Improving Project Management

6 Jun

The special interest publisher, Raconteur, recently produced a paper on Project Management (, #0376, 22\05\2016). Two reoccurring themes ran through the collection of articles

  1. The importance of knowledge capture in project management
  2. Effective communication when managing complex projects

As both of these themes frequently appear throughout the articles and research featured on this blog, it’s a good opportunity to share methods we’ve applied to improve knowledge capture and communication across projects, and with teams and organisations. So firstly, knowledge capture.

In their Raconteur contribution, Jim McClelland, addressed the importance of knowledge capture in his article entitled “Mindset and not toolset-it’s all about people…” If a project is complex (multiple partners, sites, boarders, regular surprises, changing environment etc.) then the degree of learning is potentially high. Managing a complex project involves multiple frontline adaptions as initial plans and strategies run into the “friction” of everyday life (Freedman, 2013).

The problem identified in the McClelland article is that the knowledge gained from managing project friction, remains the tacit property of frontline workers, and\or project managers. This problem is aggravated when project managers and key staff are transient, they move from project to project, company to company, taking their knowledge with them.

A potential solution is the implementation of methods which capture knowledge. This means frequently capturing and evaluating what project managers and frontline workers notice and prioritise in a work situation, how they notice contradictions to initial plans (when something starts to go wrong) how the contradictions are made sense of, and what adaptions take place to course correct or innovate around problems (see Starbuck, 2001, Klein, 2007, Rankin et al, 2014 for examples of this in various project environments).

Below is quick example of a method, a debriefing questionnaire, focused on capturing knowledge in a fast paced project environment. The questionnaire is designed to capture problem solving, with an emphasis on changing expectations, situation recovery and risk analysis-

What did you notice?

What surprised you?

What did you do?

How would you advise someone else to tackle a similar situation?

What should they avoid doing?

The second theme is communication. I would argue that a key component of effective communication is shared sense making, being able to shadow the thinking of someone else (see Klein et al, 2013 for examples).

Communication between different partners, professions, organisations, sites etc. is inherently problematic. The instruction of “fast” for example, has a lot of potential responses, all dependent on individual sense making. Unless organisations, teams and individuals develop methods which allow the intention behind plans to be fully understood, then regular problems can occur.

Communication problems are particularly acute when teams are distributed across organisations, geography, professions etc. As discussed earlier, plans encounter friction and need to be adapted. Projects run more efficiently when these adaptions are carried out by frontline workers with intimate knowledge of a current situation, and a real time view of what’s going on in the environment. Without clear intentions, adaptions can either be completely out of kilter with a plan, or frontline workers lack the clarity to deal with a problem, and keep referring to management for further instructions.

Both of these intention problems have significant consequences for the success and safety of a project. For example, adaptions in the wrong direction can correct a local deviation but weaken the broader project. A project may be running over budget and a team leader is told to cut costs. During this period an engineer gets a new job and leaves the project. To save money the leader of the engineer’s team decides not to re-recruit. The team leader adapts by carefully reorganising the remaining team member’s roles. Short term it’s a success. Then an unexpected event occurs and the team lack the flexibility to absorb and correct the shock.

The other side of the problem occurs when no adaptions take place. This occurs when frontline workers lack the clarity to adapt to changes in local circumstances. As a result, when an unexpected event or obstacle occurs on a project, instead of applying initiative, the frontline instead seeks instructions from further up the hierarchy. This situation eats into time, reduces the amount of available options to tackle a problem, places responsibility in the hands of someone who is nowhere near the situation and who only has a limited understanding. All these issues create extra demands and increase management pressure, destabilising the project further.

Communication problems can be avoided by applying methods which calibrate sense making. A useful method of communicating intent is a script developed by Karl Weick (see Weick et al, 2007 for examples). Below is a version of Weick’s intent script, and similar to versions we’ve used in our work with clinical decision making and organisational change-

This what I think we face

This is what I think we should do

These are the reasons why

This is what we need to look out for

Now talk to me

This article has featured quick examples of how to improve knowledge capture and communication. I would strongly agree with McClelland that successful project management is a mindset. I would also add that applying simple methods designed to collect knowledge and improve communication, develop and support the best conditions for project management success.


Starbuck, W.H. Hedberg, B. (2001) Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge; M. Dierkes, A. Berthoin Antal, J. Child, and I. Nonaka (eds.); Oxford University Press, 2001

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

Rankin, A. Woltjer, R. Rollemhagen, C. Hollnagel, E. (2014) Resilience in Everyday Operations: A Framework for Analyzing Adaptations in High-Risk Work. Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making March 2014 vol. 8 no. 1 78-97

Freedman, L. (2013) Strategy: A History. OUP USA

Klein, G. Hintze, N. Saab, D. (2013) Thinking Inside the Box: The ShadowBox Method for Cognitive Skill Development. International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making 2013, Marseille, France.




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