Portfolio, Programme & Project Management theme specialises in research related to project and programme management. The focus of our research interest lie in assessing real-life sectoral project management challenges. Our applied research is focused on creating innovative solutions to real-life project management problems in a broad range of sectors. Theoretical work includes the development of new methods to enhance structural and management methodologies.  In this respect, our strategic research section focuses on the following themes:

1: Mindfulness in project management

Project management frameworks are often thought to be universal—they can be applied in any type of project, and success can be expected as long as project managers comply with rules, processes and routines. This rule-based approach is certainly efficient—but is it truly universal?

For projects in a highly uncertain environment, mindfulness may be a better alternative. The traditional—and often espoused—way to manage uncertainty and complexity in projects is to strengthen an organization’s rule-based capabilities. The belief is that repeatable packages of rules, processes and routines help to reduce human variation as a cause of failure. These frameworks aim to design potential adversity out of a project and draw on the expertise and experience of project managers who came before. This practice often makes sense. Such an “autopilot” approach means project managers can rapidly respond to difficulties because solutions to potential problems are decided before they even arise. However, we have to face the fact that in complex projects, we cannot always fully predict how events will unfold. Traditional probabilistic risk management, for example, oversimplifies the past by breaking it down into separate elements of risks. It also aims to analyse what we know from past experience, not necessarily what we do not know about the future. As a result, it may create an illusion of control, undermining our preparedness for what we cannot predict. Mindfulness offers an alternative route to managing complexity and uncertainty. Mindfulness seeks to tap into flexibilities within the human mind to create options where historically informed rules, procedures and routines find their limits. The approach involves questioning before taking action, resisting the temptation to assume we have control, not relying on predefined actions, innovating and improvising. Mindfulness allows project managers to creatively generate options to deal with uncertainty, rather than selecting from a set of past-informed options that may not fit the problem at hand.

If you are interested in this or a related topic, please contact Dr Elmar Kutsch.

2: The fallacies of modern risk management

Recent years have seen heightened concern about and focus on risk management, and it has become increasingly clear that a need exists for a robust framework to effectively identify, assess, and manage risk. The premise of common best practice project risk management processes is that risks can be managed by “planning actions that will be implemented in order to reduce the exposure to risk.

In principle, the process of project risk management can be deconstructed into four major stages:

1. Planning. A project manager can apply risk management planning to define which activities should be taken to approach project risk.

2. Identification. Risk identification allows project managers to single out risks that may affect the project’s objectives.

3. Analysis. By using risk analysis, a project manager quantitatively or qualitatively evaluates the likely consequences of uncertainties as well as the likelihood that uncertainties will become real.

4. Response. Risk response enables the project manager to keep track of defined risks, to identify new risks during the project, and to develop procedures and techniques to avoid, transfer, and mitigate risks.

In light of such a sensible approach to managing risk, how can projects repeatedly succumb to it? It is tempting to lay the blame at the feet of misinformed regulatory controls. But we believe the answer runs deeper. It has to do with how we project managers make sense of risk and its management.

If you are interested in this or a related topic, please contact Dr Elmar Kutsch.

3: Complexity

Although the Bodies of Knowledge are powerful in aiding project delivery, they appear to be insufficient in guaranteeing success. Project managers cite complexity as a major challenge, but what does this mean? Our work has identified three key forms of complexity – structural, socio-political and emergent complexity – and we have developed the Complexity Assessment Tool (CAT) to enable managers to work with their teams to understand the complexities they face. By definition complex problems defy easy solutions, yet we have found that, perhaps surprisingly, most problems appear to be of an organisation’s own making and thus, to some extent, controllable. We have developed a framework to help point the way to reducing or resolving these challenges. How to manage project complexity more effectively is an important area of research for both staff and doctoral students.

If you are interested in this or a related topic, please contact Dr. Neil Turner.

4: Organisational Learning and Ambidexterity

Learning from projects might appear to be straightforward but in practice it is extremely difficult. Project teams dissipate when the work is completed, and lessons-learned documents rarely capture the nuances of why the project went well or poorly. Individuals and teams appear to be capable of learning effectively, but transferring good practices and ideas into the wider organisation remains very challenging. Social networks play a major role in knowledge transfer, and it now accepted that the problem cannot be solved with information technology and document repositories alone. Learning in and from projects and programmes is an active research are at Cranfield.

Ambidexterity is a term that is slowly making its way into the business lexicon. It involves both ‘exploitation’ (refining and using your expertise) and ‘exploration’ (innovation and problem-solving). Successfully doing both of these is difficult as they have fundamentally different drivers, but organisations that can achieve both have been shown to be more successful on a number of key dimensions. Research now is moving towards the key practices and behaviours that managers need to do to enable ambidexterity. This is particularly relevant for project management, where systems and procedures are fundamental, yet knowledge-generation is inherent since all projects are, to some extent, unique.

If you are interested in this or a related topic, please contact Dr. Neil Turner.

5: Major project management theme

Most governments in advanced and less advanced economies are well aware of the need to invest in major projects, but many are facing enormous challenges in devoting sufficient capital resources. The current economic environment presents a potential dilemma: while budgets are extremely tight, failing to invest could jeopardise future tax revenues, as investment in major projects in economies underpins national economies and has the potential to stimulate growth. As clients are seeking to achieve both capital effectiveness and operational effectiveness in their delivery of major projects and programmes they are increasingly seeking new project management and economic models. New approaches to the delivery of major projects and programmes are fundamental when dealing with complex system interdependencies of specific physical systems, technical systems, environmental systems, economic systems and political challenges. The way in which all major projects and programmes are being delivered will be forced to change because of the economic, social, political, technology and legislative environments. Hence, the major project management theme focuses on a range of structural, performance and management practices. More specifically research within this theme focuses on major heavy engineering projects such as:

  • Infrastructure systems
  • Energy projects
  • Construction projects.