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Stakeholders and project complexity

Lynda Bourne
February 8, 2012

The two key aspects of social capital are the ‘know how’ required to create and deliver the project outcome and the ‘willingness’ to exert effort to achieve the project outcome. Importantly, the level and availability of social capital within a social network is not fixed, it can be increased by developing:

  • a more effective network by creating stronger relationships (links)
  • a better alignment of the actor’s objectives through developing clear, agreed goals
  • effective collaboration and leadership, for example by developing a ‘high performance team’.

Conversely, social capital can be dissipated by ineffective leadership, lack of agreement, contradictory visions, and so on, for instance by allowing a dysfunctional team to develop.

Combining these ideas, it is reasonable to assert that it is the actual transfer of knowledge through the social network that allows the project team, functioning as a temporary knowledge organisation, to develop the new knowledge needed to create the project’s deliverables.

It is also important to note the actual transfer and creation of knowledge and the implementation of the new knowledge to create the project deliverable is absolutely controlled by the willingness of the actors within the network to engage positively in the work. Therefore, effectiveness of these processes are constrained in part by:

  • the extent of knowledge actually available to the network;
  • the efficiency of the network in transmitting the information to and between the actors who need to make use of it; and
  • the willingness of the actors to actively engage in the processing and implementation of the knowledge in an aligned and effective manner.

The observation of a ‘high performance team’ is evidence of the knowledge processing and social networking systems working effectively.

The consequence of accepting these ideas is to shift the focus of project management from the object of the project to the people involved in the project—its team members and stakeholders—and to recognise that it is people who create the project, work on the project and close the project.

Consequently, the purpose of most if not all project control documents such as schedules and cost plans shift from being an attempt to control the future—this is impossible—to a process for communicating with and influencing stakeholders to encourage and guide their involvement in the project and create a jointly held objective for the team to work towards achieving.

The outcome of the project seen from these perspectives is under perpetual construction by the project team itself. The thousands of individual decisions made by each of the people in the everyday ‘create’ the future: different information, will lead to different decisions, which will cause different outcomes, leading to a different future.

And one of the key influences on the multitude of decisions being taken by team members every day should be the project plans and schedules, updated, adjusted and agreed by the project team.

Complexity theory, as linked to temporary knowledge organisations and social network theory, suggests that the creation of a successful project outcome will always be an uncertain journey, but the path to success or failure can and will be influenced by the actions and attitudes of the actors within and around the project team. The key element is how effectively the project team uses its social network to gather the resources (knowledge and support) needed to create success, and the challenge of project management is helping and encouraging this process.

The key conclusion to be drawn from this post is that successful project management is a far more complex process than simply dealing with the iron triangle of time, cost and output first described by Dr Martin Barnes in 1969.

Successful project managers in the 21st century will develop and lead high performance teams that create project success through the effective use of the social capital within their networks, to proactively manage the expectations of their stakeholders and then deliver the projects outputs in alignment with those managed expectations.

Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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