Getting through difficult projects : a grounded theory of engineers' competence frontiers
Thesis DisciplineBusiness Administration
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Engineers often become emotionally involved in their projects, experiencing them as exciting and satisfying, with times of intense frustration and anxiety. Previous research has not focused on this emotional involvement despite its centrality to engineers' experiences. This study explored engineers' experiences of being involved in difficult projects, that is, projects they find stressful or have difficulty coping with, and developed substantive theory on how they cope with such projects. The study used the Grounded Theory method, which is concerned with understanding people's concerns and how they go about resolving those concerns. The primary source of data was in-depth interviews with thirty-nine people, mainly civil engineers, from throughout New Zealand. Additional data included project documentation collated following the collapse of the Opuha Dam, and books about the past Ministry of Works (New Zealand). The common concern of engineers is centered on the inter-relationships between their projects and their competence frontiers. Each engineer has a competence frontier, which is the self-image of the extent of his or her competence. Difficult projects provide engineers with the opportunity to advance their competence frontiers, however, there is greater risk of being, or being seen to be, incompetent. Engineers cope with this concern by assessing whether they have done a good job and adjusting the extent to which they take ownership of their projects, while concurrently tackling the project tasks. These processes affect the nature of engineers' emotional involvement with projects, which then feeds back to influence those processes in a complex web of interactions. The study provides an interpretive understanding of the relationships between engineers and their projects, and why they find some projects difficult. It highlights the importance of engineers having projects of appropriate difficulty with good social support and a culture that supports realistic attributions of the factors that affect performance.