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On wielding power

A (very) brief outline of some of the ideas put forward by John Searle, from his book “The making of the social world”. In this work, among many other things, he distinguishes between two types of power:

  1. deontic power: the power that is constitutive of the human social world, consisting of:
    1. obligations – things that you must do because of a status that has been bestowed on you, e.g. lawyers have an obligation to follow the code of conduct for lawyers
    2. authorizations – things that you are allowed to do because of a status that has been bestowed on you, e.g. the police is authorized to use violence
    3. permissions – things that you are allowed to do because of some social norm or rule, e.g. if you have a driving license you have permission to drive a car
    4. requirements – things that you must do because of some social norm or rule, e.g. if you drive a car you are required to have driving license with you
  2. political power – a special case of deontic power.
We will focus on deontic power here as the general case of power, and not go into the details of Searle’s analysis of political power.

Searle defines power as ‘the ability of person A to make person B do some action X that person B does or would not of himself wish to do, or the ability of person A to make person B refrain from some action X that person B does or would of himself wish to do’. In this definition of power as an ability, it refers to a capacity that may never actually be exercised or executed. There are two core features in this definition of power: (a) it is about the ability to bring about actions; and (b) it is about the ability to do so irrespective of the desires that the other has. The building of power is about creating ‘desire-independent reasons for action’, as Searle puts it. This is an important feature, because there are many theories about action that stipulate the people ultimately always act on their desires.

Deontic power is to be separated from physical power, which could be defined as the ability of person A to force person B physically to do some action that he doesn’t want to do, or to restrict him from doing some action that he wants to do. It may be the case that when deontic powers breaks down completely, only physical power remains.

Deontic power is created by speech acts of a special kind, the so-called ‘declaratives’. With a declarative speech act, some status gets assigned to any object or person or institution, that this object/person/institution did not have prior, and this status is assigned by a collective and intentional action. The general form of a declarative is: “X counts as Y in context C”. It is essential to note that declaratives are a form of collective action, and that they must conform to specific rules to be valid: if the declaration is invalid then the status is not bestowed and no deontic powers ensue.

Example: when the civil servant says “I declare you married” then a new status is created and bestowed on the couple that they did not have prior. With this status of ‘being married’, specific obligations and authorizations come along as deontic powers: if children are born to the couple they have the obligation to care for them. However, if however the civil servant is not authorized to perform the marriage ritual then the marriage is null and void, and in that case the father of any children born to the couple has no legal obligation to care for them. So the saying of a few words by the one creates some very strong deontic powers for the other.

Now let’s apply this to the subject area of project management. Let’s view the activity of running a project from the perspective of deontic power. One classical definition of what a project is, goes like this: “a project is a set of activities aimed at reaching a predefined goal, using a temporary (project)organization and within preset conditions / limitations”.  Project management is then the activity of building that temporary organization and orchestrating those activities in such a way that the preset conditions are honoured. It isn’t very difficult to rephrase all this in terms of the above definition of power. Let’s try.

Project management is the ability:

  1. to create and maintain a temporary organization that will be conducive to reaching the predefined project goals
  2. to create and maintain a set of activities that will be conducive to reaching the predefined project goals
  3. to make all stakeholders behave according to the structure and rules the temporary organization
  4. to make all stakeholders perform the set of activities
  5. to do all this in such a way as to honour the preset conditions

It’s easy to see that items 1 through 4 are based on, and create, deontic powers. Implementing a temporary organization effectively means creating obligations, authorizations, permissions and requirements for all participants in that organisation. So, for employees from the parent company, to be declared “key user” and to be enrolled in my project team effectively means that they are required to perform the tasks I will be laying out for them. Now this is where it starts to be interesting. As mentioned above, the declarative speech act is a matter of collective intentionality. That means that it is of the form “we intend”. If for whatever reason their being declared key user is not taken seriously, then the accompanying obligations and requirements will be non-existent, or at the very least they will be less existent than I as project manager would want them to be. Power, also deontic power, is not a binary phenomenon. I can have power, but it is always limited. I may get my key users to do activity X, but not activity Y. Or it may be that I can get them to do X only under condition C.

What’s the lesson here for project managers? That they must be very careful to assess the deontic powers that they are deriving from the temporary organization that they are creating and maintaining, and from the set of activities (the plan) that they are creating and maintaining, in relation to the preset conditions. If the preset conditions don’t allow for a temporary organization and/or a plan that will yield enough deontic power to the project manager, then the project is doomed to fail. And likewise, if the project manager cannot invent such an organization and/or such a plan, then the project will fail. And finally, if the project manager doesn’t succeed in implementing such an organization and/or such a plan, then the project is dead on arrival.

All this could lead us to an alternative definition of project management. Project management is the creativity to invent temporary organizations and plans that will honour preset conditions and will generate sufficient deontic powers to achieve the predefined goals, plus the trust to be allowed to implement these organizations and plans and thus receive the accompanying deontic powers, plus the tenacity to maintain the temporary organization and the plan to prevent your deontic powers from being hollowed out, plus the ethics to wield the ensuing deontic powers for no other purpose than achieving the project’s predefined goals, plus the versatility to adapt the temporary organization and the plan to evolving surroundings and unexpected events that impacted the deontic powers, while still staying within the preset conditions and aiming at reaching the predefined project goals.


Further reading: John Searle, ‘Making the social world’