Perhaps it is not so much a paradox as it is finding the right balance.  There is no one right way to organize work – some ways work better than others depending on the organization’s strategic focus and associated design principles.  There are consequences to the way work is organized and the way in which an organization is designed can facilitate some things and create obstacles for others.  Certain processes or practices may need to be put in place to counterbalance the organization structure. The best example of this is an organization operating in silos that sets up cross-functional efforts in order to deliver the full enterprise to customers.

Increasingly, organizations are moving to more agile, project-based, ways of working in at least some aspect of their operations.  In doing so, they sometimes struggle to find the right balance between organic ways of working and well-defined procedures.  Just as people may work on developing both flexibility and strength to be fit, effective ways of organizing work involve both agility and discipline.

Why Projects?

It is not always clear to those who participate on projects how project work differs from their daily work assignments.  Project-based work is best done in connection with designing, improving, or operationalizing something new – whether that’s creating a product or service, or implementing a new technology.  Projects are launched when people with different skills and perspectives need to come together to achieve a specific, defined deliverable and that work is outside their day-to-day operational responsibilities.  A project (and the team that comes together to deliver it) has a beginning and an end.  In other words, it isn’t ongoing work and project teams typically disband at the end of the project and may go on to form new teams for new projects. 

Agile ways of working — where a team comes together to experiment, invent, and learn — fits the project mold.  By working in sprints, the team learns and adjusts in real time, refining the deliverable to respond to customer needs and increasing the likelihood of user adoption.  Innovation flourishes when project teams are formed from people with diverse skills and perspectives and there is a clear scope and mandate.

Flexible Organizations Leverage Project-Based Work

New forms of organization that are more fluid and organic rely on project teams – whether establishing agile teams within a more traditional, hierarchical organization structure or setting up the organization as a Holacracy.  To achieve balance with these more fluid forms of organization, well-architected, defined processes and structures take the place of authoritative command and control systems and project management competence is essential.

What Makes Projects Challenging?

One of the biggest challenges organizations seem to face is getting a project done when a project team is cross-functional, and the members of the team don’t report into the project lead.  Team members must juggle competing priorities and are ultimately accountable to their direct managers.  Project leads must find ways to exert their authority and to influence those who are not otherwise accountable to them.  

Other challenges include clarifying the project objective, ensuring project sponsorship, identifying the appropriate scope, planning sufficient time and resources, and knowing when and how to pivot or close the project.

Project management capability is critical for the effectiveness of agile teams. In many cases, certified project managers are not necessary for the application of the most basic elements of project management.  Basic structures such as defining a project charter, putting together a workplan, establishing a cadence of project meetings, and having a set of performance metrics and simple reports help to contain and clarify the work of the team.  Those structures may be enough to facilitate the work of the team.  It is equally important that the project lead be effective in communications and influencing – two critical skills for working in team-based organizations.

Building Management Capability

A specialty health insurer found that, increasingly, important work needed to get done by forming projects.  Even though people know each other in this relatively small organization, it is hierarchical and operates in silos.  Most of the staff are in jobs where they fulfill well-defined tasks and follow proscribed procedures.  This means that outside of one or two resources whose jobs are primarily to set up and manage projects, only the most senior people had any experience with project management and, therefore, much of the project oversight and execution landed with the top team. Given the increasing project-based workload, this situation was not sustainable, so the senior team set out to develop a cadre of middle managers who could take on the hands-on management of projects.  The hope was that the skills these managers would develop would raise their capabilities as people managers, even outside of the project management context.

To build project management discipline, they devised a foundational project management process and a few simple tools that managers could deploy on most of the organization’s projects.  They also conducted a two-day training program to educate managers.  The training was focused not only on the process and tools, but more importantly, on the competencies they would need to develop as people leaders such as asserting their authority, influencing others, and communicating effectively with different audiences.

Embedding Project Management Discipline

When it comes to embedding a project management discipline in the organization, creating foundational, standard processes and tools and educating managers in project management tools and skills is important, but not enough for realizing lasting behavior change.  The organization would be implementing new ways of working which would be a significant change for people and leadership needed to approach the effort with a change implementation mindset. The senior leaders became familiar with the new process and tools and took on the role of change leaders to reinforce the project management discipline with their direct reports.  Their communications with the various audiences in the organization helped everyone understand the rationale for the change, the new approach, and each person’s role in implementing these new ways of working.  Finally, the leaders established metrics and measurement tools to track the impact of the new project process and training.

As with any change, those with the desire, determination, and discipline to experiment, learn, and practice have had the most success with embedding these new ways of working and achieving the desired results.  They’ve built the capacity of the organization to create strategic, cross-functional project teams allowing them to deliver greater value to their members and to expand the organization’s market share.

As they experiment with new ways of working that include project-based work, they have found that the likelihood of success increases when putting the necessary project structures and skills in place and taking a change implementation approach.