If your project was a mood, what mood would it be?

While managers of major projects tend to the characteristics of a project, Ben Pinches makes the case for considering project mood. 

We often look at projects in a one-dimensional manner, but why can’t we became more creative in our approach to these undertakings. If a project has its own culture and identity, then we can clearly imagine it having its own personality. If your project was a book, what kind of book would it be? Would the ending be a happy or sad one, and what pointers along the way might hint at the ending before you get there?

People determine project mood

I became interested in the idea of measuring the mood of projects while I was studying at the University of Oxford. There, we were taught to view major programmes as temporary organisations with their own hierarchy and power dynamics. I found this break from the traditional orthodoxy of PRINCE2 both exciting and liberating so I started studying systems theory as a way to map these distinct entities. It became evident that most large projects were complex adaptive systems composed of multiple, interconnected elements, and containing the capacity to learn from experience.

Of course, the reason that most projects are complex and able to learn is that they are composed of people as well as processes and things. It is the people who really determine a project’s mood. Yet just as these people come and go bringing different emotions to play, this mood will change and flex over time. Inevitably there will be measured periods, followed by out of control moments. Despondency followed by elation.

Trying to grasp the changing moods of a project and use them to predict what may happen around the corner, highlights the idiocy of only tracking time, cost and quality. We don’t work in isolation of individuals and can’t ignore the human impact on the work that we do. It would be lovely if we could deliver successful projects using simple metrics and an engineer’s dashboard. Unfortunately, more than 50 years of data shows that our performance in managing projects is not improving, despite the increasing number we initiate.

The new project KPIs

Thankfully, other issues are starting to be raised when we discuss project performance and ‘mood measurement’. Despite appalling statistics from Qatar’s 2022 World Cup infrastructure programme, health and safety is now taken extremely seriously by all credible project leaders, with clear metrics and a strong vision being part of start-up. 

The increased global attention on environmental factors is starting to make sustainability more of a key performance indicator, and stakeholder theory is being used to identify the wider project stakeholder group as opposed to just the shareholders in a venture. We are starting to value the organisational learning that even a failed project can bring, and the impact that this knowledge can have on a company’s bottom line. And ethics is starting to be discussed in project board meetings to the benefit of all of us.

These wider factors are all very well, but for me they don’t capture the real ‘project mood’ completely because they only focus on the whole entity. To really determine the mood, you have to look at more granular issues, such as how motivated are the individuals in your project team. There is a good body of work on how motivation improves team performance, and yet we rarely see consistent management attention being paid to this mood factor.

Arguably even more important are the social factors that have been proved to be primary needs for all of us. A measure of how socially connected our project team feels is an extremely useful indicator of project mood, yet how often do we see such a measure being implemented? We know that feel-good factors like the Olympics helps to bind a team of volunteers to work wonderfully well together, but we often ignore this knowledge as not appropriate to an enterprise IT project.

As project mood grows more valuable for project managers, I think we need to be matching individual internal factors of motivation, with external facing personal qualities. Additionally, we need to use stakeholder mapping to keep tabs on the flux over time. Linking this type of information with metrics on health and safety, environmental impact, knowledge generation and ethical conduct could really help us develop our approach to project mood.

And let’s not forget to measure time, cost and quality…

Ben Pinches is an associate director of the RocSure joint venture, founder of Oxford Major Programmes and previously managed the Centre for Major Programme Management, a research organisation at the heart of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.