Project management as a disabling profession

by | Dec 10, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

In my last post, I presented the idea that project management uses outdated and obsolete principles.

This post assesses whether professional societies are “disabling” to the effective application of project management skills to problem-solving and outcome development.

Consider two questions:

  • Has orthodox project management practice (as sanctioned by a professional society) helped us in our daily work lives?
  • Is there anything to we can learn from the history of other professions that could help project management improve?

Professional Societies Reach a Tipping Point

Professional societies emerge to help share experiences and formalise good practice. An example of such a society is the Project Management Institute (PMI). These formal definitions include “Bodies of Knowledge” (“BOKs”), methodologies and frameworks. Over time, if a society grows and becomes more accepted in their industry, there comes a potential tipping point. That point is when the growth and position of the society become the goal instead of the practice or welfare of members of the profession.

PMI and other societies have worked hard to become entrenched in the various formal spheres of regulation. PMI has helped to establish a US standard on Project Management. The UK government established and required PRINCE2 in IT projects. And, the APM recently received a Royal Charter for project management. Could this be the ultimate authority symbol for a project management society?

I’m sure the societies see the benefit in this strategy, but they also run a risk.
They risk becoming “disabling professions”.

Disabling Professions

Disabling professions limit or even damage their constituents through an emphasis on the orthodoxy of practice and controlling the power to practice.

The concept of “disabling professions” originated with Ivan Illich, a Croatian-Austrian philosopher. Illich was a critic of the institutions of modern Western culture. Illich wrote about education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation, and economic development. Illich’s critique was strident and radical. But it resonated with the thinking of the time.

To Illich the more professional societies became entrenched in the power structures of our society, the more “disabling” they became. The ideas in his essay “Disabling Professions” resonated with my experiences in project management.

Illich began with the idea that professionals are skilled experts who apply their knowledge to the betterment of society. He acknowledges that professionals gained a certain power by “tightly organising and institutionalizing themselves”. He then asks whether clients and subjects are “really enriched and not just subordinated by their activities”.

As professions become more powerful and entrenched, they become “a new kind of cartel”. In such a case “Professional power is a specialized form of the privilege to prescribe”.

Discounting Use Value

Illich also thought professions resulted in the effective discounting of “use value” and a focus on “exchange value”. This means they focus on form, tools and process and the paraphernalia of delivery. Less of a focus is the enabling capabilities that the users of these services desire.

For example, medicine focuses on the practice of curing ills and not on the outcome of “good health”.

In the same way, project management focuses on the process of delivery and the deliverable outputs from the project. It’s a rarer project that focuses on the end value captured by a customer group.

Establishing Project Management Orthodoxy

By establishing themselves with the apparatus of government, professional societies seek the power to decide how project management operates and who can perform those functions.

Thus, PMI and others follow a centuries-old path to establish the standardised and codified BOKs and frameworks as the standard for “permitted practice”.

When can we expect a lobbying effort to governments by PMI or others to ensure that only practitioners licensed by them can practice as a “project manager”?

Consumers of project management services are told what makes up project management. And so consumers and practitioners become part of the disabled partnership of permitted but still dysfunctional practice. Or they reject it completely.

As a result, many project managers experience the conflict between what they learn in PM school and what they need to do to get their projects home. Over-emphasis on process and tools gives project managers negative reputations:

“Sadly, many program managers have a reputation of adding complexity in many companies. We have this horrible reputation of adding process and slowing down work.” –

Michael Lubrano Senior Program Manager, Google (quoted in Bruce Harpham in the book “Project Managers at Work”)

In parallel, the normative forces of corporate PMO’s grind out individual approaches, reducing many processes to “make work” status.


What can we do about this?

Only individual action can keep a balance between project management practice and the goals of professional societies. PM’s need to claim the right to act for and on behalf of the client, not of the professional society. They do this by independently driving their own skills and practice development.

We’ll look at more ideas on how this can work in future posts.

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.