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Unleashing the Human Potential in Projects

By Reinhard Wagner 24 Nov 2023
Unleashing the Human Potential in Projects

Although projects have been part of the human narrative for several centuries, the literature has been dominated by efficiency-oriented project management since the 1950s. It primarily concerns processes, methods and techniques with which projects are to be realised efficiently within predefined timelines, costs, and quality requirements, predominantly in the industrial context. Since then, project management has been continuously optimised without any noticeable improvement in its success rate. One reason for this could be that people are only considered a means to an end in project management. However, this is increasingly reaching its limits, and it's time to take a closer look at the role of humans in the project work.

Aspirations vs Reality in Our Project World

Based on self-determination theory (SDT), there are three main needs that affect individuals: autonomy and the need to prove oneself in a self-defined task; demonstrating one's competence through a task and receiving acknowledgement from others; and relatedness or being able to complete a task together with others. Viewed through the lens of SDT, projects are ideally suited for meeting one's personal needs. However, there are many obstacles in the everyday work environment. For example, employees in organisations are often not asked whether they want to be involved in a project but are simply allocated as a "resource" and cast into a role that hardly allows any autonomy. Project management processes, methods, and tools all too often impose a tight corset that allows little opportunity for the unfolding of individual competence. The idea of efficiency in "modern" project management limits people to the role of a vicarious agent. Agile approaches to self-organised project work are heading in the right direction but often encounter limitations of the surrounding organisational structure and culture, which are more oriented towards "command & control" leadership styles. The practice of projects does not really match Sartre, who characterises projects as fundamental acts of freedom, "which gives meaning to the particular action that I can be brought to consider. This constantly renewed act is not distinct from my being; it is a choice of myself in the world and by the same token it is a discovery of the world" (Sartre, 1984: 594).  

Increasing Need to Better Utilise Human Potential

The efficiency paradigm of project management reaches its limits in times of increased volatility, uncertainty, and change. Restrictive processes, rules and methods unnecessarily limit the flexibility and adaptability of people's actions. Plans drawn up before the start of a project are already obsolete after a few days and require frequent adjustments. It is better to have a project plan that provides long-term orientation and synchronises milestones but gives the project team appropriate freedom to organise project activities in their day-to-day work. The project team organises itself, and individuals with the required experience and expertise in the situation take the lead. Projects that are geared towards innovation be it a new technology, a new product, or a new business model, e.g., in the context of a start-up, rely less on efficiency and more on the team's intuition, efficacy and collaborative spirit. This is also one reason why project management is often rejected in the area of innovation. On the other hand, if you look around the art scene, you will quickly notice that work is almost exclusively done in project form but that the proven industrial concept of project management is not applied. A creative process of "muddling through" is used here, which is less guided by a rigid process model or methodology but rather leaves the artist or group with sufficient degrees of freedom. This degree of freedom is a prerequisite for the quality of the results. Of course, the motivation, competence, and experience of those involved are also important. In the industrial practice of projects, a vicious circle has occurred in recent years in which people's motivation and commitment decrease because they do not feel autonomy and are trapped in processes in which they cannot demonstrate their competence. In the arts and in start-ups, the opposite is true. The degree of freedom in projects allows those involved to develop beyond their limits and make use of all available skills. Ultimately, we have to take seriously the demands of the younger generations, who are increasingly calling for more creative freedom and want to experience modern leadership that does not impose requirements "from above" but instead emphasises self-organisation and collaboration. Traditional companies that want to be attractive to young talent in the "war for talent" should, therefore, offer modern project work conditions with a great deal of creative freedom.   

How to Unleash Human Potential in Projects

To bring out the human potential in projects, it is necessary to involve the participants much more in selecting, conceptualising, and implementing projects in order to meet their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. It's about seeing projects as a means of personal development or self-realisation in which we can play out all our motivation, expertise, and dedication in order to be successful. Of course, the framework conditions must also be created for this. Creative freedom requires employees who are willing and able to make use of it. Self-organisation skills must be developed in a targeted manner, and obstacles in the surrounding organisation must be removed. Project participants should break out of the previous pattern. They are entrepreneurial actors and should therefore align themselves with role models that embody this message. In Germany, for example, Elon Musk was used as a role model for the realisation of complex projects, as he built the fourth Gigafactory near the (failed project) Berlin Airport in a very short time despite many adversities. Even if not everything is exemplary in this case, the German government has used this example to erect several LNG terminals, which had to be realised within just 6 months to compensate for the lack of gas supplies from Russia. However, this is just one example of the spirit we need to realise projects again. The IPMA Global Project Excellence Awards are also a good example of such a role model to which projects and project managers can orient themselves. The IPMA Project Excellence Baseline (IPMA PEB) is focused on excellent leadership behaviour and the satisfaction of the project team and other stakeholders during the entire project. 


Although projects have become much more popular in recent years, the human potential in projects is still underutilised. Yet it is particularly important in times of significant challenges to ensure that all skills are used as effectively as possible. It requires a paradigm shift. The project participants are not a means to the end of achieving the goal, but rather, the project is a means for the purpose of unleashing human potential. Basic needs, such as autonomy, competence and relatedness, come into play here. To achieve this, it is necessary to remove structural and cultural barriers and allow more creative freedom. A reconsideration of the role of humans in projects is also necessary because digitalisation and automation, as well as various applications of artificial intelligence (AI), are increasingly finding their way into project management. Human skills should be used where technologies have weaknesses. The AI can then gladly take over any routine processes in projects.


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