Project management is a juggling act. Charged with devising the most efficient scheme for assigning workers to various tasks, project managers must establish a sequence and schedule for work to ensure that all jobs get done on time. But as the recession puts pressure on their budgets, companies increasingly ask project managers to adapt not only to the dynamic needs of their own projects, but to the needs of projects that are managed by others within the organization, says Elliot Bendoly, an associate professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. For the good of companies, it's even more important that project managers willingly share resources with one another when needed. And while sharing might not always prove the best option, firms need to be confident in the cooperation of these managers when it is, says Bendoly, who was once a project manager himself at Intel.
Few researchers have systematically analyzed the barriers that can prevent this sharing. But in a forthcoming paper entitled The Perception of Difficulty in Project-Work Planning and its Impact on Resource Sharing, to be published in the Journal of Operations Management, Bendoly and co-author Jill Perry-Smith, associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta, argue that project managers become less willing to share workers as the job of setting schedules for their various projects becomes more difficult. That's because managers feel a greater sense of psychological ownership over their plans for parceling out the work when creating those schedules becomes more complicated. Plus, sharing workers can introduce the need for workers to hand off information about projects to one another-something that doesn't seem tough on paper, but is far from a trivial challenge in the real world, Bendoly adds. For companies that need project managers to share workers with one another-to juggle together, in other words, despite the challenges-one solution is to provide training to help managers become more confident in their skills, and therefore less territorial.
You probably want to have training in the form of 'project ropes courses,' where you have project managers who are put in front of some hypothetical but realistic projects, and they're forced to share, Bendoly says. You want to try and get them used to sharing, and get them at least confident in their ability to share, so that no matter what the conditions are, you are building up that task self-efficacy.
Project managers have become a major component in American companies. A bit like head chefs in a kitchen, apportioning out a mix of tasks both rote and complex to a team of subordinates, project managers have carved out a distinctive and growing niche. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not classify project manager as an occupation, except in the context of various professions; employment of project managers in construction, for example, is expected to increase by 17% between 2008 and 2018, according to the BLS. Still, the government fully acknowledges the importance of project managers. A BLS publication from 2006, for example, highlighted the importance of project managers in contexts ranging from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) efforts to send a telescope into space to computer companies launching new software in stores. Citing statistics from the Project Management Institute (PMI), a leading professional association, the government noted that the ranks of project managers are growing, and that median income for those in the field in 2006 stood at an impressive $96,000.
When the researchers set out to test theories about the willingness of project managers to share resources, they turned to a PMI group chapter for help. A total of 161 project managers participated in the research project, which required managers to spend about 25 to 30 minutes completing a controlled laboratory experiment, a pre- and post-task questionnaire, and then a structured exit interview. In exchange for their time, project managers received feedback about their project management personality type-basic information about their willingness to share resources relative to others who participated in the experiment, Bendoly says.
The experiment asked the managers to analyze five scenarios presented in an Excel spreadsheet and make decisions about allocating workers to minimize project-completion time. It included real-world wrinkles, such as workers with distinct skill sets, meaning that some could be expected to complete certain steps faster than others. After completing assignments, the project manager participants responded to questions about their willingness to voluntarily share workers with other managers, with the assurance that a decision to share resources would not create more work for the managers, just as a decision not to share would not result in repercussions. The project managers also operated under the premise that equally good solutions could be obtained in their own projects if sharing took place. The questionnaires helped establish managers' on-the-job sense of task self-efficacy.
In crafting the experiment, Bendoly and Perry-Smith's goal was not simply to assess the willingness of project managers to share, but to see how the difficulty of scheduling tasks affected managers' decisions. About half of the project managers in the experiment participated in scenarios that involved a more heterogeneous mix of project management tasks to complete. Those problems were more difficult to solve because managers had to repeatedly switch their approaches-picking between a wide variety of workers for some tasks, while relying on a small number of critical workers for others. Bendoly explains the challenge in terms of the head chef example: It's easier to hand out assignments in the kitchen if all the jobs are as simple as chopping onions. But head chefs have a more complicated project management challenge when some tasks they must assign are rote while others require artistic nuances that aren't easily split among assistants.
When you are forced to fluctuate between these two different types of assignment problems, it's that forced switching that is particularly difficult, Bendoly says. When the prospect of sharing workers comes up, he notes that many think, I've put all this effort into designing the team this particular way, I'm really not that eager to break it up and go back to the drawing board.
The results of the experiment confirmed the researchers' hypotheses. Project managers who indicated on questionnaires that they were more confident in their skills did, in fact, do a better job parceling out work in the computer simulation. Participants faced with a more heterogeneous mix of management challenges in the experiment agreed that the work was more difficult. And project managers generally agreed with the premise that resource sharing did not necessarily limit their ability to see a good outcome for their own projects.
So, who did a better job sharing? Those assigned more difficult management problems were less likely to share workers. But among those facing these more challenging problems, project managers with higher levels of task self-efficacy were more likely to share.
Bendoly cites several practical implications from the research. Companies would be wise, he says, to focus their training and hiring efforts on developing a sense of task self-efficacy among project managers. As budgets get tighter, project managers must have a greater capacity to be creative with resources and balance attachment to the solutions they devise with broader company goals. In some cases, companies might consider documenting examples of useful sharing and providing incentives to promote the behavior. In other cases, firms might want to centrally impose work reallocations when it makes sense.
It may only be through these tactics that organizations are able to navigate the increasingly complex competitive landscape characterizing the contemporary business environment, write Bendoly and Perry-Smith. Management might do well to encourage awareness of the extent to which non-sharing impedes cross-organizational multiproject work, perhaps through better accounts of resource sharing.
The results raise interesting questions for future study, Bendoly says. First, could the dynamic be reversed? That is, could increased planning demands actually promote sharing behaviors among project managers if individuals proactively work to meet those demands? While the current study let project managers broker exchanges to minimize complexity, future study designs could allow for even more creative responses. Second, could increased recognition for acts of sharing promote discretionary helping behaviors, not to mention a greater sense of interdependence or emotional attachment among project managers? Indeed, prior research suggests that when the fruits of cooperation are not likely to be recognized within an organization, project managers have less incentive to share. Bendoly also wonders whether project managers have different perceptions of difficulty when workers are grouped into teams, and if researchers can learn more about how a sense of psychological ownership can affect the behavior of project managers.
While the questions stem from a close analysis of study results, Bendoly says they fit with his broader interest in showing how human factors can confound otherwise well-crafted plans for change initiated at the top of organizations.
I've always been interested in problems that human beings face because of their own cognitive limitations, or behavioral biases that make the prescription of management policies difficult, Bendoly says. There are a lot of things that academics and managers try to spell out as useful approaches to managing. But they don't always apply, and often that's because of the human factor.
Photo: Goizueta Professors Elliot Bendoly, left, and Jill Perry-Smith.