New research: Could better conversations boost project success rates?

New research: Could better conversations boost project success rates? The high failure rate of complex organisational projects has led veteran academic and IT practitioner Dr JULIAN DAY to pioneer a practical theory of human collaboration that breaks new ground in counteracting the shortcomings of mainstream project management. The details of this research are presented in…

New research: Could better conversations boost project success rates?

The high failure rate of complex organisational projects has led veteran academic and IT practitioner Dr JULIAN DAY to pioneer a practical theory of human collaboration that breaks new ground in counteracting the shortcomings of mainstream project management. The details of this research are presented in a new white paper published by Henley Business School.


South Africans are in the dark right now because of a project management failure of epic proportions. We all know that the Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations, which were commissioned by Eskom in 2008 as a solution to load shedding, are still not fully operational and a cool R300-billion over budget and that this is conspiring to keep the lights off.


It’s a topic that has become synonymous with poor management and state capture that many consider to be a uniquely South African phenomenon, but according to Dr Julian Day, author of a new white paper published this week by Henley Business School Africa, it is not, in fact, a unique case. Big projects fail at an astonishing rate – more than half the time by some estimates, with huge repercussions for business and the wider economy he says. This is partly what prompted him to develop a practical theory of human collaboration. His ground-breaking new theory, which is captured in the white paper titled Deliberate Collaboration, seeks to counteract some of the shortcomings of traditional project management approaches.


The white paper is written from a practitioner’s perspective and stemmed from Dr Day’s observations during his early career in IT in the 1980s and 1990s, that mainstream project management is not founded on explicit theory.


“Whenever we find ourselves struggling with persistent problems, it is usually the theories that we rely on that let us down,” he says. “A good theory enables us to understand, predict, and master situations we need to manage. However, if the theories we depend on are flawed or missing altogether, we will struggle to cope and life can seem unmanageable.”


Building a practical theory of collaboration

In his new paper Dr Day describes how he set about building a practical theory to create ‘manageability’ in complex situations based on decades of observation and research. It’s not about doing project management better, he says, but about starting again with a whole new approach and premise that puts effective conversation between human beings at the centre of the process.


“When I started in IT 15% of software projects around the world were complete failures, going over time or over budget and the final system that was implemented was usually disappointing in terms of expectations and performance,” he comments. “The industry responded by investing in project management and software development methodologies that grew voluminously in an effort to improve the reliability of software implementation. But instead of improving, the situation deteriorated. By the mid 1990s, the worldwide failure rate had grown to around 70 percent.


“I became demoralised and started to question the methodologies, wondering if they were causing more harm than good.”


He came to the conclusion that the methodologies in question were often based on unquestioned assumptions that were indeed causing harm. Project participants couldn’t agree on the project requirements and business objectives and were embroiled in dysfunctional conversations that made the collaboration unmanageable. His deceptively simple solution to this was to try to find ways to improve the quality of conversations they were having.


The ability to talk to each other is what makes us human, so let’s use it

Dr Day explains that when he began his research, he had asked: ‘How can we prevent project failure in the IT industry?’, but as he dug deeper into this question, he came to see the importance of collaborative conversation as a solution. “I believe that one of the things that sets us apart as human beings is that we can have conversations, so we need to learn how to use this when approaching complex challenges.”


Humans may be genetically similar to other great apes but a fundamental difference between them is that humans are able to think about what other people are thinking. “A chimpanzee knows what’s going on in its own mind, but it doesn’t know what other chimps are thinking, in fact they don’t even know that other chimps have minds,” explains Dr Day. “Humans, on the other hand, are excellent mind readers. By the age of four, children become increasingly skilled at understanding what’s going on in the minds of others.”


In general, the less mind reading someone needs to do, the more manageable the situation is, but the problem is that mind reading can be disastrously inaccurate leading to misunderstandings and potential dysfunctionality, which is why meaningful conversation – to check assumptions among other things – is indispensable.


This train of thought led Dr Day to experiment with conversation design, which in turn led to experiments with collaboration design, and ultimately to answering an entirely different question from the one he started with.

“My new research question was: ‘How can I design productive, collaborative projects in complex situations?’ And this question is relevant to all industries, not just to IT,” he explains.


In fact, the practical theory of human collaboration that has emerged from Dr Day’s research and which is set out in the white paper has far-reaching implications for all situations where collaboration between humans is necessary.


Integrating practical principles around thinking, talking and acting

The paper argues that the success of projects depends largely on the design of the conversations in which project commitments are made, and that ‘contagious manageability’ can be achieved by redesigning the cognitive environment of the conversation system to create a ‘small world’ where it is possible and easier to achieve a workably accurate understanding of what is going on in everyone’s mind.


“Collaboration,” says Dr Day, “involves people who think, talk and act to make shared commitments to shared goals and to create manageability we need to understand and integrate practical principles around thinking, talking and acting.”


This is the first time that Dr Day has taken steps to put on paper the theory that underpins his work as a consultant and facilitator. His methodology is spelled out in his book The Systemic Stairway™ and has already been successfully applied in multiple situations and industries across South Africa. Most recently, Dr Day facilitated a process with gsport on how to advance equity in women’s sport that led to the first ever formal strategy to map out priorities and actions to move women’s sport forward in capability and impact as well as commercially.


“Many people have experienced the collaboration methodologies that I use and teach but have never seen the underlying theory that informs these methodologies and drives me in practice, in use,” he says. “I believe that reflective practitioners such as myself can develop robust theories worth sharing and I hope mine makes a valuable contribution to anyone struggling with complex projects and organisational effectiveness.”

Download a copy of this white paper here 


About Henley Business School Africa

Henley Business School is a leading global business school with campuses in Europe, Africa and Asia and is the only international business school in Africa with quadruple accreditation from the leading UK, European, US and African accrediting bodies: AMBA, EQUIS, AACSB and AABS. Henley is committed to transformation and holds a level 1 BBBEE status and has been rated by corporates for five years running as the #1 MBA business school in South Africa ( 2018-2022). Henley is also the highest ranked business school in southern Africa for executive education (FT 2022). Offering qualifications from NQF level 5 to 9, Henley’s vision is simple: we build the people, who build the businesses, that build Africa. 

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