responsibility of accomplishing the goals of the partnership. Our unit of analysis is the project team responsible for managing and maintaining the partnering relationship. When a project team is established to manage an alliance it offers the advantage of having a group with the expertise to solve problems as they develop during the life of a project.

Companies engage in partnering NPD projects and programs for a variety of reasons (Eisenhardt & Galunic, 2000). Some companies simply lack the resources to undertake a major development program. Examples of resources may include technological capabilities, financial, marketing, managerial, financial, or time. By engaging in a partnered NPD program companies can often:

• Become more agile

• Cut development time

• Develop synergies not otherwise available

• Save development funds

• Reduce capital costs, e.g., new plant equipment

• Build long-term relationships

• Manage complexity.

In an earlier study we identified a number of steps/phases that partnering companies often follow in creating and developing a relationship with another company (Millson, Raj, & Wilemon, 1996). We are using the framework in our current study on project partnering. These phases include:

Awareness Stage

Firms may realize that in order to develop a new product they require capabilities that they do not currently possess and it is too costly or takes too long to develop them. For example, a smaller high-technology company may have great technology yet it lacks access to the market. In another case, a technology-based company lacks the managerial and industry knowledge to successfully enter a new market. Another example is when a company has an idea but lacks the manufacturing and marketing capabilities to successfully commercialize the idea. The discovery of these missing capabilities and how a partner might help resolve the identified limitations occurs in the awareness stage. In addition, the types and characteristics of potential partners are considered.

Exploration Phase

Once limitations have been acknowledged and potential partners identified, the exploration phase begins. When each partner sees the potential benefits of cooperating together, scenarios are developed that help identify how each partner can “win” by establishing a productive relationship. As we noted in our earlier work, issues around expectations, alliance leadership, power, control, and reporting relationships are identified and discussed. Plans for executing the new product project are discussed even though these may be preliminary plans. In effect, they are “scenarios” of the new product development process envisioned by the allying partners. As the above issues are discussed and debated the level of trust between the parties is likely to increase. If not, it can be a harbinger of future problems. Also, perceptions of the risk involved in successfully accomplishing a new project usually declines as the communication between partners increases and trust builds (Millson, Raj, & Wilemon).

Commitment Phase

If the exploration phase proves satisfactory and clear potential mutual benefits arise from partnering, then the alliance enters the commitment phase. Here the actual day-today management of the alliance begins. The front-end investment makes “switching-costs” very high. This can be a major motivator in making the relationship work.

Research Issues

There are several research issues involved when two or more companies partner their development efforts. While some of these issues have been explored via various research projects, more systematic, holistic studies are needed. Our work is focusing on three industries, namely, telecommunications equipment, medical devices, and biotechnology. Companies in these industries often rely on partnering in order to develop new products and achieve their business objectives.

Our objective is to obtain a total of approximately 50 “sets of alliance partners” in the three industry grouping. We will primarily focus on the project team responsible for managing the partnership. In some cases there will be more than the simple model of a partnership between two companies since complex development projects may require several partners. Our goal is to interview a minimum of 15 sets of partners in each of the three industries. Examples of the types of questions we will use in our interview follows:

1. What leadership challenges occur as two different project teams attempt to coordinate their development efforts?

2. What senior management actions are most helpful in supporting partnered projects?

3. What issues are likely to arise when two organizations of unequal size work together in accomplishing a development project?

4. What issues arise in sharing core competencies?

5. What communication challenges develop when allying project teams carry out their work?

6. What issues are encountered when the two allying project teams attempt to achieve a common vision for the project?

7. What conflicts are likely to occur between allying project teams? What resolution approaches do participants find most constructive?

8. What role does trust play in project performance and in the quality of teamwork?

9. What “processes” appear especially helpful in accomplishing joint development projects?

10. What problems are encountered when computer technology (IT systems) are integrated to help manage partnered projects? What, if any, are the legal implications of linked IT systems in the case of performance failures, accidents, etc.

11. What methods do partnering teams use to capture, store, and retrieve the learning that occurs during the project? How effective are these methods?

12. How are stakeholders involved in partnered projects? What issues are likely to occur in managing multiple stakeholders?

13. What processes are used to identify and manage risks in partnered projects?

Based our interview results a questionnaire will be developed and administered to focus on our most important findings. The aim of our research on partnering projects is to shed new light on how this process can be conducted more efficiently and effectively. All indications are that we are likely to see even more partnering in the future. The teams that manage these relationships are important to partnering success.

Project Team Member Experiences

A review of the literature on project management reveals that many of the studies that have focused on the human aspects of project management (Barczak & Wilemon, 1992) reveal a focus on project leader behaviors, e.g., project leadership effectiveness, conflict management, performance outcomes, communication, and team building. Such a focus is clearly important as project managers play such a pivotal role in the success of projects. The focus also has been fruitful in uncovering insights into the issues project leaders encounter in carrying out their assignments (Gemmill & Wilemon, 1994). A limit of the project leader centric approach is that project team members and their experiences have often been ignored by researchers. The consequence is an incomplete perspective regarding what occurs within project teams. One project we have undertaken to look more closely into project team members involves a study of 71 team members in a variety of technology-based organizations (Barczak & Wilemon, 1999). Using an interview protocol we interviewed team members about their experiences as members of product development project teams. The interviewees represented a variety of functions and had been with their companies for an average of 10 years. The average length of the NPD project was 1.8 years. We used a qualitative research approach and used a semi-structured protocol. This allowed us to probe the responses of the project team members. Two individuals working independently coded the resulting themes from the interviews.

Positive Team Experiences

One of the areas we were interested in is how team members viewed “successful” and “unsuccessful” team experiences. In our interviews, we asked team members to respond on the basis of their overall experiences—not a single project or the latest project completed. We found that team members viewed “successful experiences” as largely derived from team characteristics. Team characteristics included having very clear project goals, clear roles and responsibilities, an appropriate skill mix within the team, and effective, undistorted communication. We also found that team members valued the learning and professional development opportunities and new learning opportunities offered by project assignments (Keller & Kedia, 1996). Such work gave them the opportunity to see the “big picture” versus a more narrow functional perspective, which often develops when working primarily in a functional area.

Team members also noted the importance of achieving specific project accomplishments. These team members wanted their project assignments to be meaningful in terms of accomplishing the goals of the project.

When we asked team members what contributed to their least successful project experiences, the perceived lack of support from senior management was noted. Others noted that senior management support for their projects often waned over time. This created a perception that the work they were performing was of limited value.We also found that a lack of clear goals was the second most important determinant to the organization of an unsuccessful experience. The third reason for an unsuccessful experience related to teamwork problems, e.g., having to work with people who did not have the experience or skills. Finally, the lack of teamwork contributed to an unsuccessful project experience.

Selection, Evaluation, and Reward Issues

We wanted to see how clear team members were regarding how they were selected, rewarded, and evaluated for their efforts. While some research has been conducted on these issues in various project team settings, it has been limited. We found that team members were clear in terms of how they were selected (approximately 90%). The method of selection, however, varied considerably. Some team members asked for their assignments; the project team leader selected others; some were assigned by their manager, while others were placed on teams by default.

While team members were generally clear on how and why they were selected/assigned to a project they were far less clear on how they were evaluated for their project work. In fact, while 44% were clear how they were evaluated and an almost equal number (41%) were unclear how their personal performance on the team was assessed. The remainder was clear on some aspects of their evaluation and unclear about other dimensions. Several team members expressed their lack of knowledge about evaluation processes at both the team and at the organizational level.

Regarding rewards, only 46% of our respondents were clear about how they were rewarded for their project performance. We found it interesting that 44% noted that, other than keeping their jobs, they received no special rewards for their project work.

Project Leader Effectiveness

We were particularly interested in determining how project team members viewed their project leaders. What are the qualities of an effective team leader from the perspective of a team member? We found several factors that team members experienced with regards to their leaders. First, nearly 58% noted that “team management skills” were the most important quality of an effective project leader. Our probes into this issue revealed that project leader activities such as motivating, coaching, and leading were the most important factors. Second, nearly 52% noted that the personal qualities of the team leader were especially important. Examples of personal qualities included motivated, easy to work with, and respected. The third quality found was the ability to manage the process/project (42%). The skills involved here included setting goals, assigning/negotiating roles, project planning, meeting management, dealing with stakeholders, and assessing performance.

Conflict Sources and Impacts

Many studies have been conducted on the sources of conflict in project-oriented work environments (Thamhain & Wilemon, 1975; Pelled & Alder, 1994). We found, however, that few specific studies that solely focused on how team members experienced conflicts, e.g., the sources and impacts. We found that nearly 54% of team members found that company policies, systems, and procedures were the major sources of conflict. These team members often noted that these were senior management issues and responsibilities and were beyond their control. Yet, their projects could be significantly influenced and impacted by these issues (Pinto, Pinto, & Prescott, 1993).

Interestingly, the second most important source of conflict noted by 48% of the interviewees centered around “teamwork issues.” Examples included interpersonal conflicts, communication breakdowns, personal agendas, and intergroup conflicts.

The third category of conflict noted by 32% of the team members focused on “task issues,” which created conflict and disagreements. Examples of task issues included changing project requirements, shifting priorities, and schedule slippage.

We found that these conflicts often had a negative impact on team members. Nearly 50% of the team members noted that conflicts affected them personally and in a dysfunctional manner, e.g., creating frustration, attitude problems, stress, and in some cases apathy.

Development Process Clarity

One of the most interesting findings in our study of project team members is that only about 42% were clear about how their company's new product development process functioned; 28% were unclear: and about 30% were both clear and unclear about their development processes (Barczak & Wilemon, 2000). Respondents noted that in some cases their company had an NPD process but it was not used, others noted that their company did not have a development process and, in some cases, the respondents noted that each new development team had to devise their own process. This is a surprising finding since so many companies invested in total quality management approaches (TQM), ISO Programs, and development acceleration programs in the 1990s (Cooper, 1996, 1999).

Development Process Effectiveness

We also found that only 50% of the team members believed that their process was effective while approximately 32% viewed their development process as ineffective. Effectiveness was defined as being useful and helpful to the project team. Regarding ineffective processes our interviewees often made such comments as, “our development process is too complex” “our development process is too outdated to be useful,” and “we don't emphasize processes in our development areas.”

Project Clarity Issues

We found that while 66% of the project team members were clear on the objectives for their development projects while another 34% were not clear or somewhat clear. Project clarity results from the efforts of the project leader to effectively articulate the goals of the project to all involved team members and stakeholders. Without a clear focus team members can become frustrated and demotivated. An important part of gaining project clarity is clearly articulating what customers want and what the project must achieve in order to fully satisfy the customer's requirements. In some cases, we found the customer intimately involved in a team's development efforts.

Team Member Research Issues

There are several research questions that have developed during this project that warrant additional study. Examples of these questions include:

1. What is the impact of project team experiences on team members’ perceptions of project work? For example, how does a “negative experience” shape one's view of project work, particularly in the early phases of one's career?

2. What “motivators” are particularly important for young, inexperienced team members? Which motivators are especially important for experienced, senior team members?

3. What mechanisms can project managers use to ensure proper skill-blending and generational blending within a team?

4. What is the impact of a project team's “internal culture” on a team's ability to work with other supporting functional groups, customers, and other stakeholders?

5. What can management do to ensure that all project participants are clear on team selection methods, evaluation procedures, rewards, and development processes?

Summary

It is estimated that approximately 75% of companies use cross-functional project teams in their new product development programs (Cooper & Kleinschmidt, 1994) and (Griffin, 1997). These teams clearly can have an important impact on cycle time and project performance (Gupta & Wilemon, 1990). The experiences of organizations in implementing these teams, however, have been mixed. Some organizations have created high-performing project teams with impressive development performance. Other organizations have found achieving authentic teamwork difficult at best. As one researcher noted, “teamwork collaborations are often tentative, fragile, threaten by confusion, stressful, conflictful, and skeptical” (Donnellon, 1992). It appears that we have more to learn about implementing successful project teams (Denison, Hart, & Kahn, 1996).

In summary, the purpose of this paper is to highlight some ongoing research areas that may prove helpful in further understanding the purpose and function of project management. As a field of study, project management continues to evolve. The research that has been conducted has strengthened the field. The challenges that project management faces in the future will be even more daunting as projects become more complex and increasingly sophisticated. Researchers can help by focusing on issues that help increase the effectiveness of project managers, their teams, and that can make their work lives more productive and satisfying. Conferences such as this are an excellent venue to share ideas and approaches that offer the potential increase project management effectiveness.

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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000

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