In this new section, we will publish summarized insights on temporary organizing from network members’ ongoing research. We kick off with Blagoy Blagoev‘s study on the temporal coordination of complex project work.
Temporally coordinating work in a viable way is a key challenge for most project teams. As temporary organizational systems, projects are characterized by an »institutionalized termination« (Lundin & Söderholm, 1995: 449), i.e. there is an ultimate deadline by which the overall project task should be completed. Delays are costly. They directly impact the profitability of the project.
Temporal coordination, however, is particularly challenging when project work is complex, i.e. when team members (i) have to deal with a variety of tasks simultaneously, yet to do so (ii) they need inputs from multiple other internal or external actors who are themselves also dealing with a multiplicity of tasks (Briscoe & Rogan, 2015). This is the rule in many project-based organizations where employees are typically involved in multiple projects simultaneously. Such complexity renders most traditional modes of temporally coordinating via schedules, timelines, and other forms of upfront planning inadequate. That is, in order to be viable, any such project schedule would need to be aligned with numerous other project schedules – something that increases the complexity of scheduling up to a point where one can speak of an essentially »irresolvable problem of temporal coordination«. Yet, in many cases, project teams do manage to tackle this complexity without following a schedule while meeting most key deadlines. One is tempted to ask: How is such a highly complex coordination problem resolved in organizational practice?
In an ongoing research project, Dr. Waldemar Kremser (Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands) and I address this question based on an ethnographic study of a consulting project team working on a big civil construction project. The project was complex because it brought together a large number of participants who spanned multiple organizations (i.e. the consulting firm, its client, and its sub-contractors). In our analysis, we looked at how the overall coordination challenge presented itself to the individual team members and how those acted upon it.
We found that, for individual team members, the overall coordination challenge boiled down to the question of how to prioritize the various tasks on their to-do lists in order to »fit their actions with those of others« (Turner & Rindova, 2017: 6), something they could not infer from formal schedules alone. Instead, in their prioritizing team members continuously referred to the anticipated prioritizing of significant others within the project team. That is, each team member observed, on the one hand, the enacted prioritizing decisions of other team members and, on the other, significant others’ reactions to one’s own prioritizing decisions. As a consequence, actors continuously updated person-related expectations about (i) which contributions a given person expects/delivers when and (ii) the social position of that person in relation to one’s own (collectively established) social position. Based on these expectations, each team member was able to dynamically prioritize her contributions in a way that generally avoided negative sanctioning by other team members.
Over time, the repetitive resolution of recurrent time allocation problems within the project became patterned itself. In other words, a recognizable pattern of time use patterns – a working time regime – emerged for the consulting team as a whole. This time regime emerged as a solution out of individual team members iterative attempts to temporally coordinate in a viable way. Yet, it was also a source of constant complaints given the consistently long and inflexible hours team members had to work (i.e. typically between 70 and 80 hours a week). Our analysis revealed that this regime was particularly difficult to change because it was an expression of the underlying normative ordering of persons and tasks (e.g. »Who and what is important?«, »Who and what can wait?«, »What needs to be done immediately?«) enacted through individual prioritizing decisions. Indeed, for the team members, prioritizing decision were – at least implicitly – always also normative statements, as working upon a specific task also meant not working upon another and leaving someone else waiting for one’s input. By temporally coordinating project work in this manner, team members perpetuated a regime of excessive working hours which no one desired, but everyone collectively enacted.
Against the background of the larger trend of “projectification” in Western economies (Lundin & Sydow, 2015) and the shift to »agile« forms of self-organization, such modes of ad-hoc, iterative temporal coordination are likely to gain importance in a growing number of settings. Our project contributes not only to a better theoretical understanding of the temporal coordination of complex project work, but also highlights the potentially highly problematic consequences of self-organization for the people working in such settings. Finding novel ways to counteract such tendencies to excessive working hours remains a pressing issue both for research and practice.
— Blagoy Blagoev is a post-doctoral research associate at the Department of Management, Freie Universität Berlin. He received his doctoral degree from Freie Universität Berlin in 2015. In his dissertation, which received the Ernst Reuter Prize 2016, he studied the historical evolution and escalating persistence of extra-long working hours regimes in elite management consulting firms. In his DFG-funded post-doc project, he continues his research on the dynamics of working time regimes in consulting firms. Apart from this interest in organizational change and inertia, his research also focuses on (1) the temporal coordination of routines in complex project work, (2) power and control in professional service firms, and (3) history and organizational memory.