08 Oct 2020

The project is dead, long live the project!

European Projects Behind the Scenes (5)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

The word project originates from Latin proiectum “something thrown forth,” noun use of neuter of proiectus, past participle of proicere “stretch out, throw forth,” from pro- “forward” + combining form of iacere (past participle iactus) “to throw” (from Online Etymology Dictionary).

Following conventional project management paradigms from the 1970s and 1980s, “project” can be understood as a unique entity with limited duration and with a clear and predefined start and end date. Definitions primarily aim to provide a distinction between “projects” and other activities and processes; emphasizing its uniqueness, temporariness, and unrepeatability (in contrast to a production line, which is a continuous and repetitive process). Due to its sui generis character “project” is also frequently associated with novelty, innovation, and risk-taking. Two projects, therefore, cannot be identical by the definition.

In a narrow, legal sense, each project has a formal beginning and end, as defined in a grant agreement or contract between the investor – European Commission or its agencies; and project coordinator representing the project consortium. However, in a broader sense, several activities are carried out before and after the formal project duration. Everything starts with a “call for proposals”, which is developed by the European Commission. Several negotiations and lobbying activities are carried out to influence the respective development process so that the call for proposals could take into account certain European development visions, trends, and priorities, or even more particular interests (the latter is mainly done in the “backstage”). The call specifies specific key topics and thematic areas together with the available budget. Once published, the (future) project partners develop and conceptualize their ideas, which derive from the state-of-the-art analysis – what is currently going on in our interest areas and what are the needs of our target groups. The partners shape and design their ideas to fit the formal structure required by the project documentation; e.g. they set the objectives and anticipate desired impacts, develop a work plan with work packages, define project methodology with a proposed budget, etc. The coordinator submits the elaborated project documentation in the form of a project application. Next, external and independent evaluation is carried out and – in an ideal scenario – the project proposal is approved and a grant agreement is signed. And only now, the “project” in its narrow sense can start. This is the period of its formal implementation, determined firstly by the formal project structure and rules as set in the contract; and, on the other, shaped by the informal organization that emerges as an assembly of concrete activities of individuals & project groups, their interpersonal relations, and communication flows.

In the end, every “successful” project produces results and creates an identifiable and measurable change compared to the initial phase. Although the project is formally and legally completed, its results should still be maintained and (financially) sustained over the long-term. Key sustainability criteria are the continuous usage and implementation of project results together with (measurable) impacts, that are produced. Sustainability of results is therefore not ensured by its authors – i.e. project partners, nor by investors – i.e. European Commission. Both can only set proper grounds to enable or enhance it. Therefore, the key project idea and mission that are reflected in project activities and results – let’s call them the project substance – need additional means, resources, funds, or investments to become sustainable after the official end of the project. They can be ensured by individuals, organizations, or states. Frequently, the additional resources can also derive from newly approved projects – meaning that the project substance continues to evolve in a new, reshaped way (e.g. projects involving new partners, projects submitted and approved in different work programmes or financial schemes, etc.).

In the intermediate phase – the so-called liminality in anthropology – the project substance finds itself between two stable conditions. It’s an ambiguous stage in which the substance is neither the old nor the new project. As in other social rituals, this stage can be quite dangerous from an existential point of view. The cohesion of project partnership is being tested and with time passing the challenges are becoming bigger and bigger. Therefore, there is a high risk that it would weaken, fall apart, considerably change (not resembling itself anymore) or even diminish. Project partnerships can break apart losing contacts among themselves (especially due to geographical distance); partners can individually start focusing on other priority areas; project ideas can become obsolete compared to the trends in the society etc.

Victor Turner studied different phases and levels of meaning provided by rites of passage among the Ndembu (now Zambia in Africa). In his book The Ritual Process (1969) he described the liminal phase, in which an individual is in a certain sense placed outside society, ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner 1969). Following Turner’s definition, the liminal phase could be emphasized as of key importance since the project substance is on stake and its potentials are widely tested. Its true value and persistence, advantages, and long-term perspectives; together with weaknesses and pitfalls become more evident.

If the project substance is capable to survive the liminal phase, it can be reborn and reintegrated in a form of a new project; frequently in a more advanced, better elaborated, and more impactful manifestation. On the contrary, if the liminal phase causes the project substance to diminish – so that it no longer exists; the coordinator and project partnership can find themselves in a rather delicate situation; especially vis-à-vis the investor (European Commission). It becomes obvious that the activities and projects results are not sustainable as promised and as foreseen in initial project documentation or final reports. Since it is already formally completed, the project lost its formal structure and the legal relations no longer exist. But on the other hand, the informal bounds are still there due to the promises that were provided to the Commission. So, it is an ambiguous and indefinite state. Certain expectations or even requirements for sustainability exist, but the true status is not assessed, nor encouraged on a systemic level. In reality, the most frequent scenario resembles a sort of a gentleman agreement; where all involved actors behave as if everything is still on track and – although clearly evident to everybody – they do not speak out loud about the true “death” of the project.

Turner, Victor Witter (1969). The Ritual ProcessStructure and Anti-Structure. New York: Cornell

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.

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