UJ Research: Beyond autocrats and microwaves

​​​A new approach to building diversity into a multicultural project – a UJ researcher contributes to a global collaboration reducing ten success project indicators to two factors.

The project manager strides to the team kitchen. She opens the microwave door and pauses for a second, her nose crinkling slightly. Placing food into the pork smells wafting from the microwave is definitely worse than eating it cold, she thinks. She walks away with a cold lunch.

Meanwhile young contractors on another project shiver in their boots. They’re waiting to face the older, male project manager in a progress meeting. He is famous for forcing decisions on team members. This week they heard their material deliveries will be late. It will delay the entire project and cause penalty payments. They can’t do anything about it now, but dread what he’s going to come up with.

Diversity the new usual

To grow a business or make it more agile, projects are needed. Project teams build factories, build new websites and design innovative products and technologies.

Fifty years ago most project team members were men, wearing ties and long-sleeved shirts, at similar ages and from similar cultures. They decided in similar ways whether a project was succeeding or failing and why.

Now the members of a business project team can come from many countries and many cultures, be male or female, young or older. This diversity brings new complexity to the question ‘is this project going well or not?’

A step forward

Prof Udechukwu ‘Udi’ Ojiako, professor in the Department of Business Management, Faculty of Management at UJ, collaborated with other scholars from the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, China and Greece to explore how diversity can best be taken into account in project decision-making.

The work suggests what project manager style may be a good fit for a particular type of project.

“Exploring the impact of cultural values on project performance: The effects of cultural values, age and gender on the perceived importance of project success/failure factors” was published in the high-impact (3* ABS) International Journal of Operations and Production Managementrecently.

Refresh after decades

“We looked at how the demographics of the project team members – their cultural values, age, gender and role – affected the way they made decisions,” says Prof Ojiako.

In the field of project management, a study by Geert Hofstedeundertaken about 45 years ago incorporating over 100,000 survey responses has been regarded as the baseline for project success factors in projects.

“However, the research field needed fresh and relevant data that reflect the modern project team as demographically and culturally heterogeneous,” says Ojioko, who acted as lead investigator to the study.

In the research, Prof Ojiako and his collaborators analysed 1255 usable responses to an in-depth survey they designed. The respondents, all project management practitioners, were drawn mainly from Brazil, China, Greece, Nigeria, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. In total, respondents were however drawn from 131 countries.​

Reduce 10 factors to tasks or people

The researchers found they could reduce 10 project success/failure indicators (PSFIs) to two main factors instead.

The PSFIs are: delivery within budget; contribution to business goals; achievement of intended outcomes as defined by the client; risk, safety and communication; project leadership and decision making; quality; project scope; wider contribution to the community and economy; and delivery within the approved timeline.

These 10 indicators can be reduced to two project success/failure factors (PSFFs).

The task factor

A task-focused and external outcomes approach is presented by the first PSFF (factor 1 in the article). For a project manager with a ‘factor 1’ style, it is most important to manage project scope, time and budget. After that follows achieving intended outcomes and managing risk, safety and communication. Least important to such a manager is inclusive decision-making.

A ‘factor 1’ manager is more likely to possess ‘masculine’ cultural values such as being tough-minded and resolving conflict through force rather than consensus. The research showed this to be the case, no matter whether the manager is male or female.

The people factor

Meanwhile, a people-focused and internal outcomes orientation is represented by the second PSFF (factor 2 in the article). For a ‘factor 2’ project manager, the top priorities are inclusive decision-making and the cohesiveness of the project team. After that follows contribution to the business goals and the quality of the project. Least important to such a manager is delivering the project within the approved time.

Picking the right manager for a project

The research suggests that factor 1 managers are better suited to structured and predictable project environments, because they rely on simpler and more traditional project measures.

However, for projects incorporating new technologies and other novelties, where ambiguity is a major factor and traditional project control is ineffective, a factor 2 manager may be a better choice.

Factor 2 managers ‘may find that by scanning their social environments for patterns of effective and ineffective co-working, they can outperform factor 1 managers through superior alertness and responsiveness

to hard-to-anticipate and fast moving project issues,’ state the researchers in the article.

Making good project decisions

When a group such as a project team needs to make decisions, deciding how to make the decisions and what is most important criteria are, can be a huge challenge.

In homogeneous project teams the decision-making may be smooth, but it might over-emphasize some criteria and lose sight of others, which creates risk.

Diversity for decision-making criteria

In a diverse team men and women, young and old, from various cultures, don’t see decision-making criteria the same way – each thinks some are more important than others. This creates a different risk for a project.

To ensure the success of a project with a diverse team, ‘project practitioners at all levels must understand that such differences are likely. Further, they need to attempt to resolve them, for example by using structured group decision making techniques such as AHP or Delphi,” states the article.

The potential upside of the differences because of gender, age and cultural value diversity in a project team, is that it could ‘create just the right level of debate, forcing project group decision makers to use multiple criteria,’ the researchers conclude.

See Prof Ojiako’s Google Scholar profile.

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