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Making a budget

The theory of speech acts, as put forward by John Searle (who elaborates on the ground-breaking work that was done by J.L. Austin), has a number of elementary tenets. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I am listing some of them here.

  • all utterances in human language can be considered as an act, more specifically: a speech act – utterances do something
  • there are exactly 5 types of speech acts, and every utterance can be classified essentially as one of these:
    • assertives – stating that something is the case in reality; claims
    • directives – telling someone else that she/he must do something; orders
    • commissives – committing to undertake some future action; promises
    • expressives – stating some internal emotion or feeling; self-expressions
    • declaratives – creating a “status function” by attributing some property to anything that it does not of itself have; declarations

All speech acts carry some deontology, that is: all speech acts imply one or more obligations by the participants in the speech acts (albeit impliciet, but they can always be made expiciet).
For instance, with assertions/claims the implied obligation is for the speaker: he/she can be held to prove that the claim is actually true.
And directives/orders imply that the person who has been ordered to do something, has an obligation to do it.
Likewise, commissives/promises imply that the person making the promise, has an obligation to fufill it – the difference with orders being to whom the obligation pertains. In the case of orders it is someone else telling me what to do, but in the case of promises it is me who is putting the obligation onto myself – you are binding yourself to some future action when uttering a commissive / promise.
Expressives/self-expressions are like assertives in that they assume a ‘truth condition’ – that is, if you say you are sorry but you really are not, then you are a liar. You can be held to prove the truth of your self-expression.  Although the complexities in doing so are different from proving ‘assertions’ about the outside world, these truth conditions are no less valid.
Finally, declaratives typically bring multiple obligations into play. If the Steering Committee members decide that “we hereby approve this to be the project budget”, that creates the obligation for them to supply the money and for me as a project manager to manage spending within the limits and categories as laid down in that budget. And not only obligations, but also entitlements, authorizations and rights – and all of these can also be negative (incompatibilities, forbiddings).
But declaratives as speech acts are also special, they’re in a league of their own. One essential thing about declaratives is that they bring about a new, social, fact – they do so by assigning a function to something that it did not of itself already have. Look at the project budget example above: before being approved by the Steering Committee, the spreadsheet or other document was merely a proposal – not more and not less. As a proposal, it may have put some obligation upon its maker (e.g. that it conforms to the standard template that is being used in that organisation, and that the numbers in that proposal are reasonable and defendable according to some generally accepted estimating guidelines etc.), but it was not an approved budget and therefore did not bring the obligations that it assumed after having been approved by the Steering Committee.

The transition from proposal to approved budget has taken place through a declaration – the SteerCo approval. This approval has created a new social fact: the approved budget, with all the obligations that typically go with it. Being an approved budget was not a function that the document or spreadsheet or whatever form it took, would have had by virtue of its physical existence. Being an approved budget is a status function that was bestowed on it through a type of speech act, more specifically: a declaration. The paper document is only the carrier object, and if we accept the status function (that is: if we accept this document as the approved project budget, and don’t dismiss it as ‘just another piece of paper’) then the declaration starts exerting real power: we have then assumed a very real obligation to keep to the budget, and this will guide many of our behaviours for the duration of that project.

Declarations are extremely powerful – according to John Searle, all social facts are actually created and maintained through declarations. To be sure, all things in project management are social facts – a planning, a team, a budget, a specification, a goal, a test, a quality report, a conflict and an evaluation session: they are all social facts, they have no existence as such when not perceived / experienced / named as such by conscious human beings. Unlike mountains, that keep on existing if all humanity would go extinct, social facts need human support to exist at all. The paper document that my budget is printed on might go on existing for a few centuries after we all have been killed by a pandemic, but then it would be reduced to its physical substrate, a piece of paper. Without humans to bestow and accept the status function of being a budget, the piece of paper could not be a budget. Just as an aside, this also may shed some interesting light on project management across cultural borders. It will be hard to apply budgetary discipline in a country where the concept of a budget is not known – the people in that culture would not understand the obligations that come with the declaration “we hereby accept this proposal as the project budget”.

So there we have it: declaratives are the only speech acts that can bring about social facts. What’s more, they are also the primary mechanism to do so. The fabric of all of our social life is impossible without language, or at least without declarative speech acts. Declarations are the building blocks of social life; all human institutions have been called into life by declaration.

Declarations can be built upon declarations, and there are usually many rules that tell us if some purported declaration is actually a valid one. For instance, if you are not in the Steering Committee, you have no power to approve budget proposals. Being a member of the Steering Committee however, is itself a status function that must have been bestowed upon you – you were not born a SteerCo member. The number of people that can install Steering Committees is usually also very limited, and they too must at one point in time have been given the power to install SteerCo members. We can now start to see that there must be a veritable web of prior social facts in place before we can even speak of a budget, and this web must be traced back to understand what a budget really is – what immediate obligations go with it, and just as importantly: what hidden and implied obligations, and for whom and to whom, come along in the deal.

The rules and conventions as to what makes a valid declaration typically relate to:

  • who can make a declaration of some kind (if you’re not a CEO you cannot install a SteerCo)
  • in what situation a declaration of some kind can be validly made (if there is no meeting going on, you cannot accept budget proposals)
  • formal requirements as to the declaration itself (if the budget proposal is not conforming to the template, the declaration is not valid)
  • prerequisites that must hold before a declaration of some kind can be made (the SteerCo must have been installed before it can accept the project budget; the budget proposal must have been reviewed by the PMO office; there must be an approved business case; etc.)

Experienced project managers have built up the knowledge of this “web of prior social facts”, and it gets hinted at in competence models under such headings as “organizational sensitivity” or “political instinct” and other such descriptions. By describing it in this way, you are tacitly assuming that such knowledge is mostly unstructured, and that it can only be moderately systematized.

Now although it is true that such ‘background’ knowledge can function largely unconsciously, and although it also very true that most models for it (at least the ones I have come across) are at best scetchy in character, I think that it is perfectly possible to perform an analysis of a series of typical areas of such competence. As a suggestion, we might start with some of the topics in the IPMA Competence Baseline.

Actually, this document is itself a perfect starting example of a social fact that has come about by declaration. The IPMA, by virtue of its ‘de facto’ being one of the largest professional project management organisations, has declared the ICB document to be the standerd for its certification scheme, a quality that the paper booklet could never have by virtue of its physical characteristics. By accepting this declaration, project managers all over the world are obliged to comply with the standard in order to become certified. The IPMA is obliged to organise the certification exams according to this standard. Typically with certifications, the chain of prior declarations is quite easy to trace, and it usually ends with a “certification authority” that has the power to install certification bodies. In the case of IPMA, no one in particular has declared IPMA to be the certification body, they are ‘self declared’. Only through collective acceptance by the profession (a multitude of speech acts of the “commissive” type – we promise to abide by the guidelines that IPMA imposes) can this social fact remain alive. This is what we call “de facto” (as opposed to “de jure”) and it works as long as there is collective acceptance.

To be sure, any system of laws and jurisdictions (“de jure”) is also a social fact, that has been called into life by declarations that we have all accepted because specific rules have been followed. But in the last analysis, the final justification for any social fact is somehow magical in nature: we decide to accept the declared status function, and we assume the obligations that come with it, and we start behaving according to this newly created social fact, effectively endowing some physical object with properties that it does not of itself have.

In the end all social facts can be traced back to some physical ‘carrier object’ that was the original carrier for the first status function; however this original carrier may have become lost in undocumented history. The complexities of project life (actually, all of social human life) arise mainly from the fact that any social fact can become the ‘carrier object’ for a new status function. This is another indication of the proces of ‘objectification’ that comes with declarative speech acts: not only are new social facts created by declarations, but in our minds they assume a kind of ‘objectivity’ because that is the way we ‘anchor’ the obligations that we have assumed with accepting the status function. In some very real sense, we experience the project budget as having an objective existence, an being of its own.

We probably need this, somehow illusory, conviction to be able to function effectively in society. If we would all be saying things like “Well, the budget is only a piece of paper and the SteerCo is really only a group of people whose bodily functions are much the same as mine”, then well – we would in a sense be right, and in another sense it would be devastating for budget discipline in our projects.


Further reading: John Searle, “Speech acts” (1969); “The construction of social reality” (1995)