PhD and me – I got in!!!

Leeds University, Civil Engineering Department, PhD Student (Oct 2022…)

I am delighted, stunned, giggling like a child, as I confirm to this blog that I have now been formally selected to start a full-time, fully funded, PhD programme in October. Leeds University, Civil Engineering department, currently ranked second in the whole of the UK.

Offer received and signed by return ten minutes ago…

My seemingly unreachable ambition to sit in both academic and industry camps remains fired-up and on track. Researching in the name of one, but serving both. Hoping to learn to write and research with academic precision and add a small piece to the sustainability puzzle that now challenges us all.

How this came to be I will digest and reflect upon. A blog for another day. For now I feel humbled, daunted, and thrilled to be given new means to be.

PhD and me, is alive. My journey will continue to be shared here; on LinkedIn; and in everything I still have to do.

To be continued …

Mr Optimiser vs. Mr Sceptic

Is it always right to be demanding a committed decision in the interest of cost certainty?

A brief introduction to some old friends

This is an extract from the cutting-room floor of the dissertation from my first MSc, which I would have been preparing to present this time last year. You will find the full details of citations within the dissertation, available to download or review on-line from my homepage.

When I wrote these notes in early 2020, I was retracing the earliest academic PM arguments addressing how much to plan vs how much to adapt. The Public Private Partnership model of project delivery I was researching is up-front time and focus intensive. Whilst it is not immune to change, any change is administratively cumbersome because of the interacting contracts and hierarchy of approvals required. Post the Pathfinder or Vanguard projects therefore, optimisation (or at least certainty of cost, time, and scope), is characteristically fitting for PPP. This is very different to some of the research and development type project environments, post WWII, that reflects where much of the “fragmented adhocracy” of project management theory today begins. These particular notes, primarily the contemporary revisits of the work of Klein and Meckling from 1958, plus the original paper itself, offered an interesting comparison of these motivations.

———start———

Extracts of my unsubmitted summary notes as follows:-

In describing project management theory as a set of models and techniques for planning and control, Packendoff (1995) pp319 observes three shortcomings of preceding research and theorising. The notion that a general theory and field exists in its own right; a lack of empirical rigour; and treating projects as tools. He invites future research to consider expectations, actions and learning in project settings. Referencing a diversity of theoretical perspective, with more focus on middle-range rather than extremes in different types of project.

A second key question to answer will be how to determine whether early optimisation is the correct priority. The counter view is one of retained flexibility and agility. This has been a central debate from the earliest days of modern project management thinking from the 1950s. Brady et al (2012) reflected on the importance of pioneering thinking in mainstream project management in the early Cold War years of California’s Research and Development think tank RAND. The work of Klein et al (1958 pp 361) sought to better manage project environments typified with high levels of uncertainty at project start. Brady et al argue that initial flexibility in project management approach from this early time was quickly (by the 1960s) replaced by a focus on control (Brady 2012 pp719). Klein et al caricatured Mr Optimiser and Mr Sceptic and compared the approaches to project planning in R&D situations (where it was argued the greatest levels of uncertainty exist).

Mr Optimiser (UK spelling) makes key decisions early, plans thoroughly, and creates a clear and highly integrated path to conclude. Mr Sceptic (UK spelling) adopts a strategy of deliberate flexibility in the early stages, opting to take advantage of project learning, making later decisions on key elements and narrowing a range of alternatives as information is acquired to ultimately arrive at a single construction method.

Klein argues Mr Optimiser is cost certain at an earlier point, and will happen upon the optimum unique choices on occasion. Mr Sceptic will be making more informed decisions but incur more cost and waste on average, as a result of allowing several options to be explored deeper into a project. Mr Optimiser is however committed to these early decisions. If sub-optimal decisions are made, Mr Optimiser is either incurring additional time and cost to change, or accepts the sub-optimal outcome (Klein 1958, pp 355).

This comparison is still relevant today. Government procurement is permanently under pressure to show value for money. It is therefore counter-intuitive to expect a Mr Sceptic approach to project procurement. The early commitment to a project programme is a standard expectation of tendering response in traditional or privately funded government new build programmes therefore. In challenging 20th thinking on theory of the firm, Nightingale returns to Mr Optimiser and Mr Sceptic. Mr Optimiser representing determinism and reductionism, internally driven causations, rationally driving towards maximum utility (Nightingale 2008 pp539). Mr Sceptic’s view of the firm being driven by managerial decision making and Boardroom mediation of the external requirements of shareholders and stakeholders. (Nightingale 2008 pp544).

Turner et al (2014 pp44) and Brady et al (2012), return to Klein’s Optimiser and Sceptic analogy in considering the knowledge problem. Brady et al conclude “Mr Sceptics programme is designed in part to produce information…to be able to make more informed decisions” (pp 723). Brady et al pp719 refers to Shenhar and Dvir (2007) who point out project management is based on “predictable, relatively simple, and rational models”. Brady argued that “the role of uncertainty, learning and informal processes are underplayed in traditional models of project management, in favour of simplistic, rule-based models” pp720. Brady et al further refer to Lenfle and Loch (2010) who call for a reconsideration of the concepts of Klein and Meckling, arguing that “project management has come to emphasise control over flexibility and novelty, and that this has prevented the project management discipline from occupying a central position in organisations efforts to implement strategic change and innovation” pp728.

The notion of project management being an operational undertaking, and success being defined in the context of time, cost, and quality, is further challenged by Dvir et al 2011 pp21. They offer alternative key factors (pp20) with utilisation of existing knowledge and integrated project teams with fast problem-solving capability and the ability to adapt being two key elements. Muller (2012) highlights Dvir and Lechler who both examine relationships between three planning variables and project success (2004). Planning variables being planning quality, goal changes, and plan-changes. Planning is significantly a positive contributor to customer satisfaction and efficiency; goal changes having the highest negative direct effect on customer satisfaction (pp 10) and the combination of goal and plan changes were a stronger factor than quality of planning…pp29

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Observations

Mr Optimiser vs Mr Sceptical had military research and development ideals in mind. 1958 had the cold war as its backdrop. The Sputnik shock was in 1957. The Polaris programme and PERT, military research and RAND and universities, ties to contractor becoming more project orientated. The history of PM sits deeply embedded here. What this paper specifically reflects is an innovation centric project motivation vs optimisation of cost. These two character analogies present a useful modern day sentiment when considering if cost or novelty is most desired.

These are perspectives I will be returning to as I introduce other contemporary subjects of the present day. This underlying need to clarify primary motivation, seemingly pertinent in any contemporary setting.

Essays and detailed notes these blogs are building toward include:

  • My views of the 2020 HM Government Construction Playbook. (status: available on request and forming a blog subject soon)
  • High Reliability Organisations (HROs) as a guide to contingent planning and training. (status: an essay plan from MSc exam preparations is being reviewed to share as a blog).
  • Accountability vs Responsibility – the confused position and a fix. (status: first draft completed but still under review).

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Case Study 1 – PPP and me

Truth:

via visibility, behaviour, and trust.

Late August 2021

A year ago, almost to the day, I stumbled across something rather interesting. At the height of the data analytics stage of my MSc dissertation, a final piece of a jigsaw revealed itself. Truth.

Having spent two solid weeks reviewing, categorising, and connecting interview text, this single axial category seemed to connect it all. A suggestion of the one factor that summed up all other categories I had found. Was it the “truth” of a project that alludes us all, and thereby causes us to fail? In reverse, it seems so obvious as to be self-evident. As such I was, and remain, suspicious of a self-fulling prophecy. Finding nothing more than an answer I had steered my enquiry towards, and thereby subconsciously hidden with an intention to find.

By some quirk of research serendipity, two ongoing enquiries in my headspace collided. First was my dissertation. It very nearly de-railed at this point. The analytics of Grounded Theory is a powerful weapon of qualitative analytics. I had self taught it, and I had not accounted for the mental summersaults it can demand. My fragile brain, and compulsive tendencies, had taken me close to my abyss. This reflects my second enquiry. My diagnosed exogenous depression and suicidal moments were only 13 months in memory (July 2019). Yet my mood at this moment was different. On London Bridge, I was emotionally flat-lining. Whereas now, I was emotionally high. This was over-stimulation, the less obvious opposite to life’s depressive pointlessness in my thoughts. Stimulation is a positive, but this was prolonged flow, and it was close to spiralling out of control.

My wife, and my therapist, were necessarily availed. By coincidence, they are both called Angela. And I needed both my angels to intervene. My project was consuming me, and outside assistance presented perspectives on my behaviour that I was too close to see. With less trust in myself, I instigated some changes:

  • My wife, Angela (one) was to watch me more closely.
  • More candid in communication from me i.e., critical attention towards my overzealous moods.
  • I was to report in more regularly with my therapist, Angela (two).
  • I was to report my dissertation findings to my supervisor, just to sense check all was well.
  • I was to report into my business associate and friend, to get an independent sense of my sense.

Being truthful to myself required a temporary change. The framework of my working environment, within which my dissertation project was housed, proved to be inadequate. Proof based upon the new information received, of external factors not accounted for or even known to exist. These resultant actions are intentionally categorise here as follows:

  • Visibility. Necessarily increased visibility of my emotional state by me; and additional assurance i.e., other assessments (in this case, of my behaviour).
  • Behaviours. A new governance framework to contain my behaviours better, which included the relinquish of a modicum of self-authorisation.
  • Trust. Deteriorating trust based upon past events. Regained by the proactive and open dialogue, and reinforced via adjustments to controls of visibility and behaviour.

I can describe this episode in such terms now. They are my three variables. My truth bearers. I now use them in determining the protection of the most fragile commodity in any project. Singular truth.

These actions enabled me to complete my MSc dissertation. Subconsciously, it seems self-evidence this experience offered insight in these terms described. But more than that, my dissertation was about this very subject, and these same categories had emerged from the Grounded Theory (GT) that had knocked me over. [GT is used to seek axial categories (code) to explain the variables of a phenomena. You are required to keep pushing until one category explains all others found]. Since my graduation with distinction (81% in my dissertation) in October 2020, I have been academically reading and professional consulting with this framework of project thinking to hand.

I continue to extensively sense-check the validity of the phenomenon I now hypothesise. That this same dynamic of visibility, behaviour, and trust, can be equated to any project truth. That everything we do as human beings can be described as a project, and critical project controls evaluated by these terms. With caution I also pose one more question. Could it be possible to assess a project’s likelihood of success, based upon the appropriateness of the control framework within which each project sits?

This is how “Projects | Within Projects” began. And an insight into how my life meaning now sits more at ease.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: