Project management and the narcissim of small differences

by | Dec 3, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

In my last post, I described the first project management “meta-problem” of a narrow vision of project management.

In this post I describe a second “meta-problem”: fragmentation, in that project management as a practice is unnecessarily and superficially fragmented and conflicted.

This ranges from the various theories that emerge from research programs, through the professional organisations and their various BOK’s and frameworks, through to the various tools and information available to project management practitioners.

Not only is there no coherent and pervasive theory that covers all project types and situations, but there are numerous people and organisations who will represent their own version of an approach as if it does, whilst rejecting or belittling other approaches.

This fragmentation exists to the point that project management as a domain is difficult and complex to navigate for professionals, let alone new entrants who would become professional project managers.

Let’s be clear, this fragmentation is not evidence of a rich and broad set of strategies for delivering outcomes according to need and situation. Although there is some treatment of tailoring toolset to situation the fragmentation is mostly about different opinons on the alternative toolsets to use to implement the same strategy.

Because of multiplicity of perspectives, most practitioners are put in the position of having to make methodological decisions far ahead of when they have the knowledge and experience to make such choices, both in terms of individual projects and in terms of their career progression.

Faced with such apparent differences and conflicts, it is not uncommon for project managers to focus the concrete and better known, e.g. process, technique and artefact.

This itself reinforces the first meta-problem of narrow vision: breaking down of a large and often hard to define large landscape into smaller pieces.

This process seems to be quite common in the human experience. There are many terms for similar, such as the geo-political terms “Balkanization“, “Feudal fragmentation”, “Pillarisation” and “Sectarianism” (mostly religion). So maybe there’s nothing unusual going on. Except that it’s so counter-productive.

Sectarianism is an interesting one, referring mainly to fragmentation of religious viewpoints. Perhaps this is a better model for describing project management fragmentation: a religious typology that considers religions (or “churches”), sects and sub-sects, denominations, and with the occasional cult thrown in over the top.

I use the word “cult” in the sense of great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work in which the approach moves from a means to an end, or a tool, to an end in itself.  Symptoms include great passion for the methodology or practice, a focus on rituals, artefacts (documents or objects) or people and a never-ending contrast between the good that the cult can do against the evils of all other practices.

As project management “churches” have the big 4 (or 5) depending on your perspective. In my mind these are:

  1. Traditional, also called “plan-based” or “predictive”;
  2. Agile, also called “adaptive”;
  3. Organisational, or “private” to one organisation or a small group;
  4. Organic, or approaches that are developed or inherited contingent on local conditions, including the common “no approach” approach.

We could parse this any number of ways.  Depending on whether you consider DevOps to be a church on its own, or a sect or a cult of Agile it could be 4 or 5. Or it could be 10, depending on your viewpoint.

Why does this occur? Sigmund Freud had an idea about this when he observed that it was often: “precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other” — Freud 1930 – Civilisation and its Discontents

Freud chalked this up to the innate human proclivity for aggression and the desire for distinct identity. Once a split has occurred and new boundaries defined, this proclivity seems to repeat endlessly, finding new differences and using them as a means to further divide and subdivide.

At a certain point, this desire for distinct identity stops being fundamental and begins being self-indulgent. Are the differences between the various churches, sects and cults so big and fundamental? It is usually portrayed as so, and because of this the different viewpoints have not only entrenched themselves utterly but have vested interests in remaining separate.

And not a day goes by that doesn’t see some new offering: some book or eponymous theory that will change the world and render all other viewpoints redundant; or at least apostate.

Is this as good as it gets?  The best we can do?  Is our future study and practice of project management to be based on what Freud described as the “Narcissism of Small Differences”?

I think the answer is no, but not unless individual project managers start taking accountability for their own education and practice. Project management is, after all, a profession for strong individuals. As such I find the groupthink of factionalism quite disturbing.

How do we avoid this? I’ll cover that in posts in the near future. But next post I’ll be describing the third “meta-problem” of project management: Competence and the Cargo Cult.

Stay tuned….

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Each week Adam writes about interesting and varied topics for Project Managers everywhere and curates useful articles, books and papers from other sources.