The Hawthorne effect: Demystifying the measurement of project results

Newly minted project managers are often full of self importance, having just learned how to do something clever, which they believe will revolutionize the way projects are handled.If I drew a simple organigram, it would reveal the CEO at the top, the CFO, COO and CIO at the next level, and other boxes without labels below that. But where does the project manager live?
Often people will tell me where they wish project managers belong (usually somewhere very far up the food chain of course) but the real answer is often less satisfying. In most organizations, project managers live as a dotted line to the left or right below a CxO of some kind with no direct authority at all.
For newly frocked project managers brimming full of new ideas and techniques, this is like throwing a bucket of water on a good campfire. You may be given tremendous responsibility and even accountability, but no real authority. How, then can a project manager with all the techniques and tools we discuss in these columns bring those tools to bear on the organization to effect change? Aside from begging and grovelling, there is one tool that has phenomenal power and is wholly in the control of good project managers.
Science tells us through a principle called the Hawthorne effect that the very act of measuring something changes the thing being measured. The Hawthorne effect was demonstrated in a water study done in Tucson, Arizona. A couple of water researchers named Woodward and Hirshon were studying how water was being used in Tucson households. In the study, it became apparent that as soon as people knew that water meters were measuring the water used in different ways throughout the house, their use of that water decreased remarkably.
Of course, the effect was only apparent when people knew they were being monitored. If the measuring is secret, there is no effect at all.
This effect translates very nicely to the project management paradigm where most project management tools are all about measurement and then display of the data. In fact, the manner in which data is displayed has a profound effect on both the people doing the work and those managing it.
Imagine a project team that can see consistent data showing the project is understaffed due to a low priority ranking on a portfolio grid. The morale of the team might be terrible, thereby contributing to poor performance.
On the other hand, imagine showing a project team a report that shows the pace of work and the trend over time in which it’s obvious the team is now closing in on a target that it once thought it might not attain. It would be easy to imagine this team redoubling its efforts to attain that milestone.
The power of generating targeted project displays that generate particular effects can’t be underestimated. Any senior manager who has had a report-generating expert knows how important it is to keep that expertise close at hand.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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