Anzelika Krastina & Renata Musifullina
We are facing a rapidly changing world, where project management (PM) is going through the transformation phase to respond to the company’s needs. Instead of just solving problems, companies are required to make a step forward and be competitive in the market. Hence, projects become a powerful tool to shift from surviving to succeeding in the complex environment. The VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world speaks for itself (VUCA, 2022) demanding quick organisational rebuild – adapting to constant instability; making quick decisions without seeing the overall picture of outcomes; following values rather than just ‘selling the product’.
To ‘make a positive change’ is a motto in the modern world, where society is seen as the fundamental target group. It is profoundly visible in the EU finding instruments. The main goal is to reach out to society as a whole and to have a positive impact by tackling societal challenges. The old good way of ‘measuring twice and cutting once’ does not fit the new reality. Whilst you are measuring, someone is already cutting. The whole concept of firm project planning along with sticking to the plan has run its course. And not because it is not working, but because the environment does not operate this way anymore. Nevertheless, EU funding instruments demand heavy planning 1–3 years ahead, where RDI projects play a role of delivering a positive impact to society on a regional level among other correlated elements of the EU funding instruments: European Commission (EC), National Authorities (NA), Regional Authorities (RA), EU funded Programmers, RDI projects, Society as end users.
Hence, the outside ‘chaos’ of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity meets the structured project planning. That creates a complex paradox that lies on project managers´ shoulders, who will arrange various project elements in the most efficient and effective way to be flexible enough, and yet follow the certain project implementation track towards reaching its results. Beyond project management competences, there is a grey area of creativity, soft skills and even intuition (Roeder, 2010) that is often neglected, but is necessary to succeed.
The semantic range of the word ‘design’ includes the art or process of deciding how something will look, work, etc. by drawing plans etc. On the contrary, ‘management’ is the activity of running and controlling a business or similar organisation; the people who run and control a business or similar organisation. These are equally essential in the context of the RDI projects, though challenging to apply in practice. Thus, we suggest that EU projects in the VUCA context should be considered as a piece of art, where the project manager or, rather, the project designer-manager acts as an ‘artist’ to employ project design elements to tame the chaos and make it work for a successful change.
The Lapland UAS recognises the evident change that must be made to succeed. It aims to integrate its RDI activities strongly with the world of working the Lapland region in Finland and also internationally, targeting regional development issues at the local as well as international level. The EU project management competence therefore is increasingly in high demand for successful implementation of RDI activities. Recently, Lapland UAS collaborated with experts from work life in implementing EU project management raining across the region to relevant stakeholders representing the business community, municipalities, education sector and small and medium enterprises or SMEs (KATOS, 2022).
More than thirty participants from various institutions joined a training of 15 ECTS that lasted for almost a year. One could say that PM training could be conducted faster, however, the actual knowledge and skill development as well as new understanding regarding new ways of doing projects requires time. All participants had an actual project idea in their mind and through the training realised that it is not just about traditional PM tools and processes, but there is certainly more to it, and it is not so widely discussed in the mainstream PM training. Often project management is associated mostly with planning, scheduling, and controlling terms.
The PM Institute suggests that nowadays there is a fusion of so-called predictive project management, or traditional PM in our understanding and agile project philosophy resulting into hybrid approaches that offer project managers an opportunity to find a good balance between domains of people, process, business environment, team performance, stakeholder engagement, experimentation among others (PMI, 2022). Operations of EU-funded programmes are closely linked with the Project Cycle Management methodology, which clearly focuses on a very predictive project management approach (European Commission, 2022).
In addition, most of the projects incorporate an international component. EU-funded projects often form a consortium of partners from different countries that often vary, not only in terms of their national origins, but also different organisational cultures. Operational culture of public entities differs from the cultures of business, start-ups, or non-governmental organisations cultures. For the participants of the training, it was obvious that the entire scene of project management becomes extremely complex, and we think that the shift towards project design thinking will help to adjust and to find the balance needed for the success of new project initiatives.
The EU project management training that ended in December 2021 resulted in a variety of new EU project ideas with the potential to build proposals for EU-funded programmers. New project plans were developed in fields such as nature tourism, cross-border cooperation, youth entrepreneurship, virtual tourism, school education, social economy, well-being and many more. As acting trainers of this education programme, we concluded that there are many project design elements that are essential for a successful EU research project.
Here are a few examples to illustrate some elements of “the art of project design” philosophy.
Cross-cultural awareness and communication skills are undoubtedly essential before the project planning even starts. Mastering intercultural communication is a skill that adds to the smooth process of international EU project work from the very start. From our experience we see how many projects are “killed” from the very start just because of the lack of proper cultural understanding and communication. Even the way we use English as a working language differs very much across Europe. Cultural differences can create more misunderstanding than consensus.
Project design starts with the extensive identification work, which so many projects overlook while often directly jumping into project application writing. We would like to emphasise that considering EU research and development projects as a writing process can be another ‘killer’ factor for your project. Designing project ideas involves understanding the actual problem, its root causes and forming alternative solutions. Then the project strategy is defined by the most suitable solution agreed among all project partners. Starting the project idea development just based on assumptions can lead the project to wrong or unexpected outcomes. Therefore, in this part design thinking is more relevant than just basic project planning and scheduling work. The art of project design is probably crucial in the very initiation of the project. When the design draft is ready, one can sit down and then write or fill in an EU project proposal application.
Monitoring and evaluation during the RDI project implementation is another vivid example sometimes neglected by project teams. It is something that is usually done to tick the box just to satisfy the EU-funded Programmes. On the contrary, monitoring and evaluation is one of the priorities for the project to scan its implementation process and detect at an early stage any possible risks that might lead to a dramatic change. The challenge is to create a systematic approach integrated into the day-to-day management of the project and regarded as a ‘second skin’ without overloaded actions.
There are many more project design elements that can be attributed to the meaning of art when implementing the projects. The present article elaborates one point of view among others out there on how RDI projects will operate in a constantly changing world. It is crucial to emphasise it more and more, since old habits are difficult to overcome, and the new ones take time to be developed. There will not be any winners in the battle with VUCA world by trying to preserve stiff approaches. The new reality offers extraordinary possibilities to improve project performance towards better results. Instead of learning a recipe by heart, we suggest understanding how it is compiled to have a possibility to adjust it. Therefore, an art of project design serves as a hands-on philosophy providing project managers with knowledge and freedom to tune the project implementation and be successful.
Anzelika Krastina, MEd., Senior Lecturer at Lapland University of Applied Sciences, anzelika.krastina(at)lapinamk.fi
Renata Musifullina, M.Soc.Sci, international RDI project expert, co-founder ‘International Project Design & Management (IPDM)’ renata.musifullina(at)icloud.com
European Commission. 2022. Managing a Project. https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/funding/managing-project_en Retrieved 20.1.2022
KATOS International Project Competence. 2022 https://blogi.eoppimispalvelut.fi/kvprojektiosaaminen/ Retrieved 10.1.2022
Oxford Leaner’s Dictionaries. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/design_1 Retrieved 17.1.2022
PMI, 2022 https://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards Retrieved 27.1.2022
Roeder, T. (2010). Sixth sense intuition: a white paper in the series on A sixth sense for project management®. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2010—North America, Washington, DC. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/sixth-sense-intuition-project-management-6601 Retrieved 15.1.2022
VUCA. 2022. https://www.vuca-world.org/ Retrieved 17.1.2022