The role of projects in our society | Challenges and perspectives

The importance of projects is increasing significantly in many areas of our society. In Germany, the German Project Management Association has analyzed the economic situation and concluded that the proportion of project activity in relation to regular work has grown from 20% to more than 34% across all economic sectors and is still growing over 40% to date.

However, it is not only in the business sector where an increase in project work can be observed. In the public sector, in areas such as culture, sport, art, music, and in private and social activities, work is being done in the form of projects. Some authors even speak of a project-oriented society, the so-called “Project Society”.
What distinguishes projects from other activities are the four t’s, the characteristics of task, time, team and transition. A project aims at solving a relatively complex task in a limited time period with a team of dedicated people. The result often consists of something new, something that changes the existing or brings about change to our society.

In their work “The New Spirit of Capitalism”, sociologists Boltanski and Chiapello have described a world of projects that is an expression of the determination and ambitions of people who want to change things. People network as a matter of course in order to become active together. They bring with them the critical mass of know-how, resources and drive that is critical for projects and thus set something in motion that could never be achieved by an individual.
Without networking and trusting relationships, not much will happen. This becomes particularly noticeable when people come together for the first time and collaborate.

But if these people come together repeatedly for projects over a longer period of time, then the relationship that has been established through joint project work pays off and high performance can be the result. Projects are also always a projection of wishes, expectations and goals into the future. They remain theory if no activities follow. In this respect, projects can also be understood as the creation of one’s own reality. This is particularly important since the current challenges of our society require joint activities and this demand should not be unloaded only on those in power.
Despite all the promises of project work, the challenges must not be forgotten. Although the economy is growing and with-it employment – which is positive for the labour market – people with high qualifications who can solve challenging project tasks in a team are increasingly being sought after. Skills such as project management, leadership, collaboration and many more are in demand and may be a barrier to entry in professional life for some people.

Due to the temporal limitation of projects, work will not be necessary on a permanent basis, but will instead cover limited periods of time. This permits greater professional time autonomy and flexibility, but it can also lead to people being offered mainly temporary contracts or assignments, leading to a high degree of uncertainty. In the academic or cultural field this has already led to precarious living conditions. Thus, project work may perhaps favour a “projectariat”.
Funding also plays an important role for projects. Which interests are pursued with the funding depends on the provider of finance. In companies, the focus is primarily on the return on investment or the increase in market value. This enables the implementation of project goals, but only in very few cases does this consider the goals of the people involved. Working within regulations instead of “Passion for Projects” is all too often the result.

The situation is similar for projects that are financed by the public sector and entail a high level of bureaucratic administration. The situation looks different in the case of personal commitment, financing via crowd sourcing or the communalisation of project costs and revenues in a cooperative.
What is the image of those involved in projects in society? In the business world, it can be observed that project managers are often not held in high esteem because they have no hierarchical power, they lack access to resources and are all too often disadvantaged in terms of career progression. However, should the “project class” not be held in high esteem in our society, since it solves societal tasks efficiently and in a systematic way? Here, the poor performance of projects is often attributed to the project manager and the blame is laid at his or her door. In the future, the profession would therefore have to clearly improve its image and emphasize its contribution to the advancement of society.
Altogether, there should be a much greater focus on the phenomenon of increasing projectification and an intensive discussion of the social consequences. In years to come, our society will face more and more challenges which can only be solved by collective action based on civil society. Here, the ability to realize ambitious projects is a key to success. Projects can also channel the centrifugal forces in our society and promote cohesion by means of solidarity-based activities in projects.

Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Management Consulting

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