Exercising Agency – Making a Difference in How Projects Are Initiated


Advances in Project Management Series

by Mark E. Mullaly, PhD, PMP

Ontario, Canada

Defining Agency

The words we use to describe concepts are incredibly important. Our word choices shape not just the meaning we intend to convey, but also the manner in which that meaning is interpreted by the recipient. Using a term like “agency” represents a very specific and nuanced concept about how people interact within their organizations. The word has a number of potential meanings, however, so being clear about the intent underlying how it is being used becomes fairly essential.

For the most part, when we hear the term “agency” we think of someone who does something for somebody else. The most common use in our everyday lives is a firm that provides services to other organizations or individuals, for example an “advertising agency”, a “placement agency” or a “real estate agency.” In legal contexts, agents act for us, as our representative, and are expected to negotiate the best agreement possible for us in representing our interests. In a legal context, we are the “principal” and they are the “agent.” The principal-agent relationship extends the power of the principal to the agent, where commitments made by the agent are binding on the principal. This idea of principal and agent is also the essence of “agency theory,” which has been the basis of a lot of research in organizational development and operations. Agency theory explores what is referred to as the “principal-agent problem”, in which the principal and agent, while in a relationship with each other, also have their own interests that they are also pursuing. All of these represent different variations and nuances of how agency emerges in different contexts.

The meaning of “agency” employed within Exercising Agency, however, is slightly different yet again. The term comes from philosophy and sociology, and expresses some important concepts about freedom, will and self-determination. In this context, the focus on agency is less on doing something for someone else (although this can be a factor) so much as understanding the degree to which individuals have the capacity to act independently and make their own free choices. Someone who can be said to act with agency is someone whose actions are self-motivated and directed, rather than being subject to constraint. These constraints could be imposed by others, or by the processes and structures of the organization they work within.

The Project Shaper Role

In the context of the book, Exercising Agency: Decision Making and Project Initiation the agency being exercised is that of the project shaper, the person charged with championing the initiation of a project. This is a role that was originally hypothesized by Mark Winter and Charles Smith, and one that was expanded on in the research represented in the book. In all of the organizations studied, the idea of project shaper was one that was universally present, at least informally. How this role was performed, however, varied considerably, and this is the focus of the book.

For some organizations, the role of project shaper was almost entirely constrained by the processes that existed the organization. In these instances the actions and requirements of the process determined which projects got initiated, and how this occurred. In other organizations, political forces within the organization strongly shaped the project initiation process. In these instances, the actions—and the agency—of the project shaper were largely constrained by the political influence and actions (or neglect) of others.

In a few organizations, however, the most significant influence on decision making effectiveness was the degree to which the person performing the project shaper role acted autonomously, making their own choices and taking their own actions. In other words, effectiveness was a product of the agency of the individual. It was a product of their being willing (and able) to freely act, to set their course and make their own choices about how to guide the project from idea to initiation. The ability to do so was less about the structure of the organization, and more about their abilities and capacity as an individual.

It is this idea of agency that proved the most important and essential concept in the research that led to the book. It was a key determinant in how project initiation decisions were made in a significant number of organizations, but varied in how it was applied. For some participants, agency was the sole influence decision making effectiveness. For others, the exercising of agency was able to compensate for inadequacies and political constraints and challenges within their organizations. And in the rare instances where there actually was effective process in place, agency was constrained as participants voluntarily gave up their capacity to act independently in favour of a consistent, uniform and valued approach.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in UK and now by Routledge. Information about the series can be found at https://www.routledge.com/Advances-in-Project-Management/book-series/APM


About the Author

Mark Mullaly

Ontario, Canada


Mark Mullaly
is a well-respected facilitator, speaker, consultant and researcher – one of the foremost experts in organizational project management in North America. Recently Mark was co-lead investigator of the research project ‘Understanding The Value Of Project Management’ – sponsored in part by PMI, this was the largest research to date in the field of project management and has provided valuable insight into how project management delivers value to organizations.

Mark is a senior management consultant with over 25 years of experience in an wide range of industries, including information technology, communications, utilities, oil & gas, engineering, construction, finance, insurance, the arts and research & development. Mark works with private and public sector organizations, teams and individuals around the world to develop effective strategic plans, make effective strategic decisions and solve complex and uncertain problems.

To learn more about Mark’s work, visit http://markmullaly.com/

To learn more about his book, Exercising Agency, click here.