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A surprise factor? Diversity as a condition for project success

Blog posted by: Conrad Heine, 19 November 2020.


It’s early days for the Association for Project Management’s study into the main factors behind project success, with interviews having only kicked off in September. But even so, some unexpected themes are emerging. So far, the role of diversity – of race, gender, background, discipline and more – particularly stands out.

Diversity did not feature in APM’s 2015 Conditions for Project Success report, which the current study revisits. It was also not stated as an explicit condition for project success in advance of the current study. According to Dr David Eggleton of the University of Sussex – who is leading the study alongside the University of Southampton’s Professor Nicholas Dacre and researchers Dr Bernardo Cantone and Vasilis Gkogkidis – this was because it didn’t feature prominently in the academic literature reviewed in advance. “However, all of our interviewees so far have made it explicit that projects really benefit from a diverse team in terms of gender, ethnicity and disciplinary perspectives,” he says.

That is only logical. As Eggleton puts it: “A wide variety of rich ideas is more likely to emerge with diverse teams.” That then begs the question: why was the emergence of diversity unexpected? After all, like with most large organisations or businesses, the importance of diversity is undoubtedly on APM’s radar. For example, in September, the Think Differently virtual event, which explored the profession’s evolving approach to diversity, underlined its importance.

Industry in the lead

Eggleton suggests that diversity’s emergence as a key theme, despite its lack of prominence in the literature, is a case of the industry being a step ahead of academia. “In project management as a discipline, sometimes it’s academia that makes the insights. But often it’s industry going first. It’s a symbiotic relationship; agile, for example, was first driven by industry.

“We work in partnership,” he adds. “There is no monopoly on being the first to make new discoveries. We limited ourselves to the academic side at first, but once the interviews started, diversity immediately came through, time and time again.”

The team success factor

At this early stage, Eggleton stresses that the team cannot yet state definitively how diversity is a condition for project success. But with the interviewees on board, the study is making strong progress. Eggleton expects that diversity could soon blossom out into its own theme, alongside other new concepts introduced since the original principles were developed in 2015, including sustainability, data analytics and machine learning. “We can then seek to categorise the different dimensions of diversity that help to, if not ensure project success, give the best chance of it.”

Right now, diversity appears to be an important component of team ethos, and diversity of discipline and skill are likely to prove as relevant to project success as ethnic and gender diversity. “This makes sense,” Eggleton explains. “Diversity of viewpoints in a team leads to better ideas making it through. This requires mutual respect, and this project should highlight that.”

The analytical framework

Now the question is how to measure diversity’s role in project success. Eggleton says that the team is thinking of using a “communities of practice” analytical framework to assess interdisciplinary teams. That consists of “concentric rings of closeness, with a common language, common values and shared goals”.

“The really valuable people are not those at the core, but at the periphery – the boundary-spanners, members of two different communities of practice, who bring new ideas in. These tend to be the interdisciplinary people who understand the technological consequences but also the managerial implications. They are valuable because they prevent groupthink and bring in new ideas.”

Empowering diverse input

This is broadly in line with how project management has changed in recent years, with the focus shifting from scientists and engineers to societal outcomes. Taking it further in terms of diversity means being aware of issues of power – and how to get past them for the good of a project.

Crucially, that means getting those from diverse backgrounds on board. “The challenge is to get people from non-traditional backgrounds to stand up and be counted,” Eggleton notes.

Now that diversity has emerged as a success factor, Eggleton and the team are “looking forward to exploring this in greater depth”, adding that “more surprises may emerge”. 

To get involved or to find out more about the new ‘Dynamic conditions for project success’ research, please visit our research opportunities page.

About the Author

Conrad Heine is a freelance journalist from New Zealand, based in London. He has written about the overseas campuses of British universities and post-disaster project management for the APM.


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