Dynamic Projects: It’s All About Attitude

It’s All About Attitude

In the last few years, the expression “Dynamic Project Management” has inched ever closer to mainstream Project Management dialogue. But, as with virtually every other term within the diverse and eclectic world of Project Management, this expression has different meanings, depending on who is doing the talking … or listening. Until a universally-recognized authority unequivocally asserts what the expression means, it remains open to individual interpretation.

For me, I don’t see a three word term, but rather just an adjective (“dynamic”) in front of a fairly well understood two-word term, Project Management. And for me, it makes sense that Dynamic Project Management is an expression that simply labels a Project Management model that is designed to deal with dynamic Projects; that is, projects that have a dynamic aspect to them. Read this way, the pause is between “project” and “management,” as in “Dynamic Project” …. “Management – the management of projects that have dynamic attributes.

What Do We Mean by “Dynamic?”

So, that brings us to the fundamental, underlying question: what do we mean by the word “dynamic?” If you Google on Dynamic Project Management, among other explanations you will encounter the term, dynamism.  Professor Simon Collyer (University of Queensland) tightly associated the word “dynamic” with the word, “dynamism,” the latter of which he defines as “rapid change in the project environment.”  He goes on to say that, “rapidly changing environments are a newly recognized and increasing challenge in the field of project management. Traditional prescriptive approaches, orientated around process control, are considered suboptimal in meeting this challenge.”

For its part, ICS-Research has reached a similar appreciation for the unpredictable nature of projects, especially in the Construction Industry. In fact, it was this discovery that led ICS-Research to develop a new set of skills that, if honed in advance through study and repeated practice (rehearsal), would allow the Project Management Team to better respond to sudden changes in Project Ecology (the project’s “operational context”). They call this set of skills Improvisational Management.  So, it would seem, that Professor Collyer and ICS-Research are in agreement.

Yet, ICS-Research does not adopt the more limited interpretation of the term “dynamic,” as does Professor Collyer, that it must necessarily be “rapid” change. To be sure, in Construction, some of the more damaging or promising conditions evolve rather slowly over time. Often, they change slowly, just under the radar, and are not noticed until it is virtually too late to yield the most effective response.  Communication has a lot to do with this tendency, but that’s a topic for another blog.

ICS-Research adopts the Dictionary.com definition of the word, dynamic: “pertaining to or characterized by energy or effective action; vigorously active or forceful; energetic.”  The key element in dynamism is energy and force. For instance, “dynamism” is defined by the same source as, “any of various theories or philosophical systems that seek to explain phenomena of nature by the action of force.”

Cognitive Project Management Focuses on the Forces at Play

Cognitive Project Management is the Project Management model developed by ICS-Research specifically for the Construction Industry. The word “cognitive” was chosen, in no small part, to inspire cognizance of the dynamic nature of the typical construction project. ICS-Research contends that the essence of Construction Project Management is timely and effective response to constant changes in the operational context of the project.

Specifically, it identifies for primary objectives for Construction Project Management: Collaboration, Coordination, Cooperation, and Communication. All four involve, and must effectively respond to, the constant changing see of opportunities and challenges.

Note: For more about the Four C’s of Project Management, see “Collaboration, Coordination, Cooperation, and Communication,” a blog I wrote in July 2013.

Cognitive Project Management also asks us to appreciate that projects are performed by people, just as they are managed by people. This may seem too obvious to need mention, but more and more these days we see one Project Management “solution” after another emerge that seems to dismiss what ICS-Research calls “the human factor.” They treat the activities in the schedule as so many data points, and activity durations as lifeless numeric values keen for probability distribution curves.

Cognitive Project Management ideology insists that “everything on a project is human.” And we are constantly reminded to never forget that, at the end of the day, the work being performed, the workers being managed, the project being built, the Owners who occupy, the agencies that will oversee, the financiers who will fund, the companies that will staff, the technicians who will plot and plan … they are all humans. And, as such, each one of them comes to the project with human frailties, limitations, requirements, expectations, and aspirations.

So if we are to put our finger on the one central force that drives everything on a project, surely it must be the Human Factor.

The Human Factor Behind Those Consequential Actions

It is all too easy to confuse cause with effect. Return to the Internet and conduct your own research into what various authorities consider the elements of change on projects, and you will invariably find lists of effects, not causes. As just one example consider, from an advertisement for a seminar entitled “Managing Projects During Rapid Change” (http://scolly.blogspot.com), this explanation of the “causes of dynamism:”

Previous research suggested that the causes of change can be organized into three broad categories (Collyer & Warren, 2009): Change in materials, resources, tools, and techniques; Changing relationships with other related projects, services, or products; and Changing goals due to changes in what is possible, changes in competition, or changes in the general business environment, such as government policy.

I respectfully suggest that while these may be causes of downstream consequences, they are also effects of the Human Factor, at play. Materials don’t change by themselves.  Someone decides to change a material selection. Or someone decides to change the production schedule for a needed piece of equipment. Someone forgets to order an important component part of a piece being manufactured. Likewise, “relationships with other related projects” are defined and sustained or changed … by humans.  The same is true of “changing goals,” reflective of changing priorities or underlying conditions.

And so, if we are ever to get a grip on managing change on Construction Projects we must learn what causes those changes in the first place, and then find ways to influence those causative opportunities. And  if ICS-Researchis right, then the core, central force that energizes the multitude of changes – that gives Projects their dynamic nature – is the Human Factor.

Can We Characterize the Human Factor?

But if the most essential quality of all humans is that we are individually unique, then is it even possible to craft a tight and useful description of the Human Factor?  I think we can. After all, all of modern medicine is based on the premise that, while every human being is unique, we all share sufficiently common attributes that we can be assisted and aided through structured processes. Not only is this true in the physical disciplines of medicine, but even in the fields of psychology and psychiatry … where our individualism is most at play.

I happen to like that old expression, “willing and able.” To me, that says it all. For every member of the Project Team, two questions need to be asked in anticipation of their effective performance of a given task: Are they willing? Are they able? That’s it – in a nutshell!

ABILITY: Do they have the wherewithal to perform the task (ability)? Have they been trained? Do they have the tools? Do they have the opportunity (e.g., access to site)? Do they have the information?  You get what I mean: is there anything prohibiting them from performing the assigned work? As an aside, Cognitive Project Management has developed a five-point litmus test to ascertain whether any given activity in the Project Schedule is able to be performed.  It follows the acronym SMILE:

  • Situs:  Does the performer of the activity have unfettered access to the location where the work will take place? Are other trades out of the way? Are entrances and exits blocked or open? Is the area free of debris or other’s materials?
  • Materials: Does the performer have all of the materials needed to perform the work?
  • Information: Does the performer have all of the information needed to perform the work?
  • Labor: Is there sufficient (in quality and quality) labor to perform the scope of work of the activity?
  • Equipment: Does the performer have all of the equipment needed to perform the work?

WILLINGNESS: Is the performer willing to perform the work?  This, according to ICS-Research, is where the majority of project performance disappointments emanate from. It is far more often the case that the SMILE barriers to work performance ability are not the obstruction; willingness to perform is!

How Can We Affect Attitude?

This takes us to the heart of the Human Factor – attitude!  At the end of the day, it is the attitude of humans that have the greatest effect on both the causes of changes … and our response to those changes.

I have long argued that the Project Schedule, more than anything else, is a statement of Commitment.  At least, that’s what it should be. Don’t confuse this statement with the notion of the generally-accepted practice of securing “buy in” or a “sign off” of the Baseline Schedule. That’s not the same thing; that is not what I am talking about. Why do I say this?  Because it still comes down to what the parties think they are signing off on: a theoretical plan, or a solid commitment.

Imagine a Planning Committee for a local municipality, locked in a meeting room and working devotedly for weeks on end to craft a Budget for the next year, or perhaps to craft a Five-Year Fiscal Plan.  Either way, the end product is a set of goals. Whether they will be reached, or not, will be found out as the years unfold. This is an example of a “theoretical plan.”

Contrast that with commanders in a battle, leaning over hastily-drawn plans crudely sketched in the dirt with their fingers. “I’ll go west two miles and come up from the south. Give me four hours, and then you strike from the north.”  This is more than a theoretical plan. This is a commitment, as the success of the mission, and the lives of the warriors, depends on it.

Construction Project Schedules are comprised of activities that contain important information: descriptions of what will be done, and durations of how long it will take to do them. They also indicate when the work will be performed and whether others will be in the vicinity, and/or impacted.  When the parties to a Baseline Schedule sign off on it, they are looking one another in the eye and saying, with their firm handshake, “I promise to perform my work … in the amount of time I have requested (duration), to the extent that I have agreed (description), and under the logistic conditions I have understood (logic).

If the parties making such a handshake promise include the Owner (and its agents), the Design Professionals (architects, engineers), the suppliers, the subcontractors, the financiers, AND the General Contractor – then the amount of change afflicting the project will be far less than if the attitude toward the Project Schedule is that it is just a Prediction Tool.

Attitude Affects Everything

Let’s consider the actions of the individual worker. For instance, a painter who is painting a wall. Before he begins does he survey his materials and tools and equipment to make certain that he has everything he needs to perform his work? Does he properly mix the paint? Are his brushes in good condition? Has he checked to conform that the area to be painted is ready to be painted?

Is his mind on his work, or is he thinking about a fight he had with his son this morning?  Is he worried about that funny noise his car is making? Is he upset with the crew foreman? Is the arthritis in his elbows especially bad this morning? Is the blaring radio of a nearby electrician particularly annoying this morning? And more long-term, is he worried about the project winding down? Does he have any personal motivation to work quickly, for the sooner he finishes the sooner he is out of a job!

The point I am making is that, at the end of the day, what motivates an individual worker to work efficiently, timely, smartly, and meet his commitments is … the individual’s attitude. That’s the Human Factor, alive and well.

And how does (or should) Project Management deal with this Human Factor? Dominant Project Management advocates the use of “controls,” to force workers to perform a certain way. They employ Cost Controls, Schedule Controls, Quality Controls, Safety Controls … even over-arching Project Controls. But do they work?

The Performing Entity Has Its Own Will

Well, if you were paying close attention to that last paragraph you spotted the word “force” showing up. You see, when Project Management exerts its will into the mix, it creates a new dynamic force, one that now competes with the inherent forces already at play within the performing entity.

The “performing entity” is more than just the individual, human worker. It is also, and to a practical extent primarily, the organization that employs the individual. So, in our example, the painting subcontractor is the performing entity. And every subcontractor comes to the project with its own needs and expectations. More often than not, the goals of the performing entity differ (and quite often are in conflict with) the goals of the project – as seen through the eyes of the other performing entities (including the Owner).

Thus, there is inherent conflict of goals that the General Contractor’s Project Management Team must somehow deal with.  And as for that individual worker who, as we already saw, has a flood of emotions and thoughts influencing his particular will to perform … he also has to keep his employer happy. And so, he necessarily becomes an agent for his employer. Through a phenomenon called Group Think, he adopts the will of his employer. And if he is lucky, he finds a way to reconcile his personal will with his employer’s will. There is usually not enough leeway for him to also incorporate the will of the Project Management Team.

Dynamism is All About Willingness and Ability

And so, I have to respectfully challenge the notion that dynamism is about rapid change. I think it is about change alright … but about the attitudes that are the central catalysts for that change. And if I am right, then the most successful Project Management approaches will be the ones to better understand the Human Factor.

In recent decades, we have made tremendous progress along the Ability track. We have championed and perfected resource planning, cost planning, procurement planning, risk management, and change planning. But we have virtually ignored the Human Factor. To the contrary, we have actually chosen to treat humans as inanimate components of the project process.

That is why I cringe each time a new technology emerges that treats human actions as just so many coin tosses or rolls of the dice, that think that Project Schedules can be rendered more credible through more iterations of a Monte Carlo analysis, or made more stable through activity buffers and time contingencies.

It’s all about attitude. (And, right now, the prevailing Project Management attitude is that humans can be “controlled.”)

3 Responses to Dynamic Projects: It’s All About Attitude

  1. Sue Backiel says:

    In my opinion the human factor is the most important part of any project and also the most volatile.

    I often wonder how many good people companies are excluding by using Applicant Tracking Systems. While these systems are useful in weeding out potential candidates who do not have the desired experience or qualifications, they may also be excluding individuals who have positive attitudes, determination, a strong work ethic, willingness to learn and core values that coincide with the companies values.

    Too often, companies hire individuals based on knowledge and not what drives the individual. I think that is a mistake.

    As an employer, I would prefer to hire someone who has a strong work ethic, positive attitude, willingness to learn and enthusiasm but may not have all the experience needed, then hire someone who looks good on paper. I can train people how to do a particular job. What is more difficult to teach is positivity, honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm, etc.

    We’ve all had co-workers that seem to suck the air out of a room. Just being around them puts you in a bad mood and they can impact your productivity the rest of your day.

    Attitude and disposition are just as important as knowledge, especially when we are talking about team leaders. A positive outlook and strong work ethic are valuable assets that I think are often overlooked in the workplace.

    The human factor is pivotal to the success of any project.

  2. Michael Neal says:

    [C] There are numerous books and articles written on attitude and energy, motivation is the key. must find what motivates each individual person or group to get their attitude where it needs to be then production and quality increase. My eyes have seen how negative vibes from project managers can just demoralize personnel.

  3. Connie Bremer says:

    A lot to think about in this blog, very interesting. I completely agree that dynamism doesn’t necessarily include rapid change, as stated, changes on a project are quite often slow occurring. Also discussed was forces at play and the human factor. Barring a changing event through mother nature, I can’t think of too many instances of change that might be effects of other than the human factor. I do find it amazing that considering attitude has not been further explored in analyzing why so many projects come in late and/or over budget. There are just so many dynamics to consider just from this aspect of project management alone. This aspect I believe is definitely the core where just about all results emanate from. Like tossing a pebble into a pond and observing the echoing rings that surround right where the pebble entered the water, you too could visualize the same type of effects revolving around the human factor and their attitudes. This aspect would probably be its own study and science, but nonetheless, the core of success or failure. But this aspect holds true in pretty much any and all industries. Maybe even more so in our current economic situation. Again, very interesting read for me.

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