Work as projects is the new normal

Lähde: Esko Kilpi, Esko Kilpi Company

Projects are always assemblies of interdependent people in interaction. The reason for a project
organization to exist is to simplify, support, and enrich that interaction.

At present, there are three types of project cultures depending on the type of communication between
people and the coordination of tasks. The different task interdependencies accordingly place different
and increasing burdens on project management practices.

I call these the administrative culture, the industrial culture and the creative, social culture.

The administrative culture is about function-specific independent activities. Two functions or tasks are
independent if it is believed that they don’t affect each other. The most important communication exists
between the employer and the employee, the manager and the worker. The principle is that the
execution of two independent tasks does not require communication between the tasks. The project
architecture consists of black boxes that are not coupled directly, but in an indirect way by higher-level
managers, who coordinate the work. Work as interaction is mainly communication between
hierarchical levels.

The industrial culture of process-based project organizations is about dependent and sequential
activities. Manufacturing work is about dependent tasks. This means that the output of one task is the
input of another. The reverse cannot normally take place. In sequential dependence, those performing
the following task must comply with the constraints imposed by the execution of the preceding task.
Since the process architecture is typically quite clear, management coordination is mostly about
measuring and controlling whether the execution conforms to the planned requirements. The
architecture consists of tightly coupled tasks and predetermined, repeating activities. Work as
interaction is a sequential process with one-way signals.

A creative, social culture is different. It is about loose couplings and modularity, about interdependent
people in interaction and interdependent tasks. Two people/tasks are interdependent if they affect each
another mutually and sometimes in parallel. Interdependent tasks call for a new type of project
management: transparency, peer-level responsiveness and coordination by mutual adjustments, not
coordination by an outside party such as a project manager.

Most of the information that is relevant will be discovered and created during the execution of the task,
not before. As a result it is not always possible for a manager and a worker to agree on a coherent
approach in advance. Nor is it normally possible to fully follow a predetermined process map.

The basic unit of corporate information in the third culture, in creative, social work is not content in the
form of plans or documents but interaction in the form of conversations. Knowledge is perpetually
constructed in interaction. Work as interaction is complex, situational communication between loosely
connected nodes of the network! The structure of work resembles the structure of Internet.

The three cultures and their corresponding architectures differ in the degree to which their components
are loosely or tightly coupled. Coupling is a measure of the degree to which communication between
the components is fixed or not. In most creative work, and always in complex projects, any node in the
project network should be able to communicate with any other node on the basis of contextual
interdependence and creative participative engagement.

In modern project work, the focus of management should shift towards understanding participative,
self-organizing responsibility and the equality of peers. It is a systemic change, much more than just
kicking out the bad project managers and inviting new, better managers in. It is not about hierarchies
vs. networks, but about how all people in the project teams want to be reflective and transparent and
how all people want to communicate in a way that was earlier reserved only for the people we called
project managers.