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Project Society in the Making

 

SERIES ARTICLE

Managing and Working in Project Society

By Rolf A. Lundin and Tim Brady

Sweden and UK

 



Writers have been heralding the coming of the project age for many years.  As long ago as the late 1950s Paul Gaddis’s book was extolling the virtues of a new type of manager – the Project Manager – whose business is to create a product – a piece of advanced-technology hardware. (Gaddis, 1959). Unlike so-called conventional managers in corporations at the time the project manager had to manage a higher proportion of professionals from the working level up through his subordinate managers. Gaddis points out that “crisis, uncertainty and suspense” are continual elements of project life.  He also says that the role of the project manager will be vital for the US to regain technological leadership.

The adhocracy movement

But while he was advocating the rise of a new type of manager, Gaddis was not forecasting a change in the nature of organisations away from monolithic enduring permanent organisations towards a more temporary form.  Indeed, the environment in which Gaddis was describing the rise of project managers was relatively stable – there was technological change but nothing like the rapid environmental changes that came to the fore in subsequent years.  It was Toffler (1970) who suggested that “(e)ach age produces a form of organization appropriate to its own tempo” (p.143). He acknowledged the existence of project groups as temporary forms by pointing out that there was nothing new about the idea of assembling a group to work towards the solution of a specific problem, then dismantling it when the task is completed. In his view however, what was new at the time of his book was the prevalence of such groups and “the frequency with which organizations must resort to such temporary arrangements.  He suggested the “seemingly permanent structures of many large organizations. . . are now heavily infiltrated with these transient cells.” (p.134). The use of the word ‘infiltrate’ by Toffler about these new forms was interesting in itself, suggesting some kind of surreptitious, almost covert activity in the face of resistance from the extant organizations. It was if the large hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations of industrial society were fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitable march of something new: adhocracy.

In describing the characteristics of what he called ‘super-industrial society’, Toffler was strongly influenced by the work of Warren Bennis who he quotes as suggesting that “(t)he key word will be ‘temporary’; there will be adaptive, rapidly changing temporary systems.” Problems will be solved by task forces composed of “relative strangers who represent a set of diverse professional skills.” (p.144). In Toffler’s vision of the brave new world, “rather than being trapped in a mindless bureaucratic machine, man will find himself liberated, a stranger in a world of kinetic organizations.” (Toffler, 1970 p.125).  In this world of adhocracy rather than permanence there would be transience – high mobility between organizations, never-ending reorganizations within them, and a constant generation and decay of temporary work groupings.  Toffler was at pains to impress on the reader that that “the rise of ad hoc organization is a direct effect of the speed-up of change in society as a whole” (p.135).

But there is not too much evidence that this world of kinetic organizations emerged quickly.  Rather, we find that there has been as gradual transition over the next 40 years or more as the traditional institutions continued to resist revolutionary change, with periodic announcements of the coming of the new age in which projects and temporary forms of organization will become dominant. If we fast-forward over 35 years from Gaddis’s book and 25 years from Toffler book we find researchers suggesting that projects and project management were becoming “the wave of the future in global business’ and that project management might replace traditional functional management as the key to competitive advantage in the 21st century” (Pinto and Kharbanda, 1995). Again, in the 1990s, we find a short book appearing with the title ‘Adhocracy’ extolling the virtues of  “the most common, sturdy, and visible ad hoc form: the project team, or task force” (Waterman, 1992; p.17). Waterman acknowledges the works of Bennis and Toffler but suggests that exactly how to create and manage these ad hoc forms was never fleshed out and applied to the real world of business. Waterman bemoans the trend of businesses employing consultants at huge expense to supply ad hoc teams to work on projects that could and probably should be handled by their own internal managers and employees. His book is filled with stories about successful implementation of ad hoc teams in a variety of settings including life insurance, computer firms, real estate developers, clothes manufacturers, sports teams, oil companies.  The message is clear.  If you want to be successful in today’s (i.e. the 1990s) environment, you need to learn how to manage adhocracy.

Waterman was one of the co-authors of the best-selling management book In Search of Excellence.  His co-author, Tom Peters, was also writing about the rise of projects in a series of ‘how-to’ books which were published at the end of the 1990s – The Project50: Fifty Ways to Transform Every “Task” into a Project That Matters! and The Professional Service Firm 50: Fifty Ways to Transform Your “Department” into a Professional Service Firm Whose Trademarks are Passion and Innovation!  According to Peters, “in the new economy, all work is project work”, and he urges individuals to become project gurus and turn their functional departments into fully-fledged professional service firms.  Again, the language is interesting. He suggests that it is ‘cool’ to be seen to work in this way. According to Peters, “(t)he cool professional service firm is just that: cool talent, a portfolio of cool projects, cool clients. Period. Its only asset—literally—is brains. Its only product is projects. Its only aim is truly memorable client service.” So, shifting towards project forms of organization in which internal teams deliver services to other parts of the organization is something to be encouraged as it’s fashionable, hip and cool.

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Editor’s note: This is article is one in a series based on the book Managing and Working in Project Society by Rolf A. Lundin, Niklas Arvidsson, Tim Brady, Eskil Ekstedt, Christophe Midler and Jörg Sydow, published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.  The book won the PMI David I. Cleland Project Management Literature Award in 2016.

How to cite this article: Lundin, R. and Brady, T. (2018). Project Society in the Making, PM World Journal, Vol. VII, Issue XII (December). Available online at https://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/pmwj77-Dec2018-Brady-Lundin-Project-Society-in-the-Making.pdf



About the Authors


Tim Brady

University of Brighton
United Kingdom

 


Tim Brady
is Professor of Innovation in the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at Brighton Business School, University of Brighton. His current research interests include the management of complex projects and programmes and learning and capability development in project-based business. He is a leader of Theme E (Knowledge Management and Capabilities) in Project X, an initiative aiming to improve performance of UK public sector projects and was a member of the EPSRC-funded Rethinking Project Management network, and Deputy Director of the ESRC-funded CoPS Innovation Centre. His research has been published widely in academic management journals.

 


Rolf Lundin, PhD

Jönköping International Business School
Jönköping, Sweden

 

 

Rolf A Lundin is a professor (em.) of Business Administration at the Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) and a Courtesy Professor-in-Residence at the Umeå School of Business and Economics (USBE).  He received his PhD in 1973 at the University of Chicago (now the Booth Business School) in Management Science.  He has been a full professor since 1978, first at the business school of the University of Umeå (in northern Sweden), where he was also the founding dean of that school.  In 2001 he was recruited to dean JIBS.  He stepped down as dean in 2007.  Since then he has been affiliated with the Media Management and Transformation Center.  He has several publications in the management of projects and temporary organization area and is currently serving on the board for the PMI Global Accreditation Center which is working with accreditation of project management educational programs around the world.  His current research focus is on the use of projects in media industries.  Rolf is active in the Swedish Project Academy. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Brady and Lundin are co-authors of Managing and Working in Project Society: Institutional Challenges of Temporary Organizations, published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press and winning the 2016 PMI Book of the Year award.

To view other works by Prof Lundin, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/rolf-a-lundin/