The Typology of the Human Element in Projects

Group of people collaborating with a white board

The human element in projects is perhaps one of the most recurring themes in both practice and the supporting academic literature. However, it persists as one of the most critical areas in need of greater attention. For complex projects, it remains even more elusive as it is arguably the fulcrum of both success and failure.

Appreciation of the human element in projects has several antecedents. First, the field of human factors that commenced in the early decades of the 20th century with a clear focus on the reduction of errors attributed to human involvement with technology (Meister, 2018). Second, the growing attention paid to project management within the larger context of management studies during the 50s and 60s (Gaddis, 1959).

Third, the emergence of the human element as a specific focus area within projects during the 70s (Baker, 1977). Fourth, during the 90s, when people were positioned as ‘the invisible cornerstone’ of the iron triangle of project management (Kliem, 1994). Since this time, we have come to view projects are agglomerations of people and technology, bound by processes and enabled by technology to pursue a variety of purposes. We have also learnt that ‘people and behaviours control events and outcomes, not tools and processes’ (Thompson, 2018, p. 2). On top of this we’re continually bombarded with statistics that positively correlate people factors with project failure.

The project management discipline is replete with literature reviews (Sankaran, Feldbrugge, & Pasian, 2015), general discussions around the role of human elements (Wilemon & Baker, 1997), investigations into the role of human factors in particular types of projects (Strain & Preece, 1999), discussions around the impact of the human element on different stages of the project lifecycle (Chatzoglou & Macaulay, 1997)1997, and even analyses of the relationship between project success and the human element (Gabriel, 2015). However, what is still lacking is a coherent framework within which to understand the many facets of the human element.

One possible way of thinking about the human element is to combine the domains of familiar interpersonal factors with what could be called transpersonal factors and those intrapersonal factors that we know from experience are intricately associated with complexity.

Ven diagram - Intra-personal, Trans-Personal and Interpersonal intersecting with Communication, Power and Learning.

The domain of interpersonal factors includes approaches to conflict management and negotiation, the importance of project leadership and stakeholder engagement, as well as the larger umbrella of communication both internally and externally to projects. These are extensively addressed in the literature and well-known to experienced project professionals.

The domain of transpersonal factors might at first seem oddly labelled. First used philosophically by the American pragmatist William James in 1906 to describe personal objects [ideas or experiences] held in common to multiple people (James, 1988), humanistic psychology has broadened the multi-disciplinary framing of the transpersonal to include fields such as law and business (Boucouvalas, 1999). Consequentially, the human element in organisational design and governance, collaboration, and culture, as well as knowledge management, performance management, and organisational politics can all be understood as transpersonal expressions or aspects of the human element. Again, these factors are widely addressed, discussed, and commonly known.

Finally, the domain that is least discussed or investigated is what can be called intrapersonal factors. These expressions of the human element are largely ignored and frequently unnoticed, but nonetheless, play a determining role in complex projects. Moreover, they are an inherent predicate of complexity.

First, as that ‘skeleton of concrete cognitive assumptions on which the flesh of customary behaviour is hung’, because it is ‘implicit in almost every act’ (Wallace, 1970, p. 143), worldview plays a mediating role in determining an individual’s perception of the world around them. Second, the variability of individual perception is further elaborated by William Blake’s eloquent assertion that ‘the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way’ (Blake, 1799). Not only is perception bounded by worldview and perspective, it is contingent on unconscious assumptions; those taken for granted but not stated gatekeepers of perception and judgement. Furthermore, individual modes of judgement, as well as team dynamics, are influenced by an individual’s preferred cognitive style (Armstrong, Cools, & Sadler-Smith, 2011; Buffinton, Jablokow, & Martin, 2002). In the domain of intrapersonal factors, the influence of motivation (Peterson, 2007) and cognitive bias have been somewhat addressed (Snow, Keil, & Wallace, 2007).

The domains of intra-, inter-, and transpersonal human elements overlap and interact to create a dynamic impact on learning styles and culture, communication preferences and practices as well as the balance and distribution of power. It should therefore not come as any surprise that the human element presents itself critically in activities ranging from requirements management and problem framing, through risk recognition and management, to project maturity and ultimately success.

Finally, if we take as axiomatic that complex environments demand diversity within project teams (Duchek, Raetze, & Scheuch, 2020), and we note the specific evidence that cognitive diversity enables better team performance (Mello & Rentsch, 2015; Reynolds & Lewis, 2017), then we are bound to conclude that the human element is necessarily diverse; due to preexisting intrapersonal factors as well as emergent inter-and transpersonal ones. Moreover, complexity demands that notions of purpose, learning, decision-making, and indeed our whole posture in respect to problems, be contingent upon the human element (Winter & Checkland, 2003); and that is grounded on intrapersonal factors.

In contrast to the hegemony of control that is widely implicit in the traditional approach to project management (Ekstedt, Lundin, Siiderholm, & Wirdenius, 1999) complexity demands adaptability in response to emergence and flexibility in response to ambiguity. An analogous construct that models human elements in relation to knowledge recognition, assimilation, and application is absorptive capacity. First introduced in 1990 (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990), it has now been extended to measure the relationship between human elements, complexity, and project performance (Bjorvatn & Wald, 2018). Consequently, a fuller and more complete understanding of the human element in projects has the potential to lay the foundation of a positive learning culture.

In contrast to the hegemony of control that is widely implicit in the traditional approach to project management (Ekstedt, Lundin, Siiderholm, & Wirdenius, 1999) complexity demands adaptability in response to emergence and flexibility in response to ambiguity. An analogous construct that models human elements in relation to knowledge recognition, assimilation, and application is absorptive capacity. First introduced in 1990 (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990), it has now been extended to measure the relationship between human elements, complexity, and project performance (Bjorvatn & Wald, 2018). Consequently, a fuller and more complete understanding of the human element in projects has the potential to lay the foundation of a positive learning culture.

Originally published in ICCPM Connect, Issue 39: February 2021

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Associate Professor John Bensley is the Canberra Director of QUT Graduate School of Business and QUTeX. He has expertise in systems thinking, the management of innovation, product management and analytical psychology. John works with other University academics, Graduate School staff and industry professionals, to design, develop and deliver transdisciplinary education programs that meet the specific requirements of post-graduate students as well as a range of corporate and government clients. With more than 30 years management, marketing and operational experience from the mining and telecommunication industries his passion is understanding the determining effect of the human equation within organisations and helping people sense-make in complex environments.

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