Absurdity amidst project work

PhD Thesis

Darling, Eric John. 2020. Absurdity amidst project work. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland. https://doi.org/10.26192/0bs6-kc67

Absurdity amidst project work

TypePhD Thesis
AuthorDarling, Eric John
SupervisorWhitty, Stephen Jonathan
van der Hoorn, Bronte
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages219
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.26192/0bs6-kc67

Responding to the call of the ‘Making Projects Critical’ movement, this thesis questions the status quo of ‘iron triangle’ project management through giving voice to the human side of the project-based organisation, and reveals the struggle of project workers and the effects project
management is having on them. The aim of this thesis is to develop an understanding of the project worker and their quest for ‘connection to work’, which has the potential to lead to the fulfilment of their occupational values and a healthier workplace.

By way of this thesis I examine in detail the origins of organisational project management and how it has been shaped by our society, which has responded to economic pressures, inculcated certain values, and embraced particular practices. In a way, the development of organisational project management is what our society felt it should do, as it strived for certainty in dynamic and
uncertain economic times. However, as my analysis shows, what looks like economic certainty has come at a cost to the project worker, and therefore society in general.

The worlds where projects occur, such as construction, software development, infrastructure, manufacturing, the retail and defence supply chain, and the education and healthcare system all relate to each other in complex interconnected ways. To deal with the unsettling economic
uncertainty this brings, the management class embraced the discourse of measurement and control that we recognise as scientific management. From this springs managerialism, which is a universal way of thinking about organisations, and about who in the organisation should be the privileged
decision-makers. I present the case that as organisations have evolved and adapted to their changing environment, so management discourse has evolved, and a variant that I describe as projectmanagerialism (projectmana·´gerialism) has emerged and prospered. This variant comprises the
ideals and beliefs that underpin organisational project management practices. These practices centre on the practitioner - the project manager, and the project management tools and techniques they contribute to the organisation for the purpose of bringing its project work to completion. But project management is not cognizant of the human condition, and it disrespects the occupational
values of the worker by preferencing managing to cost and time targets.

This thesis comprises of a collection of four interconnected publications that disclose the ‘lived experience’ of project workers, project managers, and their interaction with senior management. The publications explore how project managers cope and navigate the
organisations they work in, and how they cope with senior management’s perceptions and impositions on their projects, and the personal impact the project world has on them as well as the project worker.

Methodologically this thesis embraces phenomenology, in that it attempts to address the matters of project management from the perspective of the conscious experiences of individuals. This means that it considers how project management appears to individuals and
how project management authentically and inauthentically structures their experiences of the world. Broadly speaking, Chapter 4 (paper 1) considers how the modern Project Management Office (PMO) has come about by taking a Foucauldian archaeological analysis of the situation. Over more than a century it charts how various powers have shaped the function of PMOs and affected the experiences of people who work in and around them. Chapter 5 (paper
2) is a first-person perspective of sham behaviour driven by the discordance of intentions from PMO management. Through a dramaturgical analysis, the study reveals how the ideals of project management can situate the project worker, project manager, and senior management in a relationship with each other where they are required to act out roles and create performances to function and survive in project working conditions. Chapter 6 (paper 3) examines the significant negative impact project work conditions have on the general wellbeing and physical and mental health of individuals who work in projects. The conditions are replete with ambiguity in roles, goals, authority, resourcing and so on. Project workers feel insecure about their role and purpose, and this leads to reduced professional self-esteem, job satisfaction and morale. Finally, Chapter 7 (paper 4) takes a systemic approach to the various situations the previous chapters present, and illustrates using an influence diagram how the
ideology of projectmanagerialism shifts the burden of fixing senior management’s disappointment with project delivery methods onto project managers and the PMO, and
particularly to the project worker. As a result of senior management’s ignorance of the reality of project work, and because project managers and their professional associations have a selfserving agenda to projectify the workplace, senior management are never confronted with the
fact that their disappointment is created by conditions they themselves have sanctioned. The paper also illustrates how projectmanagerialism creates conditions for stress-laden project work, and coerces the project worker to renounce their hard-earned occupational values for the capitalistic values of managing within time and cost constraints.

The thesis endeavours to substantiate the claim that projectmanagerialism is creating Camusian Absurd conditions for all those involved in delivering project work. Through the chapters and in the final discussion, it asserts that this Absurdity can be moderated in several ways. Most influentially, senior management’s expectations and understanding of the reality of project work can be reset. This can be achieved by universities and Project Management
Professional Associations embracing ‘lived experience’ research in their curricular. Furthermore, the effects of Absurdity on the project worker can be tamed by the project
management profession embracing scenario-based training. These measures will have a significant impact on how project work is conceptualised and managed in the future. With these changes taking effect, rather than indulging in a nostalgia for a universal methodology, senior management and the project workforce will have increased their capability to rebel against project managerialism. Together senior management and the project workforce could
co-create a fit-for-purpose management methodology for delivering project work that is sympathetic to the occupational values inherent in the work of the organisation, and consequentially contribute to human flourishing.

Keywordsproject managerialism, absurdity, making projects critical, systems thinking, ethnography, occupational stress
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020359999. Other commerce, management, tourism and services not elsewhere classified
Byline AffiliationsSchool of Management and Enterprise
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Related outputs

Sham project compliance behaviour: necessarily masking the reality of project work from senior management
Darling, Eric, John and Whitty, Stephen, Jonathan. 2019. "Sham project compliance behaviour: necessarily masking the reality of project work from senior management." International Journal of Managing Projects in Business. 14 (2), pp. 497-519. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMPB-05-2019-0118
A model of projects as a source of stress at work: A case for scenario-based education and training
Darling, Eric John and Whitty, Stephen Jonathan. 2020. "A model of projects as a source of stress at work: A case for scenario-based education and training." International Journal of Managing Projects in Business. 13 (2), pp. 426-451. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMPB-01-2019-0003
The project management office: it’s just not what it used to be
Darling, Eric John and Whitty, Stephen Jonathan. 2016. "The project management office: it’s just not what it used to be." International Journal of Managing Projects in Business. 9 (2), pp. 282-308. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMPB-08-2015-0083