Images of Projects (Book Review)

This book recommends that project practitioners should consciously view projects through multiple “lenses” or “filters” to gain different perspectives. This approach directs attention to project aspects that might not otherwise be considered, which will affect the action taken, and hence the results obtained.

Considerable repetition of the principles and case study content (mainly to make it easier to use for reference), and overlap between the images caused me to have several déjà vu moments in reading it straight through, but the approach should be useful to PMs (on projects and programmes) and PMOs (to challenge PMs on their view of projects, and to think about portfolios) at all career stages.

Pragmatic PMO Rating: ****


The authors say this book is:

“…for people who intuitively know that the real world is more complex than the textbook or one-week guide suggests, but also recognise that relying just on experience is not the most effective approach.”

As the focus of business has shifted from management of complexity to management in complexity, the book aims to help people deal with the complex realities of projects in conjunction with their own knowledge and experience.

Because the way practitioners approach a project is shaped by their preconception of what the project is like, it is helpful to view complex situations (in which action is needed but the course of action is unclear) from a range of perspectives, before devising a course of action.

This contrasts with the “just do it” approach (which values action over reflection), but if the [brief] thinking that directs the action is flawed, everything that follows is also flawed. The project could plunge headlong in the wrong direction, and as action is valued over reflection, there is no opportunity to detect and correct this.

The trick is for the PM to use images as conceptual “lenses” through which to view and make sense of the project. Like Edward de Bono’s “Thinking Hats”, these can be consciously used whenever they are helpful, as a prompt for thinking and to direct attention.

The images can be used:

  • Selectively: to help make sense of a situation and to guide action (probably uses only one of them)
  • On a shared basis: as a common language to make conversations more effective and efficient this works best when everyone involved has broadly similar objectives
  • As part of a structured review process: Most practitioners use the SLA cycle (Situation ⇒ Learning ⇒ Action) when they don’t know what to do in a complex situation. They first establish how complex the situation is (in terms of what to do and how to do it), how long they have to get from situation to action, and then decide how best to organise themselves during that time. Steps might include: What is the situation? What could it be? What should it be (aimed at what people can live with rather than consensus, and delayed until it is necessary)?

Images of projects – a pragmatic framework?

The book offers seven images (perspectives) of projects, all based on the root image of a project as a temporary purposeful action taking place over a number of stages in an unfolding flux of events. The images serve as prompts for seeing, thinking and talking about projects; they are not not prescriptions for action.

The images are additive, not mutually exclusive; a project can be viewed as both this and that. There is no set of right or wrong images for a project or situation, merely a set of perspectives of varying relevance and usefulness with which to make sense of projects. Which of the images is most useful will vary according to the person’s role in the project, and the context.

1. Projects are social processes

People from various groups and organisations form and move between informal social networks whilst immersed in an ever-changing flux of events continually unfolding through time, influenced by the context of culture and tribalism, and the language and metaphor used in and around the project.

2. Projects are political processes

Projects comprise people with a range of attitudes to politics, who use their power and influence to adopt tactical behaviours and actions to further their interests and agendas (some of which are hidden). This means we need to “read between the lines” and “use politics or be used by politics”, but take care not to become over-sensitised and “see” ulterior motives where there are none.

3. Projects are Intervention processes

Projects aim to improve a perceived problematical situation (with diverse views on what the problems are and how to address them), which may comprise review (analysis), execution (action), and evaluation (review) phases.

4. Projects are Value Creation Processes

Projects’ core purpose is to [help to] create outcomes of value and/or benefit (reaped in a realisation phase), through outputs identified in a strategic phase, and created in a development phase. This encourages us to think about why the project should be done (e.g. long term value creation or strategy), and distinguishes between outcomes and outputs.

5. Projects are Development Processes

Projects produce a development concept (vision or mission) to deliver a type of development (product, service, infrastructure, etc.), usually through a strategic phase (analysis, planning, etc.), an operational phase (creating outputs), and a final phase (using the outputs). This encourages us to consider what the project is to do, but presupposes that project needs some sort of development. The final phase can make it hard to decide where the project ends.

6. Projects are temporary organisations

Projects are organisational entities, comprising executive (governance), support (PSO, procurement, training, etc.), communications (marketing, PR, etc.), and operations (output creation). This encourages us to consider a project as a miniature business, to which a variety of management-style thinking can be applied.

7. Projects are Change processes

Projects implement change scope and content (e.g. organisational, technological, or behavioural change) according to a rationale in a given context (social, political, economical, organisational), with upstream (understanding, laying foundations), midstream (implementation) and downstream (reviewing, refining, learning) phases. Can focus on the change to the exclusion of value creation.

Further information

“Images of Projects” by Mark Winter and Tony Szczepanek, Gower Publishing Ltd (Farnham, Surrey) 2009, ISBN 978-0-566-08716-5

243 pages, RRP £60 (review copy supplied free of charge by the publishers)


Author: Ken

Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who makes targeted improvements to PMO practices to add value to Projects, Programmes and Portfolios through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO. He provides senior management with the analysis they need to make decisions, and gives project and programme managers the support they need to deliver solutions.

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