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Life Strategy: Kinds of Project Engagement

How to reflect on a Life Project? How to select a Life Project?

It is November. The holiday season is coming. This is great timing to reflect on Aspirations, Aspects, Approaches, Attachances, and Achievements for the past 12 months and even longer duration.

In this season I will work on Life Strategy Center, especially the following projects:

1. The “Life-Strategy” Thematic Dialogue
2. The Anticipatory Activity System (AAS) framework
3. The Creative Life Curation framework

I will test some new ideas too. For example:

Can we apply the Attahance framework to Life Strategy?

This is just a “What…if…?” test and I use this approach to connect my other Knowledge Centers and Life Strategy Center in order to develop Synergy Effects.

Today I am going to adopt the Project Engagement approach from Activity Analysis Center to the Life Strategy Activity project.

This article only introduces the Developmental Project Model which is the first sub-framework of the Project Engagement approach.

Contents

  1. The Life-as-Project Approach
  2. The Developmental Project Model
  3. Kinds of Project Engagement
  4. The Green Triangle: Developmental Resources
  5. The Blue Triangle: Situational Context
  6. Five Types of Developmental Platforms
  7. Project Engagement: Cultural Projection Analysis
  8. Social Awareness of Project Engagement
  9. Attachances of Moving between Developmental Projects

1. The Life-as-Project Approach

Several months ago, I worked on developing tools for Life Discovery Activity.

An outcome is a new approach called Life-as-Project which is inspired by Project-oriented Activity Theory, Anticipatory Systems Theory, Curativity Theory, and other theoretical resources, it was developed with the following seven basic principles:

  • Being by Doing
  • Engagement as Projection
  • End as Means
  • Discovery as Development
  • Performance as Experiment
  • Curativity as Creativity
  • Projects as Thematic Spaces

The Life-as-Project approach considers “Project” as the basic unit of analysis. In other words, the approach doesn’t use terms such as “organization”, “community”, “platform”, “ecosystem”, or other terms for the core idea.

The approach considers a person’s life as a chain of projects which are embedded in the chain of social life and collective culture.

2. The Developmental Project Model

The primary model of the approach is called Developmental Project Model. See the diagram below.

The Developmental Project Model is part of my 2020/2021 book Project-oriented Activity Theory.

The model was originally developed as version 1.0 of the Platform-for-Development framework. The original idea is very simple:

Platform(Project)

I used the above idea Platform(Project) to define a new unit of analysis. On March 31, 2021, I renamed the framework Developmental Project Model.

From a theoretical perspective of adult development, the concept of “Developmental Project” emphasizes the life development of individuals within the context of Projects. It cares about the transformation of a person’s life themes and her or his identity in the stream of Projects.

You join a project, you leave a project. You initiate a project, you close a project. All kinds of activities form a chain of projects and they are projections of the development of your life.

You can find more details in Developmental Project Model?

The above diagram of the Developmental Project Model was launched on Dec 13, 2020.

In the past two years, I worked on some case studies about Developmental Projects. After reflecting on these real case studies, I realized that the above diagram is only one form of the landscape of project engagement.

There are more forms of project engagement. We need a Diagram Network to describe the whole picture.

3. Kinds of Project Engagement

Based on my research and reflection, I discovered the following types of project engagement. We can call it Archetypes of Project Engagement or Typology of Project Engagement. Anyway, I just want to list more than one form of Project Engagement.

What does this Diagram Network mean?

First, let's read it from the perspective of visual language.

It refers to seven types of relationships between two triangles. I use the following seven verbs to describe a typology.

  • Contain: the green triangle is contained by the blue triangle
  • Support: the green triangle is supported by the blue triangle
  • Touch: the blue triangle is touched by the green triangle
  • Oppose: the green triangle opposes the blue triangle
  • Combine: the two triangles use the same color
  • Deviate: the two triangles are in different directions
  • Group: the two triangles are grouped together

Second, let’s move to the abstract level which refers to conceptual meanings. Since we are talking about Developmental Projects, we can use the green triangle to refer to a person’s life projects, and the blue triangle can be referred to social contexts.

I use the following seven nouns to describe a new typology:

  • Cultivation: the person’s life project is small and weak, it needs the social context to cultivate it. It looks like a baby and a mom.
  • Acceleration: the person’s life project is big, and the social context offers more resources to support its development. It looks like a startup and its inventor.
  • Reference: the person’s life project doesn’t have a strong link with the social context. However, the social context can be a reference to the project. For example, I don’t have a direct interpersonal relationship with Robert Kegan who is an American developmental psychologist. I only read his books and papers.
  • Confliction: there are tensions or contradictions between the person’s life project and the social context. For example, a person doesn’t like his job.
  • Integration: the person’s life project and the social context are perceived as a meaningful whole and there is no contradiction between them. For example, a startup’s founder and the startup.
  • Departure: the person’s life project and the social context move in different directions. For example, while a founder loves his startup, the investors require the startup to move in a new direction which is not accepted by the founder.
  • Interdependence: the person’s life project and the social context work in the same direction and share the same goals. They need each other in order to achieve a big enterprise.

This is just a heuristic tool. You can add new types or remove some types from the above list for your research or reflection.

I will modify it if I discover a new type.

The rest of the article will move to complicated analysis techniques.

4. The Green Triangle: Developmental Resources

The Developmental Project model offers a series of tools for analysis. One module is called Developmental Resouces. See the diagram below.

The above triangle represents three dimensions of developmental resources:

  • Content
  • Social
  • Action

“Content” refers to information that is to be expressed through some medium, such as speech, writing, or any of various art. “Social” refers to opportunities for connecting to other people. “Action” refers to operational opportunities offered by social environments such as digital platforms. The center of the triangle is “Theme” which refers to “Themes of Practice”.

The three dimensions of developmental resources are inspired by Knud Illeris’ How We Learn: Learning and Non-Learning in School and Beyond (2007). Knud Illeris use three dimensions (Content, Incentive, and Interaction) to curate and sort various learning theories. I adopted the dimension of Content and separated the dimension of Interaction into Social and Action.

These three dimensions also roughly correspond to John Hagel’s typology of platforms.

  • Connect users to resources — Content
  • Connect individuals to communities — Social
  • Move people to act together — Action

We have to notice that three dimensions are abstract ideal aspects. In real life, some developmental resources have two or three aspects. So, I am not claiming that there are only three categories of developmental resources.

5. The Blue Triangle: Situational Context

From the perspective of adult development, Project is a type of situational context. This notion is inspired by two theoretical resources:

  • Andy Blunden’s idea “project as a unit of activity”
  • Derek Layder’s Social Domains Theory

In 2014, Andy Blunden edited a book titled Collaborative Projects: An Interdisciplinary Study and argued that there is a need to establish a concept of “project” as a unit of activity theory and human sciences. He said, “There are already many writers who address themselves to collaborative projects as part of their research, and among these, some who share a commitment to Activity Theory or the Cultural-Historical Psychology which underpins Activity Theory. However, these writers do not constitute a coherent current of thinking, as each writer does not take the concept of ‘project’ as central to their own project. Nonetheless, this literature provides a beginning for interdisciplinary research in the human sciences which can reach across the chasm between the sciences of the individual and the science of society… In what follows I will outline the origins of ‘project’ as a unit for the human sciences and its value as an interdisciplinary concept, and then briefly review the foundation of the concept in different domains of theory, and conclude with a concise definition of the concept of ‘collaborative project’.”

I was fascinated by Andy Blunden’s innovative approach. The “project” is a perfect concept for conceptualizing various activities within platforms. Inspired by Andy Blunden’s idea “project as a unit of activity”, I use “program” to refer to informal organizing activities on platforms. Thus, I made a new triad: People (O) — Program (A) — Platform (E).

The Developmental Project Model is also inspired by Derek Layder’s Social Domains Theory.

Layder suggested four principal social domains: Psychobiography (including self-identity), Situated activity, Social setting (including fields), and Contextual resources. We have to notice these four social domains are “principal” and they can be subdivided into smaller “domains” or even understood as component elements of larger “domains”.

Thus, I applied it to expand the People (O) — Program (A) — Platform (E) framework:

  • Psychobiography: Purpose (personal motivation for the development of self-identity)
  • Situated activity: Program
  • Contextual resources: Position
  • Settings: Platform

The result is a 5P framework: People (O, organism) — Purpose (M, motivation) — Program (A, activity) — Position (R, resources) — Platform (E, Environment).

If we consider “Purpose”, “Program”, and “Position” as three aspects of “Project” — (this is not the original claim of Andy Blunden’s approach) — then we get a simple model of a nested social structure:

If we put Project and Platform together, I’d like to claim that Project is embedded in a social context and Platform is the setting of Project. Without any Project (informal and flexible social activities), a Platform is only a Tool that helps People take individual actions.

The notion of Platform [Project(People)] was developed for the Platform-for-Development framework. If we focus on the concept of “Project”, we can use the following diagram to represent three aspects of “Project”.

The above triangle uses “Purpose, Program, and Position” to describe three important aspects of “Project”. I’d like to point out that this is not the original claim of Andy Blunden’s approach. What I am looking for is the “Platform for Development” framework is a concept that can describe informal and flexible social activities.

For the Developmental Project Model, we can use “Platform” and other types of social environments as the context of the “Project”. It all depends on your research design.

6. Five Types of Developmental Platforms

I also developed a concept called Developmental Platforms for the Platform-for-Development framework.

As an interdisciplinary concept, the term Developmental Platform refers to a social environment that could strongly support adult development in various ways. There are three keywords in this definition:

  • social environment
  • strongly support
  • adult development

The term “social environment” is a rough term. It can refer to traditional social structures such as organization and community. I also consider digital platforms and other emergent social contexts as social environments.

The term “strongly support” divides social environments into two groups from the perspective of strongness. Any social environment could support people, however, there are only a few social environments that could strongly support people. Thus, we can consider some strong social environments as platforms.

The term “adult development” is a solid term in developmental science. According to Wikipedia, “Adult development encompasses the changes that occur in biological and psychological domains of human life from the end of adolescence until the end of one’s life. These changes may be gradual or rapid and can reflect positive, negative, or no change from previous levels of functioning.” Thus, the Developmental Platform highlights the perspective of developmental science.

I used the following Venn diagram to discuss the context of Developmental Platforms. You can find more details in City as Developmental Platform.

The above diagram refers to five types of developmental platforms for the Life-as-Project approach:

  • City
  • Organization
  • Community
  • Digital Platforms
  • Theory

A life project may be located in more than one developmental platform.

7. Project Engagement: Cultural Projection Analysis

There is a method behind the Developmental Project Model. It is researching the transformation of themes and identity within “Project”. See the diagram below.

The term “Projection” is inspired by Brecht De Smet who adopts Andy Blunden’s idea “project as a unit of activity” to analyze the 25 Jan Revolution. In an article titled Tahrir: A Project(ion) of Revolutionary Change, Smet (2014) said, “The collaboration of Tahrir not only entailed a project, in the sense of people jointly working towards a shared goal, but also a projection: an image that shone forth from this activity.” (p.297) He also pointed out, “The concept of projection denotes the capacity of a project to universalize itself and attract new participants to its cause, and, most importantly, it underscores collaboration as a process of learning and instruction.” (p.299)

You can find more details in Activity U (X): Projecting, Projectivity, and Cultural Projection.

The final module refers to Social Engagement Analysis which focuses on positive impact (Engagement) and negative impact (Coping). See the diagram below.

The dynamics of Developmental Projects are emphasized by plus signs and minus signs. Plus signs refer to positive impacts while minus signs refer to negative impacts.

This component refers to individual psychological status. In order for further discussion, I’d like to adopt a model developed by Ellen Skinner and Kathleen Edge in 2000. According to the authors, “The motivational model is an action-theoretical account of motivation, and its goal is to provide a framework for explaining psychological sources of energized and directed action. The basic model integrates work on attachment, perceived control, and self-determination.”

The model is based on Self-determination theory (SDT) which is one of my favorite psychological theories. SDT claims that there are three basic psychological needs — namely, the needs for Relatedness, Competence, and Autonomy.

Skinner and Edge pointed out, “Ongoing engagement refers to active, goal-directed, flexible, constructive, persistent, focused interactions with the social and physical environments. In contrast, patterns of action are described as disaffected when individuals are emotionally alienated or behaviorally disengaged from participation in an enterprise. Coping describes patterns of action when ongoing engagement encounters resistance or is disrupted. Energetic resources (effort, executive capacity, ego resources) are required to regulate actions. Action regulation under stress is considered ‘coping.’ Engagement and coping are critical mechanisms through which motivational processes influence the quality of self-systems and social relationships and, over time, shape development.”

The pair of concepts of “Engagement — Cope” echoes Activity Theory’s related concepts: internalization and externalization.

8. Social Awareness of Project Engagement

The Developmental Project Model highlights eight elements of a life project:

  • Purpose: Why do you want to initiate or join the project?
  • Position: What’s the social structure of the project?
  • Program: Does the project have formal organizational processes?
  • Social: How do you connect with others due to joining the project?
  • Content: How do you acquire new information and knowledge due to joining the project?
  • Action: What actually do you do due to joining the project?
  • Theme: Do you find some new and interesting themes for your career development?
  • Identity: How do you perceive your identity before and after joining the project?

In the past few years, the Activity U project (2020–2022) is one of my Developmental Projects. I started the Activity U project on August 19, 2020. Initially, I just made a diagram called “Activity U” which is a test of the “HERO U” framework. I wrote a post to explain the diagram “Activity U”. The original title of the post is Activity U: The Landscape of Activity Theory. Later, I added “(Part I)” to the end of the title. It expanded from one post to a series of articles.

My primary actions were reading and writing. I originally published long articles on Medium. Later, I curated them into three books.

While the Activity U project is a three-year journey, a Developmental Project can be a three-week project. It depends on your goals. You can find more details in Developmental Project Canvas.

9. Attachances of Moving between Developmental Projects

One more thing!

We can adopt the concept of “Attachance” and the seventh principle of the Life-as-Project approach “Projects as Thematic Spaces” for our discussion.

While Life is a chain of projects, it can be understood as a journey of moving between various thematic spaces.

Each project has its primary themes and other secondary themes. By joining projects and leaving projects, we are practicing our significant Life Themes. Thus, these projects are Thematic Spaces too.

By connecting the Project-centered Approach and the concept of “Thematic Space” together, we can find the following connection:

Life = Project = Thematic Space

This insight also echoes the model “Flow — Story — Model”. We can also find more details in Thematic Space: Project as Story.

In this way, I develop the 7th basic principle of the Life-as-Project approach: “Project as Thematic Space”.

Moreover, we need to pay attention to “Moving between thematic spaces” because each move refers to an Attachance.

I coined the term Attachance by combining Attach and Chance in 2018 in order to discuss some ideas related to the concept of Affordance which is a core idea of Ecological Psychology.

Affordance means potential action opportunities offered by environments. I want to highlight the meaning and value of actual action itself, however, the term Affordance only refers to potential actions. Thus, I coined the term Attachance to emphasize the potential opportunities offered by actual actions, especially the attaching act and the detaching act.

You can find more details in D as Diagramming: The Attachance Perspective and The Attachance Framework (2018) and Thematic Engagement.

Now we can consider each type of developmental project as a thematic space.

And we can find many moves between different types of developmental projects.

We should notice that there are two types of moves:

  • Move between two Developmental Projects which belong to the same type.
  • Move between two Developmental Projects which belong to two different types.

Both moves bring new Attachances to us. Some Attachances are negative while others are positive.

To perceive Attachanes is to perceive moving between thematic spaces. For the Life-as-Project approach, we need to pay attention to both changes in Projects and Types of Projects.

I hope this article is useful for reflecting on past life projects and selecting new life projects for 2013.

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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.