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Practices, projects and portfolios: Current research trends and
, Catherine P. Killen
⁎, Christopher Biesenthal
, Shankar Sankaran
Faculty of Business, University of Technology Sydney, P O Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia
Universidade Nova Faculty of Business and Economics, Lisboa, Portugal
Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, University of Technology Sydney, P O Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia
WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management, Erkrather Str. 224a, D-40233 Düsseldorf, Germany
Received 15 September 2016; received in revised form 22 March 2018; accepted 22 March 2018
Available online xxxx
Project portfolio management (PPM) bridges strategy and project management. Traditional research in PPM has primarily investigated the
rational, top-down and structural aspects of strategizing. By doing so, it has failed to focus on the underlying practices that are triggered by the
strategy and how these practices frame strategy implementation. Practice-based research provides a methodological lens to explore the reality of
strategic enactment through the project portfolio. Practice-based perspectives are under-represented in PPM research; therefore the aim of this
paper is to provide an agenda for further practice-based research in PPM. Central to this agenda is a concern with various aspects of practice,
including its discursivity, representation, dynamic capabilities, leadership and materiality.
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd. APM and IPMA. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Practice-based research; Strategy-as-practice; Project portfolio management; Dynamic capability; Emergent strategy
Traditionally framed by mechanistic and rationally linear
assumptions, project management research is evolving to embrace
more contextual practice-based perspectives. Focusing on what
project managers do in practice addresses the gap between the
abstract idealism of prescribed approaches and the practical
heuristics of sensemaking as enacted project management, which
helps understand how these abstract ideas are translated and used in
practice. While practice-based research has gained some momen-
tum in the project management context (Blomquist et al., 2010;
Lalonde et al., 2010), PPM research is only beginning to adopt this
new direction. We highlight some practice-based findings in PPM
research, arguing that there is a need for PPM research to move
more definitively into “practice-based”approaches, and suggest an
agenda with which to stimulate future research.
Our agenda builds on the convergence of strategic and
practice-based perspectives in PPM research. Organizational
strategy is increasingly delivered through the project portfolio,
making PPM a core research theme in the general field of project
management due to its focus on the oversight and holistic
management of projects at a portfolio level. Research linking
strategy and PPM has for some time been published in top
management journals (Kwak and Anbari, 2009), and strategic
theories and frameworks increasingly enhance research in project
and portfolio management (Killen et al., 2012).
“Strategy-as-practice”researchers (Jarzabkowski, 2005;
Johnson et al., 2007;Regnér, 2008), together with an emergent
“projects-as-practice”perspective (Blomquist et al., 2010;
Lalonde et al., 2010, 2012), are shifting the gaze from strategy
as it is conceived to how it is practiced in action. In this article we
focus on PPM and related activities as means through which
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org (S. Clegg),
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0263-7863/00 © 2018 Elsevier Ltd. APM and IPMA. All rights reserved.
Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762 –772
organizational strategy is translated, improvised and made
sensible (Czarniawska and Sevón, 2005).
The practice-based perspective seeks to make sense of and
examine how strategy is translated into a portfolio of projects.
Using a practice-based approach advances understanding of how
strategizing –as a process of sensemaking, improvisation and
translation –is accomplished in a project environment (Jerbrant
and Karrbom Gustavsson, 2013;Karrbom Gustavsson, 2016). By
attending to practice in situ, academic researchers aid practitioners
by engaging with their performativity in integrating theory and
practice in action (Konstantinou, 2015). Since practice-based
research in PPM is still in its early stages, we believe it vital to
“take stock”and depict what has already been done in that area to
help advance the field as purposely as possible. Hence, this paper
provides an overview of the literature on practice-based PPM
research and propose avenues for further strengthening research
in this area.
The paper is structured as follows. First, we provide a
general review of the PPM literature and its relation to strategy.
We then introduce our understanding of practice and the
emergence of practice-based research approaches in PPM, with
special attention to practice-based research relating to PPM and
strategy. Building on this broad review of PPM research and
our understanding of practice-based theories, we then propose an
agenda to inspire and guide future research. Central to this agenda
is a concern with various aspects of practice: its discursivity,
intelligibility, dynamic capabilities, leadership and materiality.
2. The PPM literature and strategy approaches
PPM acts as a bridge between strategy and projects. We take a
broad view of PPM and define it as the overall organizational
ability to manage the project portfolio strategically and
holistically, the better to support the success of the organization
(Killen and Hunt, 2010). Ensuring that projects are aligned with
strategy and achieving portfolio balance are primary PPM goals
in an ongoing process of prioritising, resourcing, and adjusting or
terminating projects (Kester et al., 2011). PPM is constituted as a
more strategic and higher-level function than project manage-
ment, albeit that they are interdependent (Brady and Davies,
2004;Keegan and Turner, 2002;Larson, 2004). Strategically,
their interdependence is often viewed as a constraint on lower
level practices in an organization. In this sense PPM emerges out
of quite conventional strategy perspectives. Portfolio approaches
to projects form a major part of organizational strategy, leading
to an increasing focus on PPM studies in the wider project
The volume of literature on PPM and its strong strategic
emphasis is well documented (e.g. Filippov et al., 2010;Kester
et al., 2011;Kwak and Anbari, 2009;Killen et al., 2012). Urhahn
and Spieth (2013) propose that ‘portfolio management gover-
nance’affords devices that enable an extension of PPM, and
governance from a PPM perspective is also receiving increased
attention from a range of authors. Doherty et al. (2012) find
benefits from governance structures that manage projects as a
portfolio rather than individually in their interpretive multiple
case study research. Too and Weaver (2014),Thiry and Deguire
(2007),andJonas (2010) emphasise the strategic linkages in their
conceptual models of governance in project portfolio environ-
ments, while Williams et al. (2010) analyse differences in the
implementation of governance frameworks across four cases
demonstrating differences in choices of strategies and the
importance of tailoring governance to context. The strategic
role played by portfolio managers and the importance of role
clarity is highlighted in a range of empirical studies on
governance in multi-project environments (Mosavi, 2014;
Blomquist and Muller, 2006;Koh and Crawford, 2012).
An increasingly common topic for PPM research is the
interactions between different organizational components, espe-
cially in regard to how strategy is formulated and translated via
the project portfolio into individual projects and subsequent
benefits (Breese, 2012;Terlizzi et al., 2017;Doherty et al., 2012).
The stream of research on strategy formation usually uses a
top-down perspective to make sense of the interactions between
portfolios and projects. While this top-down perspective ac-
knowledges and primarily focuses on rational mechanisms for
their role in PPM, more recently researchers have called for an
appropriate balance in the perspective, with more emphasis on
structural, cultural, inter-personaland behavioural aspects (Jensen
et al., 2016;Martinsuo et al., 2014;Stingl and Geraldi, 2017;
Unger et al., 2014;Wynn et al., 2016). In addition, the bottom-up
perspective of strategy formation provides an alternative view on
“strategizing”in PPM research, with interest in emergent strategy
now forming an influential theme.
Empirical research by Poskela et al. (2005) revealed that PPM
processes are central to integrating strategic and operational
activities in the front-end phase of innovation. Through 20
interviews with top managers, Poskela et al. found that a
participative strategy formulation process that included top-down
as well as bottom-up communication processes improved the
integration of strategic and operative management, highlighting
what is now a core feature of the practice-based perspective on
strategy. This perspective is reflected in Thiry and Deguire's
(2007) conceptual model of multi-project governance. The model
proposes a two-way relationship between strategy and projects,
where the project management office plays a role in top-down
strategy communication and oversight, and also in collating
and analysing data from projects from the bottom-up in order
to reformulate strategy. More recently, Kopmann et al. (2017)
explored emergent strategy and the interplay of top-down
and bottom-up strategizing through a multi-informant survey.
The study demonstrates the role of PPM in formulating and
implementing deliberate strategy as well as in recognising and
supporting emergent strategy; in turbulent contexts the impor-
tance of PPM support for emergent strategies is amplified, while
PPM's role in delivering deliberately designed plans becomes
less relevant as emergent strategy redefines how the project
mission is being accomplished.
The nexus between PPM and strategy emphasises the
importance of understanding emergent strategy processes in
order best to manage the totality of realised strategy. Mirabeau
and Maguire (2014) conducted a practice-based study of
emergent strategy in a telecommunications firm that provides a
deeper understanding of the relationship than could be obtained
763S. Clegg et al. / International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762–772
through case studies, conceptual work and survey-based research.
They demonstrated how projects initiated to solve local problems
and operational issues influenced formal strategic directions
emergently through a longitudinal study spanning nearly ten
years. The practice-based method included direct involvement
and observation augmented by a range of other data collection
(including over 2000 emails) and analysis methods. This type of
study provides a methodological lens to capture the detailed
reality of strategy processes to support deep analysis and under-
standing. While practice-based research has evident methodo-
logical implications, suggesting studying the actors' practices in
situ in context, in their everyday work, there is a large theoretical
literature that stands behind this methodology. These theoretical
approaches place practice –what people do when working, when
engaged in the practical accomplishment of their work –in
central focus mediating individual agencies at work and the social
institutions in which that work is grounded and enacted. Practices
are ‘embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity
centrally organized around shared practical understandings’
(Schatzki, 2001: 2; see also Schatzki, 2002). These activities
and understandings have long been a central focus for social
science researchers concerned with the relation of structure and
agency, such as Bourdieu (2002),Foucault (1979),Garfinkel
(1967),Giddens (1984) and Turner (1994).Inorganization
theory the work of Feldman and Orlikowski (2011) and Nicolini
(2012) has focused on practice as something that members of
organizations do, as an activity that draws on institutionalized
norms embedded in the use of materials, methods and devices.
Practice-based research has been endorsed as one of the main
conclusions of a review of the ‘rethinking project management’
agenda that has recommended a broader research perspective
(Svejvig and Andersen, 2015). Practice-based studies provide
insight into the everyday work world of increasingly complex,
dynamic and interconnected project contexts in which concep-
tually strategic aspects are translated into practice. Addressing
strategy as it is formulated is of little value if we do not
understand the practices through which what is formulated as a
design is constituted and sometimes resisted in practice. Studying
the social organization of everyday work relations in key arenas,
such as project leadership team meetings, is an important way
of attending to strategy as practice, in practice. In doing so,
the social reality of how normative models imposing linear
rationality on the project process are used in practice can be
investigated. Whether actuality and prescription concur is a moot
question, one that a practice-oriented approach can explore.
3. Practice and practice-based research
Orlikowski (2015) suggests practice can be seen in three
ways: as a phenomenon for which the central notion is what
happens “in practice”as opposed to what is derived or expected
from “theory”; as a perspective, in which a distinct way of
looking at the world is developed; and as a philosophy that
regards what we take for granted as social reality as something
that depends on habituated ways of seeing. Practice is productive
of those phenomena to which interested audiences attend, such
as managers, critics and academic analysts. These practices
constitute a reality by providing a distinct perspective on the
world; to the extent that these perspectives constitute models
of the world through means of representing, accounting for,
normalizing and representing it as something surveyed, signifi-
cant and salient, they assume world-making powers (Tsoukas,
1998;Law and Urry, 2004).
Strategy research has recently been transformed in focus
through notions of practice. The community of
“strategy-as-practice”researchers is broadly defined as ‘a
network concerned with everyday processes, practices and
activities involved in strategy’(Carter et al., 2011:27). By
studying activities distributed throughout an organization, the
study of “strategy-as-practice”provides understanding of how
strategies are implemented (Jarzabkowski, 2003;Johnson et al.,
2007). By turning to questions of how strategy is enacted in
practice rather than in design, and by focusing on implementa-
tion, empirical studies gained traction in the strategic manage-
ment community. The “strategy-as-practice”movement thus
promoted the value of research grounded in the everyday
practices used within organizations (Cook and Brown, 1999;
Jarzabkowski and Wilson, 2006;Johnson et al., 2007;
Similarly, practice-based studies are not entirely new to
project management research. Precursors are Clegg’s(1975)
ethnomethodologically influenced discourse-based research of
the management of projects and Morris and Hough's (1987)
study of the “reality”of projects through multiple perspectives.
These research reports used what was, in effect, a practice-based
lens to explore the wider context of project management practice.
The former focused on power relations in projects while the latter
looked at aspects such as strategy and finance, in addition to the
traditional topics generally identified with “project management”.
More recently, the Rethinking Project Management Network
(Cicmil et al., 2006) has urged project management researchers to
study projects in practice, prompting a surge in publications
about the importance of practice-based research in project
management (see, for example, Klein et al., 2015;Floricel et
al., 2014;O'Leary and Williams, 2013;Hällgren and Söderholm,
2011;Blomquist et al., 2010;Lalonde and Bourgault, 2013;
Lalonde et al., 2010, 2012;Sauer and Reich, 2009).
Practice-based studies emphasize the importance of communica-
tion and negotiation skills, and highlight the disjoint between an
ideal based on the rational assumptions common in project and
portfolio management, and the tensions that exist in reality due to
differing perspectives and interpretations (Breese, 2012;
Coombs, 2015;Mosavi, 2014).
The importance of practice and context has been repeatedly
highlighted in PPM research. Martinsuo (2013) suggests that
what is done in PPM practice differs greatly from its idealization
in decision-making theory. For example, practice-based studies
reveal deviations from expected PPM processes as unauthorised
projects consume valuable resources to the detriment of
authorised project success (Blichfeldt and Eskerod, 2008).
Decisions are not made following rational assumptions but are
strongly influenced by context in a process of learning and
negotiation (Christiansen and Varnes, 2008). Executive behav-
iours are found to skew portfolio decisions on project
764 S. Clegg et al. / International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762–772
terminations, rendering them less rational than portrayed (Lechler
and Thomas, 2015). The influence of contextual factors (such as
different management styles, organizational cultures, or levels of
complexity or change) on PPM decision-making is observed in
multiple practice-oriented studies (see, for example, Biedenbach
and Müller, 2012;Blomquist and Muller, 2006;Dietrich, 2006;
Kock et al., 2016;Loch, 2000;Olsson, 2008;Unger et al., 2012),
while the influence of power relations are shown to be especially
strong in other in-depth studies (Clegg and Kreiner, 2013;Kester
et al., 2011).
PPM studies can draw on existing practice-based perspectives
that offer an opportunity to focus on the growing interrelation of
institutional theory and practice oriented perspectives (Zietsma
and Lawrence, 2010;Smets et al., 2015), especially as these are
embedded in institutional logics (Thornton, 2004;Thornton et al.,
2012) or shaped by institutional entrepreneurship (Tracey et al.,
2011). The influence of power relations on the processes used for
portfolio-level management are evident in the ways in which
innovative institutional logics can frame KPIs around themes of
sustainability, for instance, creating new forms of institutional
work in practice, such as thinking in the “future perfect”in order
to accomplish not only cost and schedule requirements but also
to achieve sustainable ecological and community outcomes
(Pitsis et al., 2003).
4. Directions for future practice-based PPM research
While strategy and related topics are currently the main concern
of practice-based PPM research, practice-based studies allow
researchers to investigate the underlying practices of managing a
portfolio of projects. There are many opportunities for practice-based
research into PPM. For instance, the project selection and
re-prioritization stages are particularly fruitful for practice-based
research because it is in these moments and situations in which the
links between organizational strategies as formally conceived are
translated into project practice. Specifically identifying such
opportunities can help guide and expedite the growth of
practice-based research in PPM, and provide meaningful insights
for researchers and practitioners.
In the remainder of the paper, we therefore propose an agenda
for extending practice-based perspectives in PPM drawing upon
recent work linking strategy and practice (Clegg et al., 2017). In
tailoring the agenda to PPM, our approach is informed by close
attention to the relation between power and language: we look at
discursive practices generally; we then move on to consider
gendered aspects of these relations. Shifting the focus from the
discursive to the more organizational level we switch focus to
those dynamic capabilities that constitute a shifting resource
base embedding an organizations' competitiveness through an
evolving ability to adapt to change. Unless dynamic capabilities
find expression and recognition in leadership they are as nought;
hence we extend the power focus to leadership. Finally, in
response to the rapidly developing sociomateriality agenda in
social science we acknowledge the power of materialities:
especially those tools that enable PPM practices. We have
considered the skills required to develop and transfer a strategy
across a portfolio of different projects to propose an agenda to
guide future research on practice-based PPM. We start with a call
for PPM research investigating performativity through discursive
practice, and then follow with four further themes for
practice-based PPM research (intelligibility, dynamic capabili-
ties, leadership and materiality). In doing so, we join forces with
the recent paper in this journal by Havermans et al. (2015: 976) in
which they state that ‘A strategic understanding of language and
narratives and their role is useful for project and program
managers as it opens opportunities for shaping emergent
narratives and in so doing shaping the progress of projects.’
4.1. Investigating performativity through discursive practice
How language is used frames issues (Mantere, 2013). One aspect
of the medium by which discursive practices are accomplished is
through the dominant stories in play in project arenas, particularly
whose narratives they are and where they are situated spatially and
temporally in the division of labour. Vaara et al. (2005) examined
how discursive practices can be used to legitimate and de-legitimate
strategic options, how discourse is appropriated and resisted (Laine
and Vaara, 2007) and how discourses effect participation in
decision-making (Mantere and Vaara, 2008), all approaches that
can be parlayed into a concern with PPM. In practice, narratives
have to be flexible in order to accommodate changing
circumstances, positioned in one way for one project context
then in another in the portfolio; they are often adjusted and
reformulated for different audiences in order to make the strategic
framework look –a posteriori –more successful, farsighted and
flawless than in actuality.
Top management in organizations draw upon discursive skills
in the use of such devices as rhetoric, representational techniques,
models and other devices, emotions and meetings. One way of
thinking about how such strategy is conceived and practiced is to
concentrate on its performative elements, how it is enacted in
practice. Discursive practices that translate abstract strategies into
operational tasks and goals structure and frame project realities
by offering a distinct perspective on how specific problems and
solutions can be identified.
How strategy is initially communicated can be considered
in the unfolding context of practice in future research. Key issues
will be constructing convincing, sincere and intelligible accounts
(Samra-Fredericks, 2005). The pragmatic validity claims of
truth, correctness and sincerity are normal and constitutive
features of almost all interaction settings in which, typically, we
take for granted that the other is committed to these protocols.
Strategizing turns strategy into practice, which usually entails
developing a projection of the future that will frame immediate
courses of action. In this sense, the future becomes the condition
of possibility for action in the present. It is in this way that
strategizing is a performative practice that has too often proven
subsequently to be a strategic misrepresentation:
[W]hen forecasting the outcomes of projects, forecasters and
planners deliberately and strategically overestimate beneﬁts
and underestimate costs in order to increase the likelihood
that it is their projects, and not the competition's, that gain
approval and funding. Strategic misrepresentation can be
765S. Clegg et al. / International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762–772
traced to political and organizational pressures, for instance
competition for scarce funds or jockeying for position, and
to lack of incentive alignment. (Flyvbjerg, 2008: 6).
Flyvbjerg (1998) demonstrated how, in the context of urban
planning a portfolio of projects in the Danish city of Aalborg, the
different agencies and authorities involved in the planning arena
sought to rationalize their strategy as the one to be followed.
Flyvbjerg analysed strategic situations in which the collective
rationality deployed by different groups of people with common
vested interests sought to exercise power. Those who were in
positions of dominance paid least heed to the rationality of their
arguments, were less inclined to rationalize their positions and
more inclined to advance them as if they were just common
sense. Where actors, such as politicians, were in positions of high
power and formal authority they were better able to project their
strategies with less invested in rationalizing them. When reality
undermined performativity and irrationality became evident
politicians often will have vacated office and the scene. Similarly,
senior managers in organizations often push “pet”projects
without justification and accountability for implementation
(Loch, 2000;Flyvbjerg et al., 2003;Lechler and Thomas, 2015).
An evident research question is to look at how political elites
sponsor projects using different rhetorical practices at different times
in the life of the project. The best way of researching unfolding
performance in the temporality of the project is to compile a log of
benefit claims advanced at various stages in the project life cycle,
from sponsorship through initiation to accomplishment and post
project performance. The researcher should be looking for mission
shrinkage, especially, as optimistic projections for utilization and
completion dates are scaled back while those for costs are scaled up.
Because much of the strategy work that launches a project has a high
degree of rhetorical content, the predictive and truth-value of these
claims can frequently be slight. Discursive practices are thus vital
tools for strategizing in a project environment and future research
would be advised to investigate the role that these play as drivers for
turning strategy into practice. During phases for project prioritization
and selection at the front end of PPM, discourse plays a strong role in
project justification, evaluation, negotiation, and perhaps strategic
misrepresentation; future research may evaluate both top-down and
bottom-up influences in these phases. How and to what extent are
discursive practices used in PPM to prioritise, resource, adjust or
terminate projects, both from the top down (i.e. politicians, senior
managers) or the bottom up (i.e. project team members, public
stakeholders)? From a top-down perspective, the role of political
leadership in organizations is at issue. From a bottom up perspective,
the social construction of commitment and legitimacy is important.
4.2. Investigating how practice is represented
Hodgson (2002) explains how project managers' talk is
deployed to represent professional credibility in multi-professional
contexts (Hodgson, 2002). Discursively, professional credibility
requires a confident performance, one that is usually gendered and
projected through masculine tropes: being deemed confident,
assertive, somewhat emphatic and perhaps, even aggressive. The
existence and effects of the prevailing discourse as “masculine”
has been explored in project management contexts (Olofsdotter
and Randevåg, 2016;Crevani and Lennerfors, 2009;Buckle and
Thomas, 2003;Thomas and Buckle-Henning, 2007); however the
gendered nature of PPM discourse is yet to be explored. How
emotions are registered and displayed in the appropriate keys of
deference and domination, aggression and appeasement, depend-
ing on the status ordering of speakers and hearers is important.
Performative skills in using emotion (Brundin and Liu, 2015)are
required as well as in the more general skilled use of language
Although PPM studies regularly reveal a strong focus on
communication, most emphasize the communication of decisions
rather than address the ways in which the communication is used
in the process of strategizing (Mosavi, 2014). Strategic fit is
repeatedly highlighted as a primary aim of PPM with large-scale
survey research showing that managers play a significant role is
steering and controlling the strategic direction of the project
portfolio (Beringer et al., 2013;Kopmann et al., 2015;Kopmann
et al., 2017). Further research could explore more deeply how
managers steer and control the strategic direction of the project
portfolio in PPM environments and what types of gendered
language and behaviours support PPM goals. In particular,
specifically focusing on gendered aspects of discursive practices
(e.g. language use, rhetoric) is a vital component of understand-
ing how PPM is practiced.
In addition, an evident research question involves paying
close attention to meeting protocols, especially to the forms of
language use in key project meetings. Samra-Fredericks (2003)
suggests analysing how linguistic skills construct strategic
realities, including a shared definition of the future. According to
Samra-Fredricks (2003: 143), we need to analyse “real-time”
talk-based interaction in order to see how ideas are ‘made to
count’. Analysing naturally occurring conversations demonstrates
the ways in which opening meeting remarks set the scene for what
subsequently unfolded: these are the strategic opportunities;these
are the desired innovations;that is the deadline. Words and images
create a world that those privy to the project meetings need to
understand, defining and using legitimate categories and social
constructions (Gutiérrez and Magnusson, 2014). Close empirical
attention to language use, rhetoric, categories in use and the
projection of emotions will enable project researchers to identify the
elements not only of “winning”performances but those that elapsed
project time demonstrates are more authentically real. What is
important is to be able to research the different ways in which a
project is made intelligible in different contexts: public forums;
portfolio review board meetings, project meetings; interviews in the
media. In what ways is language gendered, to what effect? What are
the subtle differences in positioning and content? Often it is the
variance amongst different types of accounts that is most revealing.
4.3. Investigating dynamic capabilities in practice
Strategy does not flow straight from conception to execution
in an idealized trajectory so much as become enacted through
numerous, recursive and reflexive enactments and translations.
To be able to be creatively engaged in enactment, an
organization's design and personnel must allow for organizational
766 S. Clegg et al. / International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762–772
agility, because objectives change as implementation proceeds in
dynamic contexts and environments. Thus, the practice of
implementation mediates the enactment of strategy. In these
strategic enactments, an organization's “dynamic capabilities”
(Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000;Helfat et al., 2007;Teece, 2007;
Teece et al., 1997) enable the organization ‘purposely [to] create,
extend, and modify its resource base’(Helfat et al., 2007: 4),
facilitating agility, adaptation and change.
Practice-based strategy research has been shown to have
particular strengths in exploring dynamic capabilities (Killen et
al., 2012;Regnér, 2008). Ostensive and performative aspects of
dynamic capabilities provide a strong theoretical foundation for
practice-based research on project management and strategy
(Biesenthal et al, 2018). In project portfolio management
research, the dynamic capabilities of organizational agility,
competitive advantage and environmental change have been
explored using a practice-based research lens (Gardiner, 2014;
Kester et al., 2011;Killen and Hunt, 2010;Killen et al., 2007;
Petit, 2012). These examples illustrate the increasing importance
of research on themes such as capability evolution, flexibility,
strategic change and the ability to adapt to dynamic environments
through new ways of working and allocating (Engwall and
Jerbrant, 2003). However, much of this research has looked at
dynamic capabilities from a top-down perspective, where change
is facilitated and enforced from the organizational level. As
outlined earlier in this paper, this view fails to capture the entirety
of ways in which change can take place in a project environment.
Practice-based research is well placed to capture such change; in
one study practice-based research provided a perspective that
revealed much creativity and improvisation in enactment (Clegg
and Kornberger, 2015). Projects rarely unfold according to plan:
instead, they are translated in situ through practices enacted
by leaders through negotiations, conflicts and improvisations
(Clegg and Courpasson, 2004). Hence, dynamic capabilities
possess a bottom-up element where change occurs from within
the project, often based on the improvisational nature of the
project leader or other members of the project team. These
dynamic capabilities require further research attention.
Samra-Fredericks (2003) has identified several factors
defining dynamic capabilities for the leadership of strategy.
These are the ability, first, to draw on a tacit competence in using
locally and situationally meaningful and typical categories to
construct a compelling story of the organization. In PPM, the
ability to refer recursively to previous projects as exemplars of the
issues under discussion is significant, favouring mature experi-
ence over that which is relatively shallow. Second, the skilled use
of pronouns that collect or divide –“we”,“us”,the“organiza-
tion”,the“team”as opposed to “them”,the“competition”,people
who are not “team players”, and so on, is particularly important.
This is especially so in PPM because of the diverse interests of
project partners and stakeholders. Third, skilled project leaders
simultaneously curb possibilities for counter moves by others
(because they would be outside the bounds of what has been
constituted as being reasonable), often leaving others wondering
how they have been out-manoeuvred. Again, this is a key project
skill in PPM, where different forms of contractual framing will
often privilege the ability of project leaders who are ableto do this
successfully. Finally, exposure of PPM leaders to many projects
across their careers should make them great practical historians
with an ability to weave past, present and future together from
discursively available characterizations, plot lines and themes, as
a key dynamic capability of project leadership in temporary
organizations. In this vein, “path dependency”(Teece et al.,
1997), the influence of past and future activities and options, is an
important component of PPM's role as a dynamic capability
(Killen et al., 2007).
Employing a dynamic capabilities perspective with a
practice-based research approach will enable future PPM
research to better understand its strategic role and influence.
Recent survey research suggests a role for PPM in strategy
emergence and response to environmental change (Kopmann et
al., 2017); however, there is much to learn about the mechanisms
and possibilities of steering emergence. Practice based research
targeting organizations or industries experiencing external
change could explore whether and how PPM recognises or
influences emergent strategies. PPM capability evolution is an
essential aspect to be explored; dynamic capabilities must change
andevolvetoremainrelevant(Teece et al., 1997). Daniel et al.
(2014) observe PPM acting as a dynamic capability in
information systems projects, and call for longitudinal future
research to investigate the dynamics of capability change. Such
longitudinal research could take an action research approach, or
follow the actors in how a network of capabilities is constructed,
employing periodic observation and document analysis to track
capability evolution. Changes to capabilities can be triggered by
actors, not only the project leader but also by the emergence of
collaborative qualities at large that the PPM approach facilitates
and makes evident. The neglected dynamic capability of narrative
acuity, addressed by Havermans et al. (2015) in their investiga-
tion of how PPM narratives frame emergent problem resolution,
is a key issue. Different narratives for different audiences may
well be strategically appropriate but poses the danger of complex
emergent problem resolution appearing paradoxical as contra-
dictory accounts cumulate and are correlated by interested
parties. Future studies could take a wide organizational perspec-
tive to investigate the interplay between change, emergence,
actions and collaborations.
4.4. Investigating leadership in practice
A portfolio approach requires portfolio leadership. While
PPM research emphasizes the role and impact of top management
in shaping and delivering strategy (Cooper et al., 2004;Hermano
and Martín-Cruz, 2016), recent studies indicate that PPM strategy
is also influenced and led from the bottom up (Hutchison-Krupat
and Kavadias, 2015;Killen and Hunt, 2010;Kopmann et al.,
2017). Investigation into distributed leadership finds that experts
in projects are better able to make decisions when leadership is a
shared domain (Cox et al., 2003;Lindgren and Packendorff,
2009;Muller et al., 2015).
“Situated leadership”is especially important for PPM,
enabling contextual and improvisational response to unfolding
management challenges (Jerbrant and Karrbom Gustavsson,
2013). Leadership action has a “teleoaffective”(Schatzki, 2001)
767S. Clegg et al. / International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762–772
structure, rendered purposive and sensible by linking ends, means
and emotions appropriate to a particular set of practices (Kester
et al., 2011;Loch, 2000;Killen et al., 2008). To respond
effectively to changing environments, PPM leadership can
oversee capability evolution and encourage “planned emergence”
(Grant, 2003;Thomas and Ambrosini, 2015;Kopmann et al.,
2017). One way of doing this in PPM is to appoint project
champions for rotating periods to advocate and lead specific key
performance indicators, especially where these extend beyond the
usual concerns with costs and schedule (Pitsis et al., 2003;also
see Nordqvist and Melin, 2008). Such project champions work
by ‘seeking to affect the opinions or activities of superiors, peers
and subordinates, seeking to change the organization or its
systems, seeking to secure resources and so on’(Mantere, 2005:
157). For instance, in a project to build Olympic infrastructure a
system of alternating champions was used not only to represent
different KPIs in the project but also to facilitate organizational
learning and enhanced sensitivity to different professional
interests: engineers championing the environment; environmen-
talists championing progress, and so on (Pitsis et al., 2003).
Situated leadership is particularly important at the intersection of
project management and PPM practices, such as is presented in
the example above.
Project leaders need to be able to communicate that they are
performing competently, often in managing mutually divergent
goals, such as innovation, cost control, schedule and quality.
For instance, Gil (2010) shows how contexts in which there are
conflicting interests with external stakeholders are managed.
The specific ways in which issues are framed and how they
connect overall strategic intent with project action (Smith et al.,
2010) are important.
Large-scale survey research suggests that PPM leadership has
a role to play in ensuring the future orientation of the portfolio
(Rank et al., 2015), and calls for further research on the interplay
between leadership and other portfolio factors. Different project
leadership approaches are called for in different contexts; future
practice-based research can investigate “situated leadership”
within various project portfolio contexts. Future studies could
also explore the role of leadership in strategizing, and in enabling
dynamic response and steering emergent strategy through PPM.
4.5. Investigating materialities in practice
Tools are vital, as Heracleous and Jacobs (2008) argue; what is
important is how they are used, as Seidl (2007) and Jarzabkowski
and Wilson (2006) report. The tools used in formulating the
portfolio for PPM include project reporting templates and
graphical information displays (portfolio maps, stop light reports,
dashboards). The use of tools to represent data graphically is
shown to assist with the communication of strategy (Bresciani
and Eppler, 2010); in the PPM context, such graphical
representation supports team-based strategic decision-making in
project portfolio review boards (Killen and Kjaer, 2012;Mikkola,
2001;Geraldi and Arlt, 2015a,2015b).
Drawing on Actor Network Theory, tools can function as
potential “boundary objects”(Star and Griesemer, 1989). A
boundary object allows communication across the boundaries
of organizations, between different divisions, disciplines and
departments (also see Ewenstein and Whyte, 2009;Karrbom
Gustavsson, 2016;Wright et al., 2013). To this end, judicious use
of boundary objects, such as prototype models of architectural
detail that is difficult to envisage (Naar and Clegg, 2016), can
steer the development of shared understanding among different
stakeholders and act as conflict mediators in project environ-
ments (Lee-Kelley and Blackman, 2012;Iorio and Taylor, 2014).
In PPM, boundary objects such as data visualisations and state
gate artefacts serve as catalysts for discussion in decision
meetings (Johansson et al., 2011). The PPM meeting is a key
arena of action: in meetings, strategies can be unveiled, resistance
sniffed out, support garnered or opposition incubated. These
project meetings can promote self-actualization, dialogue and
concreteness, enabling greater participation (Jarzabkowski and
Spee and Jarzabkowski (2009) suggest that tools, such as
those used in project and portfolio management, work in practice,
both instrumentally as means to a desired end and symbolically.
Typical management tools provide a common language (Barry
and Elmes, 1997;van der Heijden, 2005). Tools enable politics to
be played by other means, by hampering shared meaning,
particularly across hierarchical levels, by structuring and shaping
information (Grant, 2003) and legitimizing powerful interests
(Hill and Westbrook, 1997), obscuring when and how project
portfolio decisions actually occur (Christiansen and Varnes,
Materialities have been shown to be vital tools in project
environments (e.g. construction projects, Styre, 2017; software
development, Doolin and McLeod, 2012; product and service
development, Carlile, 2002;Yoo et al., 2012), however
materialities have been scarcely acknowledged at the portfolio
level (Johansson et al., 2011;Christiansen and Varnes, 2008).
Materialities, whether physical or digital (Leonardi, 2010), can
be further investigated in PPM research as drivers that can aid
or hinder strategy becoming practice. Practice-based research
focusing on project prioritisation and selection at the front
end, or on project re-prioritisation or termination, may reveal
insights on both top-down and the bottom up influences of
materialities. Observations of decision meetings and analysis of
related artefacts would provide rich data for analysis of how
materialities are used in PPM practice, and guide further
action-oriented studies on whether and how new types of
artefacts can improve PPM practice.
We have formulated an agenda for future research that draws
on the practice-based literature. Such a research agenda
accelerates the growth of practice-based research in PPM and
provides a clear direction for the field to advance. Research into
the performativity of PPM's discursive practices; how practice is
made intelligible across different PPM contexts; what dynamic
capabilities require developing for successful PPM; what
leadership practices are required in PPM; and the role that
different materialities play in its practice define the research
agenda we have prepared. These themes and research areas
768 S. Clegg et al. / International Journal of Project Management 36 (2018) 762–772
illustrate how a practice perspective can enable rich and detailed
exploration to generate in-depth understanding, with the ultimate
aim of improving project success.
Building on the existing work on PPM and strategy that uses
a practice-based approach offers a ripe starting point for further
practice-based research in related areas. For instance, research
on the structuring of the project portfolio has led to increased
scrutiny of the strategic positioning of projects from both
top-down and bottom-up mechanisms. By investigating dynamic
capabilities using a practice-based lens, it is possible to illustrate
how the convergence of traditional theories and new research
lenses can advance the discipline.
Importantly, practice-based research findings that better reflect
how portfolios are actually managed should lead to improvements
in management. To contribute to the ongoing strengthening of
practice-based research on PPM, we have formulated a
practice-oriented research agenda that opens up a wide range of
new avenues for investigating links between PPM and strategy.
Conﬂict of interest
We wish to confirm that there are no known conflicts of
interest associated with this publication and there has been no
significant financial support for this work that could have
influenced its outcome.
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