Overcoming Organisational Inertia through Project Management

By Bradley Rolfe, Unit Coordinator, Leading Project Management, The University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Bradley Rolfe Blog PhotoI have frequently had students and colleagues ask me what they think the relevance of project management will be as we continue through the 21st Century. They ask if an individual’s involvement in improved collaboration systems, increased matrix reporting, flatter management structures, and higher skilled teams, might all lead to an environment where the concept of an independent project management function to oversee their tasks will cease to be meaningful.

As a project manager for more than twenty years, I admit to being a little offended by the question! I have often responded with a flippant, “have they ever expected to stare at a pile of bricks and see it leap into a house?” The fundamental laws of the universe work in one direction. Things fall apart, they do not fall together, and it requires great and sustained effort on the part of many, many individuals to achieve success for the majority of projects initiated in the modern corporate sector (and it is unlikely that it has ever been any different). More importantly, it requires more than just a great effort, it requires that great effort to be goal-orientated (i.e. directed towards a common purpose).

In my calmer moments, when I have recovered from the offense, I do wonder about the ongoing relevance of my field. Will there be a function called project management one hundred years from now? Indeed, you would have been hard pressed to find a function called project management in any corporation one hundred years past. Projects as we understand them certainly happened, but there was not necessarily a discrete role called “project manager”. The chief engineer or chief architect on a civil engineering project, for example, would probably have had the responsibility for managing the overall project. It was simply seen as a part of their role. Likewise, I imagine, in many other areas. The notion of Project Management as a separate discipline has really only come about in the last fifty years, and it would be a fallacy to think that it will be a necessary occupation in the future.

Having said that, I can see sound reasons why project management as a discrete human practice, like engineering, law or medicine, will continue to thrive. Firstly, and fore-mostly, is the ever-increasing complexity of the modern organisation. Size is not really the driver here. There have always been very large organisations. Military organisations, for instance, have frequently numbered in the hundred of thousands, even in antiquity, and they were able to operate without the benefits of modern management systems. Instead, what they had was simplicity. They had a rigid, hierarchical and pyramidal command and control system in which every individual knew their place, what their function was, who they were responsible too, and who was responsible to them. To move an army in the field required the commander to provide an order to say, half a dozen individuals, who then provided orders to another half a dozen and so on down the chain. It is easier, in fact, to think of such an organisation as being a single person, the commander, and the rest of the army as an extension of their will.

A modern organisation could not be further from this (admittedly simplistic) model.  There may be a commander (such as a CEO), but they will not move their organisation in a new direction with a simple order to a few individuals. Changing the strategic direction of a modern organisation can be staggeringly complex. There can be hundreds and sometimes thousands of different kinds of specialisations within the organisation whose practices might need to adjust to support the change. Those practices are often built around very specific ways of doing things. Then there are the technological challenges; thousands of different applications, databases, operating systems and network devices strung together to provide the modern craving for information. To understand, let alone change, this dizzying web is fraught with challenges. Finally, there are the legal complexities of modernity (something our commander in antiquity would not have been at all familiar with!) There are privacy obligations, financial regulators, international laws, occupational health and safety requirements, and the list goes on.

What all of this adds up to is immense organisational inertia. So much effort is required to simply maintain day-to-day operations in the face of such complexity, that the idea of change can often seem ludicrous. It is a paradoxical situation. Managers strive for consistency in the delivery of their products and services, which in turns demands consistency throughout the organisation. They seek a standardised ways of doing things, reporting things, and managing things in order to maintain control. However, when competition forces the organisation to adjust, it is these standard ways of doing things that need to alter. This is the challenge to which Project Management is set: Guiding the organisation through change when the practices, technologies and legal frameworks that enable it are also constraining it. This mindset is not one with which the operational manager easily identifies (so busy are they trying not to let the house fall into a pile of bricks!) To my mind, it is the skill of working in the face of this complexity and paradox that will see Project Management survive as a unique discipline well into our current century. What those projects are, and the outcomes towards which they are directed, I am not prepared to guess!

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