On the importance of context


Why situational awareness remains an essential focus

Advances in Project Management

By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire

United Kingdom

 Context plays a principal part in the processes required for solving problems, managing and making decisions.

Starting with context

Influential architect and design theorist, Christopher Alexander, featured in our most recent column, considered design as an activity made of two symmetrical parts, the form and the context [Alexander, 1964]. The form refers to the solution to the problem which is being constructed by the designer, while the context is the domain – the setting which defines the problem. The ‘search for fitness’ between the two parts is the essential balancing process.

Fitness is a relation of mutual acceptability between these two. In a problem of design we want to satisfy the mutual demands which the two make on one another. We want to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence. … Adaptation is a mutual phenomenon referring to the context’s adaptation to the form as much as the form’s adaptation to its context.” [ibid. p. 19]

Finding a good fit can be achieved through the neutralisation of misfits, the incongruities, irritants and forces which cause clashes that stand out and violate fitness. The design problem can thus be described as an effort to achieve fitness between the form and its context.

“In the case of a real design problem, even our conviction that there is a fit to be achieved is curiously flimsy and insubstantial. We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed, and a context which we cannot properly describe” [ibid.. p. 26]

The only reason we have for thinking that there must be some kind of fit to be achieved between them is that we can detect incongruities, or negative instances of it. The incongruities in an ensemble are the primary data of experience. If we agree to treat fit as the absence of misfits, and to use a list of those potential misfits which are most likely to occur as our criterion for fit, our theory will at least have the same nature as our intuitive conviction that there is a problem to be solved” [ibid., p. 26-7].

Context can therefore be said to be essential to the framing and problem solving practiced within the realms of architecture and design.

Other domains also tend to look beyond the objective and question additional aspects related to a problem and the given situation.

The person and the situation

One of the most recognised landmark studies in psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was devised to evaluate the impact of perceived power and position. The experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971, investigated the psychology of imprisonment. Volunteer participants were arrested in their homes by the local police department and ‘charged’ with armed robbery. Prisoners were booked by the police, strip-searched and issued with a new identity before being transported from the police station to mock prison cells in the university basement.

The mock prison was operated by other volunteers acting as guards. 12 of the 24 participants were assigned the role of guards, while the other 12 were assigned the role of prisoners. Guards were provided with suitable accessories including batons and sunglasses. The intention was to conduct a two-week prison simulation. But the environment, and context, in which the experiment was conducted, had an enormous impact on participants, beyond the expectations of the experiment designers.


To read entire article, click here


Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in the UK and now by Routledge.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  To learn more about the book series, go to https://www.routledge.com/Advances-in-Project-Management/book-series/APM. Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 



About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire, UK

UK small flag 2


Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SFHEA is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.  Professor Dalcher has written over 150 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Software Process Improvement and Practice, an international journal focusing on capability, maturity, growth and improvement. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Gower Publishing of a new companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond.  He is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board.  Prof Dalcher is an academic editorial advisor for the PM World Journal.  He can be contacted at [email protected].

To see other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.