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A Futures-orientated Approach to the Management of Projects - Marisa Silva - Wellingtone PPM Intelligence
A Futures-oriented Approach to the Management of Projects

By Marisa Silva, Wellingtone

“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
Albert Einstein

Introduction

Project management has been conventionally conceived using a functional view, where a project is carried out with the purpose of creating or improving a specific product, service, or process, for which constraints are given to the Project Manager to manage (Morris, 1997). While this perspective is still the dominant approach, it has been strongly criticised as outdated and reductionist, since it focuses solely on the technical side of Project Management, neglecting the social and contextual dimensions in which projects exist (Cicmil et al., 2006; Morris, 1997).

As a response, Morris (1997) established the ‘management of projects’ paradigm, which entails a broader image of projects, where the author goes beyond the necessary yet simplistic goal-seeking view, whose focus is on the delivery of outputs on-time, on-budget, and according to specification, to emphasise the importance of (also) managing the project front-end rather than just the delivery phases, and providing value to the sponsor and lasting outcomes, rather than just a functioning output.

These two contrasting views remind us that there is no single way of seeing projects and reinforce the importance of being aware of different theories available for practice, since practitioners will have an underlying image of projects, even if not aware of it (Winter and Szczepanek, 2009). In this respect, Konstantinou and Muller (2016) argue that philosophies – foundational to theories – not just allow Practitioners to define their professional identity and standing, but also determine their way of perceiving and doing things, where their priorities are allocated, and which proposals and solutions are considered; in essence, the philosophy one adopts defines who one is or wants to be and influences one’s day to day actions.

Extending this construct to the realm of projects, to follow a philosophy is to hold a particular image of projects (Winter and Szczepanek, 2009), which will influence how the project is perceived, designed, and executed by the Project Manager.

Recognising that the theoretical grounds of project management are narrowed, Konstantinou and Muller (2016) claim however that there is a lack of options available on offer to Practitioners, which, in light of the interdisciplinary, time-critical and complex issues faced by society nowadays, makes this matter of serious relevance to the future of the project management profession. Hence, the authors call for new approaches that can redefine what project management practice can be, while at the same time able to deliver an impactful and practical change that could shape the future of the profession and allow us to respond to what Morris (2013) called ‘the age of relevance’.

What follows is a proposal of just that.

The Case for the Future

In project management literature, we are often alerted to the importance of documenting lessons learned for the sake of replicating what went well and not making the same mistakes in future projects, a practice which aligns to the ‘reflective practice’ theory proposed by Schön (1983). While the author recognises the criticality of reflecting on the past, this leave us to a management paradox: all our decisions are about the future, but all the knowledge in which we rely to make those decisions are about the past (Wilson, 2000).

This has led some authors (Conway, 2004; Mintzberg, 1994) to support that there is a fundamental flaw in current planning approaches, where the dominant outlook shows an over reliance in the past and remains focused on short-term thinking to the detriment of the “art of the long view” (Schwartz, 1991).

Examples of the consequences of this short-termism include the often cited examples of Kodak or Blockbuster, which let their core capabilities become their core rigidities (Leonard‐Barton, 1992) and, failing to envision how their business models could be dramatically disrupted by newer technologies, went bankrupt.

In fact, the prevailing practice in most organisations is still to define short-term targets and incentives and reward executives by the performance achieved in the previous quarter, thus promoting a vicious cycle where management is inwardly focused and neglects the signals of change outside the organisation, ultimately resulting in risky conducts, opportunities missed, and poor or misinformed decision-making.

It is now a commonplace to hear that change is the new normal and that we are living in a vulnerable, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. While this panorama certainly makes it more difficult for organisations to anticipate and cope with changes in their horizon, it also strengthens the need to develop capabilities of imagination, be comfortable with the unknown, and to consider how different versions of the future may impact the industry in which these organisations operate.

To that end, Hamel and Prahalad (1994: 120) maintain that “companies fail to create the future not because they fail to predict it, but because they fail to imagine it”.

In effect, the future is happening now. The Internet of Things promises to revolutionise how we interact with objects, driverless cars are currently being tested, the first 3-D ear was successfully printed earlier in 2016, and artificial intelligence and machine learning are said to become a reality not too far in time.

What can this mean to project-based organisations, and project professionals?

A Futures-oriented Approach

In order to answer these challenges and to escape the management myopia provoked by the short-termism involved in traditional project management approaches, the author argues that, just like we are asked to think ‘outside the box’ to develop innovative solutions to complex problems, Project Managers need to think outside the conventional iron triangle of project management and employ a long-term impact approach if they are to use the future to their benefit.

In fact, projects are by definition a projection of a desired future and represent a vehicle for the intended new state an organisation aims to be at, thus, since the notion of the future is implicit in the nature of projects, it is a surprise to note that this subject is scarce in project management main academic outlets (Silva, 2015) as an explicit phenomenon to be analysed and discussed in project settings.

Three current avenues of research that demonstrate the interplay between these concepts should be mentioned though: research on future preparedness (Shenhar and Dvir, 2001), the future-perfect-strategy (Pitsis et al., 2003), and research conducted on project early warning indicators (Nikander et al., 2001; Haji-Kazemi et al., 2013). While these streams, individually, provide a basis to advance a discussion on the role of the future in projects, the author claims that an integrative, solid approach is necessary to address how the future impacts and is impacted by projects – a futures-oriented approach.

The relation between the future and projects is a two-way street: while on one hand projects shape the future, on the other hand, how the future may unfold is critical to projects, as it may compromise or facilitate the attainment of the objectives of a project, aspects often captured by the risk management processes in place. However, the Author supports a wider view of projects, where the project does not end when delivered, but is rather perceived as a legacy to be managed, thus, also required an extended approach to risk and uncertainty (Brady et al., 2012), which goes beyond the short-term and assesses the impact of long-term futures on the project and its outcomes.

To do so, Foresight appears as a fundamental tool to equip project managers to deal with uncertainty (Silva, 2016). Conceived as a multidisciplinary and participatory field which aims to make sense of the future in a systematic way (Bell, 1996; Mendonça and Sapio, 2009), by analysing and interpreting the signals perceived in the environment and, through prospection, discussing the implications of possible futures, Foresight allows decision-makers to act in the present to take advantage or move away from these futures.

It is important to stress that this approach does not aim to predict the future, but to consider the future and how it may unfold while managing a project.

Focusing on the future and employing a long-term impact approach to the management of projects involves a radical shift in thinking, not to mention several implications in practice.

Adopting a future-thinking approach expand the time frames at stake and, as a result, strongly influences several practical aspects, starting from the selection of which projects to carry out, to the risk tolerance and risk appetite defined, or the approach followed in the management of innovation. Likewise, managing for the future can impact how requirements are captured, defined, and tested, as not just current business requirements and constraints are considered but also future ones, thus, where possible, flexibility is incorporated during project planning and design stages (Cairns, in Blyth and Worthington, 2010).

From here, also the triple constraint can be expanded and readjusted to position quality as more important than time or cost. Additionally, thinking long-term involves starting with the end in mind, leading to planning the project legacy in the front-end of the project (e.g. London Olympics 2012), and establishing the right mechanisms to ensure that benefits are realised and sustained, and that the project legacy is effectively managed.

Moreover, from a people’s viewpoint, to consider a long-range perspective means expanding individual planning horizons, daring them to think beyond the status quo and to imagine different paths, as well as uniting them around a strong project vision. By foreseeing and rehearsing alternatives of the future, project-based organisations can also become more agile, resilient, and future-prepared (Silva, 2016), enabling their ability to detect emerging changes and their readiness capabilities to respond to different scenarios.

While traditional approaches to project management consider a project to be successful when delivered on-time, on-budget, and against specifications, a futures-oriented approach takes a holistic and societal view of project success by considering an expanded time frame and the impact on multiple stakeholders, where value for many is more important than value for money and the realisation of the project benefits is more important than the mere delivery of the project’s outputs.

It is not unusual to find projects which are successfully delivered within the constraints defined by the project sponsor but then fail to realise the benefits that justified its initiation in the first place or, using a medical analogy, projects where, from a professional standpoint, the operation was a success but, unfortunately, the patient died in the end. A futures-oriented approach has the role of time at its core and, consequently, emphasises the importance of a patient who lives to tell the story.

From the previous point, once the future is considered, sustainability comes into play, requiring projects to apply sustainable practices during their design, operation, and disposal of products, and meaning that the way project managers select and work with suppliers and surrounding communities, or how the interests of different stakeholders are considered and balanced also needs to change. This view is aligned with the recent flourish of movements towards sustainable development in project management, which reasons that project professionals have a mission to fulfil, that is, to manage projects using sustainable principles in order to allow current needs to be met without that meaning compromising the future generation’s needs (Silvius et al., 2012).

Alerting of the perils of an inward-focused approach, Morris (2013) advocates that the project management community have for long reflected on the means rather than the ends, suggesting that current and prospective critical societal issues such as climate change or the recent refugee crisis, demand a sense of relevance from project management academics and practitioners, who have the responsibility of using their work and projects to drive a desired future and leave a positive, impactful legacy.

Bearing this in mind, a future-oriented approach to project management claims for project managers an active role in shaping the future, by doing better projects for a better world.

Limitations

While this approach entails conceptual strengths and relevance to practice – not to mention to society – it also includes limitations which need to be acknowledged.

Perhaps the most obvious limitation resides in what is also its major strength, the broader time horizon involved. Although there is not a defined standard for the duration of a project, it is reasonable to state that most projects exist in the short-term planning horizon, thus, benefits to be gained from a futures-oriented approach, even though noticeable, can be not as visible as when compared to programs and portfolio, which typically consider a medium to long-term perspective.

Despite of this fact, the legacy of the project, the emphasis on benefits realisation, or the focus on sustainability can be derived from the lens of the future and is realistic to suggest that also mega-projects can make extensive use of this approach due to their long time span and life expectancies. Likewise, the relevance of this approach can vary depending on the industry in analysis as different industries operate within distinctive time frames (e.g. Pharma vs IT).

From an implementation standpoint, it is also important to note that the adoption of a futures-oriented mindset can be challenging as it requires a profound shift in the way of thinking, currently constrained by the fast pace of the market, and also by our own schemas and mental models where, as humans, we are uncomfortable with the unknown and tend to believe that our future will be a mere extension of the present as we know it.

Finally, in a time where management decisions and career progression are mostly built around a short-term perception, senior management may show resistance as they perceive their annual bonuses to be threatened or that their time is being wasted on risks and opportunities that may or may not happen. However, the imperative question is: can we afford to neglect the future?

Conclusion

While the future is unknown, the author argues that a future-oriented approach to the management of projects draws a new, relevant direction for practice and can provide project practitioners with robust tools to deal with uncertainty while at the same time designing and delivering a sustainable future.

This approach does not imply a full reset with earlier proposals, but places a different emphasis on the role of the future instead, under the premise that different results require a different way of thinking. We must therefore lead from and for the future, not the past. Our projects and the way we perceive and manage them can determine what future we will get, hence, the future is not an island ready to be discovered, but a place that practitioners can shape with their decisions.

Our projects are our legacy and our future. Let us make it a good one

References

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