Archive for May, 2011

Making Projects Critical

In my blog today I’m going to do the slightly uncommon thing (for me at least) and share a book that I feel particularly deserves to be read widely.  The 2006 book titled ‘Making Projects Critical’ is edited by Damian Hodgson and Svetlana Cicmil, with chapter contributions from Peter Morris, Monica Lindgren & Johann Packendorff, and Janice Thomas, amongst others.  The book is in three parts starting with philosophical and conceptual arguments, and moving to studies with an empirical element, and finally to inter-organisational projects essays.


In Making Projects Critical, Hodgson and Cicmil bring together an extensive set of project management academics to look at project management through a critical lens drawing on a range of theoretical perspectives.  As a practitioner, reading the book may have the effect of knocking you off balance e.g. what you have come to know as true and you might find out its not!  Given this strong destabilizing effect, I commend the authors for including Peter Morris a mainstream project management author who in the final chapter brings the balance back to the text.  It can be easy to become convinced that the critical perspective is the right one, resulting in that we do little to actually improve practice.  Morris, unashamedly regards himself as managerial and brings balance by not losing what project management is all about. Its about being more successful.  Side note: nevertheless defining success is a tricky subject in its own right!


I’ve been practicing project management in various forms for many years, I obtained both Prince2 and PMI certifications very late and was largely forced to do so as the market place demanded it.  Over the years, like some of the authors in the book, I have become a little concerned how particularly those new to project management – naively think that by rigidly adopting project management, their projects will be automatically successful.  The number of people that I am referring to here is not only the project managers, but sponsors, and project team participants too.


From the moment I opened this book, I was captivated by the provoking stance looking into the actual reality of project i.e. are they real in the realist sense?; the privileged position of project management knowledge and the project manager; and the effects of the project management discourse, theory and practice on project outcomes and the people that participate.  This whole idea of bringing the Critical Management Studies to project management is wonderful and timely, for hopefully, a maturing field.


The PMI knowledge base called PMBOK is regarded as a collection of various tools and techniques that help the project manager be successful – its ‘kind of’ prescriptive – but I must say that the earlier versions (at least) always talked about picking the right mix of tools that make sense for your project.  When you add a Project Management Office (PMO) of the sort that solely exists as a kind of process and standards police (note there are plenty of great PMOs as learning communities of excellence) – I wonder have we gone to far?  A good friend of mine who has been around the block a few times and PMI Certified, suggested “For me – project management artifacts are often only window dressing, done at the end of the month”, and window dressing for the PMO police!  For him, at the heart of project success is about people and relationships.   Now, I’m not so sure I’d go as far as my friend – as the charter, scope statement, schedule, budget, risk profile, and management plan etc. are very good ways of helping reduce uncertainties and increase your chances of project ‘success’.  But, I’ll admit there is a balance – and again the tricky question – what is success?


As Sydow points out in one chapter, and others danced around the idea that there is an urgent need for more practitioner reflexivity – that is iterative learning, questioning, testing, and modifying theory and practice.  While the book is probably not targeted at practitioners due to an academic writing style, I would still recommend practitioners to take the plunge and take a fresh look at how one both practices, the effects of practice, and the effects of now very strong communities of practice like PMI, APM, OGC etc.  A book like this aides reflexivity.  Sometimes as practitioners we might be a bit naïve at times, and perhaps it is time to look to collaborate with academics for new ways of looking at old problems.  Let’s face it – projects still fail, and all too often quite publicly.


I would argue that the overwhelming majority of project management texts ‘out there’ are functionalist, prescriptive recipe books to help companies and project managers feel safe – so I welcome this fresh look project management.  I suggest that more practitioners and researchers question the underlying assumptions implicit in our practice and our discourse.


Making Projects Critical is provocative and a thought provoking text which I believe is a must read, and for me at least, it opens a wealth of research opportunities.


My MRes Research Design

With defending my research at a recent research colloquium, I seem to have reached some sort of saturation point i.e. I think it is time to start the actual research!  Its time to get on with it, well at least get the ethics approval negotiate access with my case study site.

Today for the first time, I’m going to share my research strategy publicly, and would love to hear from people via #phdchat on twitter, via email  or via blog comments.

So here goes people!

The working title of the research is –

“Manufacturing Identities?”:an exploration of project manager identity practices


Research Problem: Project Management’s predominantly ‘hard’ discourse is reducing its potential, and there is an emerging concern of this discourse and the project based organisation on project participant’s identities.

The aim of this research therefore is to:

  • Explore how identity practices such as Identity Regulation and Identity Work are employed within projects, project management, and by project managers.
  • To build research skills and gain research experience.
  • Add to Identity Literature, no specific project manager identity research found –  i.e. a “small gap” identified in the Literature.
  • Add to the Project Management Literature – “using new ideas and theories from Identity theories”

Initial Research questions i’m posing are in what ways do Project Management discourse, role, and projects shape their identity? (My interest in Identity Work), and in what ways are identity practices used by project managers use to get the project team to deliver? (My interest in Identity Regulation) and how are these practices received from project managers’ perspectives? (Again my interest in Identity Work)

Approach to Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology etc!

Ontology: Social Constructionist as identity work/regulation located within this tradition and I believe projects can be considered a socially constructed reality.

Epistemology: Interpretivist “…to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them.”  Clifford Geertz (1973: 24), Yanow’s Masterclass SBS 2010.  In essence I want to give voice to the Project Managers and their ‘stories’

Methodology: Single Site Case Study and Partial Ethnography

I think the case study option offers many benefits to the novice researcher although the disbenefits to the novice researcher that come from multi-method or mixed method approaches has not gone unnoticed.  The benefits:

  • help in placing a research boundary
  • protocol for methodological rigours
  • guidance in theory building
  • help in what constitutes acceptable quality
  • grants the researcher some freedom to embrace the relative strengths of ethnographic genres such as partial, self, or auto ethnography.

Methods: Qualitative Multi-Method design  

Interviews supported by participant observation, and documentary analysis.  These are a natural fit in Case Study research, I can hear their story, see them in action, and read their written accounts.  This will aid the establishing of context and the compare and contrast during analysis.

Case Boundary will be a single company with in-depth studies of 3 project managers, across 3 different project typologies manufacturing, services, and IT.

Unit of Analysis: Role of Project ManagersI would have liked to do participants also, yet this is only an exploratory pilot study at the MRes stage.


Data Collection:

Step 1: Informal Meet and Greet [No recording]

Step 2: Walking the floor – “Building trust” [note taking, post]

Step 3: “Get initial case data”

Observation of Project Team Meetings (3-6)

Obtain Project Meeting Documentation

Informal 30 Min Post Meeting Conversation [note taking]

Unstructured ‘Project Manager’ Story [recorded]

Step 4: Initial Analysis & Design of Semi-structured interview

Step 5: Perform Semi-structured interview [recorded]

Data Analysis:

This is less developed but I’m thinking about doing a combined “Grounded” and “Framework” analysis i.e. try them both an see what emerges from the data on its own, and looking at an established identity lens.


  •     Identity research – sensitive by nature
  •     Informed Consent: Interviews, Observation & Document
  •     Transcript confirmation
  •     Reflexivity: private diary, outside of work time
  •     Confidentiality – Yet to be agreed with company
  •     All Data to be held on password protected, encrypted disk
  •     Researcher and participant safety


While qualitative validity can be contestable e.g. “criteriology” debates, the principle in this research is to attempt for high quality through –

  •     Purposive sample i.e. 3 contrasting projects
  •     Case Study Framework including: triangulation, chain of evidence
  •     Transcript recorded verbatim and to be approved by project manager
  •     Rigorous data management using Nvivo
  •     Extended (semi) engagement in the field (as much as a working PM will allow)
  •     Researcher diary to be maintained
  •     Grounded analysis is being considered against Framework
  •     Secondary researcher to check coding and categories
  •     Transferability to other contexts via “thick” descriptions”?
  •     Hope of research that contains “project” managerial usefulness

My research plan – High level milestones:

  • Negotiate Access May-June
  • Submit Proposal and Ethics Documentation – end of June
  • Data Collection – July, August, September1. Some analysis (6 days observation, 6 interviews, and documentation)  
  • Data Analysis – October, November, December
  • Secondary Literature Review – “Ongoing”/January
  • Write Up – January, February, March
  • Submit April/May.


The planned outcome of this research is to have explored project manager’s identity work and identity regulation in the project environment, perhaps introduce identity theory to project management practice through publishing an article in a PM Journal, and finally and most importantly to position my future PhD research.

This topic will be of interest specifically to those involved in organisational studies, and theorists from subfields such as management, project management, and identity studies, not to forget Project Management Practitioners.

So what do you think about the design – can it answer the research questions?  I’d love to hear your feedback!  Leave me a comment :o)

Learning by doing…

Do you find find the brain a wonderful thing!  As a research student one can flounder about with a flood of conflicting concepts coming in and out of your consciousness and be in this constant state of confusion!  But every now and then these concepts just seem to fit into place and you get one of those ah ha moments.  For me when these neurons connect, more often than not, it happens after learning by doing or learning by association rather than reading alone.  I love to read, and sometimes things click, but when doing something well outside your normal mode of doing – learning just seems the faster option.

Here are two recent examples, first learning by association:

1. I had heard the term ‘research strategy’ banded about quite a lot recently, but I could not really seem to grasp its importance when compared to research- design, philosophy, methodology, and methods.

The penny dropped for me during a class in Glasgow when I ‘associated’ strategy in research terms to strategy in business terms.  Strategy in business can be viewed as a deliberate hierarchical process or as an emergent bottom up process, or both in determining what to do.  The outcome by following a strategy top down development processes in business is that you end up with a capital S strategy i.e. the what, the vision, mission, and objectives.  Following a bottom up development process you end up with the small s strategies on ‘how’ to move from the ‘as is’ situation to the ‘to be’ situation.

For research Strategy (big S) could be thought of as research aims, questions and objectives to solve a problem just as a business looks at a vision, mission and objectives to solve a problem or go in a new direction i.e. defining the ‘to be’.

Equally, the research strategy (small s) could be thought of as philosophical/methodological position, and design, as to how to achieve the research aims and objectives.  Methods form part of this also as the research strategies are used to achieve the overall research Strategy!  Confused yet?

In business there is often a natural tension between the external environment and the preference to have this prescribed top-down rational Strategy; up against the internal environment and the preference for issue based emergent bottom up strategies.  Could this be a similar pressure to have a complete research strategy that guides the whole research verse the emergent research strategy that messily evolves as we learn to be researchers and solve unexpected problems as we go along?  It seems to fit for me.

More importantly perhaps, as in business it is my view is that it is not necessary to side with either camp i.e. it can be both and probably will be both.  This realization leaves me with the understanding that yes, with my supervisors support the research problem is developed, and a deliberate research Strategy can be put in place, AND, with methodological learning and unexpected events, this will be supplemented with research strategies to get closer to answering those  important research questions!

In the end – what ever the direction – it is all about the what, where, and the how.  To use a project management phrase – a research strategy might be best thought of as big S strategy and little s strategies that are being progressively elaborated until you reach your destination.

2. The second example leaning by doing comes from a practical observation method exercise at the same class. I had read voraciously about observation from both case study and ethnographic perspectives, and initially thought this would take the primary stage in my research project, in particular to see if people do as people say they do, and to make the most of being a project manager practitioner exploring practice!  Nevertheless, I’m kind of surprised to say that after the actual experience of observing, recording observations, and analyzing my observations it will likely now be relegated to take a supporting role.  But why is this?

Some pertinent points came out immediately of the exercise.

  1. How can I see what people “think” in regards to their self-identity albeit I may be able to see the signs such as material items, or behaviors? I think unlike an observation exercise say in a coffee shop where you can see processes and people interfacing with people, objects and systems – mostly project managers and participants interface in a different manner e.g. meetings, coffee runs, and email.  I think that too much might be hidden from the observers eyes in this type of research.
  2. I’m required as a working project manager that I must deliver first and my priority must be here rather than to any note taking, or observations must be relegated to my free time.  Thinking that I can take detailed notes while simultaneously working might be quite unrealistic.
  3. While observation offers the potential of a ‘deep’ account, this training exercise proved to me that even with 6 researchers we were unable to uncover a ‘full’ picture anyhow.  So how deep is deep becomes the question?
  4. This exercise also entailed my using NVivo for the first time – and I’m going to have to give it a thumbs up!  It easily enabled me to transcribe my recorded notes, and read, re-read the transcript to extract insights from the experience.  While I only touched the surface on the software’s capabilities it quickly earned a place on my research team.


So these past few weeks many things have become clearer and my mind has made some wonderful connections.  I also have to thank my new supervisor – our conversations are helping also – but perhaps even conversing is an active form that accelerates learning!!


In the next blog I might just share with you my research Strategy and strategies!


Love to hear what you think of this slippery term…

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