Portfolio of control modes in project teams: a Hong Kong case study

The management of projects through various planning and control tools has been described essentially as rebureaucratisation which increases control over individuals, teams and organisations through ideologies of efficiency and performativity and, thus, aspire a new form of “iron cage” of project rationality. Yet, it has also been argued that certain characteristics of the project setting makes it an ideal environment for the empowerment of individuals and teams. The manifestations of control in project teams are examined through a case study of a Hong Kong public housing development project. Control in this context is viewed broadly as encompassing all devices and systems employed to ensure that acts, behaviours and decisions of individuals, teams and organisations are consistent with meeting organisational or project goals, objectives and strategies. The data was collected through documentary analysis, passive observations and semi-structured face-to-face interviews, and analysed using descriptive methods. The findings indicate that all stakeholders implement a portfolio of control modes comprising both formal (i.e. behaviour-based and outcome-based) and informal (i.e. clan and self) control mechanisms which are not necessarily incompatible. A portfolio of control modes appears necessary because formal modes of control are static in nature and can become redundant in dealing fully with the evolving nature of the project environment in which plans, targets and procedures are often not immutable but fluid and changeable. Controllers design new control mechanisms to help in implementing the formal controls already in place or invoke informal control modes which are more responsive to changing project conditions and particularly appropriate when uncertainty is high, knowledge of the transformation process is imperfect and outputs are immeasurable. The control of projects is therefore not only a function of what formal control mechanisms stakeholders put in place, but what informal control mechanisms those being controlled also put in place to augment the inadequacies of formal control.