For some years now, projects have enjoyed increasing interest in business, private life, and society. However, as naturally as projects are realized today and project management methods are applied to them, it often seems unclear to the practitioner what in fact constitutes a project. Many norms, standards, and the literature provide definitions, but they often do not capture the essence of the realization of projects.
Lundin and Söderholm (1995) have presented a theory of Temporary Organization in an article that defines what essential properties of projects are. Namely the “4Ts” of “Task”, “Team”,” Time”, and “Transition”. The task is certainly an essential property of the project, whereby this task is not just any task, but something unique, something that has not been done before in this way or in this form, serving a defined purpose and describing a metamorphosis from an initial state to a desired state. In order to master such often very challenging tasks, special competencies are often needed, which are most likely to be found in an interdisciplinary team of creative and, preferably, self-organized people. Requirements for people in a project are significantly different than those in the area of routine tasks in production or other operational functions. The IPMA Individual Competence Baseline identifies three main areas of competence: practices for the realization of a project including methods for planning and monitoring, social competences for communication, cooperation and relationship building in the internal and external setting of the project, and contextual competences that allow a better embedding of the project in its specific surroundings.
Time, on the one hand, is a clear differentiator of projects versus permanent tasks in an organization, as they have a beginning and an end and are time-limited in between. On the other hand, it is sometimes quite difficult to decide when a project begins and when it ends, because often “things are in flux” and both the beginning and the end become blurred. Lundin and Söderholm (1995, 442) argue that the main concern of a temporary organization is the one of “progression and achievement or accomplishment. An action orientation implies that something has to be transformed or changed as a consequence of the existence of the temporary organization, and that these changes are to be achieved before the organization is terminated.”
Projects can solve problems that would overwhelm the permanent and efficiency-driven parts of the organization. They help to overcome the inertia of the organization and to achieve innovation, change and renewal. A project can involve individuals, products and services, value creation in general, the optimization of the organization, or other strategic initiatives. Especially in times of substantial changes and the need for adaptability of an organization, projects move into the center of activities. Projects manifest the becoming of an organization and thus provide a bridge between the intention and the being.
As noted above, the line between projects, intent, and being is often blurred. Ernst Weichselbaum (2020) calls this the three aggregate states of an organization and advocates investing at least 40% in projects. The intention does not come from above, i.e. from the strategy or the hierarchy, as was often the case in the past, but primarily from the outside, from the market and customers with their frequently changing requirements, but also from within, from creative colleagues who turn their own ideas into projects and thus act as entrepreneurs in the organization. Critical to success are the joints between the three aggregate states, which should be the main focus of interactions and communication between the stakeholders. Thus, the project assignment connects the intention with the becoming in projects, the reformulation of operational processes, structures and forms of cooperation bridges projects and the being of day-to-day business.
Weichselbaum emphasizes that in terms of time, intention must always precede project work, and projects will always precede day-to-day operations, but numerous feedback and control loops are active between the aggregate states; these manifests themselves, for example, in the form of organizational learning. Especially in a VUCA world, the number and importance of projects is increasing, as they provide renewal, liquefaction and sometimes even disruption in organizations. Often, projects and the employees entrusted with them are disliked because projects constantly challenge the existing, disrupt the traditional order, and become the essential pacemaker within organizations.
Lundin, R.; Söderholm, A. (1995): A theory of the temporary organization. Scandinavian Journal of Management 11 (4), pp. 437-455
Weichselbaum, E. (2020): In jedem Unternehmen steckt ein Besseres. Zeitorientierte Betriebswirtschaft mit dem Weichselbaum-System. München, Verlag Franz Vahlen
Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Management Consulting