The founding principles of project management are obsolete

by | Dec 9, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

In my last post, I addressed the issues of project management competence (or lack of it).

In this post, I describe how the foundation concepts of project management practice are obsolete or unhelpful. This is the fifth project management “meta-problem”.

Ask yourself: how relevant and useful are core PM concepts to us in dealing with the problems we face as project managers?

To begin with, Project Management makes a big promise. It promises that you can completely define a future goal. And then you can define in full the plan to achieve it. That you can codify this approach and apply it to future projects doubles down on this promise.

But how relevant is this promise in current society? I’ll break the answer down into two main elements:

  • The 19th-century concepts that won’t die
  • The irresistible rise of the soft

The 19th-century concepts that won’t die

The most common project management concepts are based on management theories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Henri Fayol’s concepts are still obvious in project management foundations. Individuals and managers everywhere still experience or use the management concepts of Taylor.

Bodies of Knowledge (BOK’s) still keep their same basic structure and core and have evolved slowly.

“… the poverty of current theory that explains the other problems of project management, such as frequent failures (Kharbanda & Pinto 1996), lack of commitment towards project management methods (Forsberg & al. 1996) and slow rate of methodological renewal (Morris 1994).”

Koskela and Howell 2002 – The underlying theory of project management is obsolete

As well as core issues in project management theory, Koskela and Howell highlight the existence of a community that avoids using any formal approach. This is the “process gets in the way of progress” community.

We’re all too familiar with the “frequent failures” of large IT projects. This despite the many analyses and warnings, e.g. Royce in 1970, Brooks in 1975, Cobbs in 1995 and many since agile. And yet despite these issues, the core project management frameworks remain largely unchanged.

Koskela and Howell again highlight the slow progress of formal project management catechism:

“It seems to us that for all the project management pontification in the ten years or so since then, the fundamental position of having a need for an underlying theory that encapsulates the so-called “First Principles” that we collected around 2000 has not materially changed. In fact, it may have regressed.”-

Dr. Lauri Koskela quoted by Max Wideman (2013)

The irresistible rise of the soft

The second component of obsolescence is the fundamental changes in society that evolved since project management started.

Project management emerged when the underlying materials were “materialised”. Projects delivered results using tangible materials such as earth, masonry, concrete, and steel. “Materialised” products had solid and tangible mechanical materials with known and predictable qualities. The management methods developed to manage these projects reflected this “materialised” form.

There were project failures in these early days of tangible materials. However, the rapid increase in failures parallels the growth of projects that include software and computer systems. Software, services and knowledge are “de-materialised” and need different development strategies. And yet we continue a standardised approach across all projects.

Not only that, but the broad social parameters and work practices have changed since the beginning of project management.

When project management was established, management practices emphasised were hierarchical, authoritarian and rules-based. Project management’s hierarchical, structured and rules-based concepts made sense.

People (at least in most western societies) are no longer motivated (if they ever were) by mechanical carrot and stick approaches. More people are seeking work-life balance as the look for satisfaction in other parts of their lives outside work. The idea of a life-long contract between individuals and a firm is long gone.

“Arguably the most dominant strand of project management thinking is the rational, universal, deterministic model – what has been termed the ‘hard’ systems model, emphasising the planning and control dimensions of project management. … Most popular project management textbooks and methodologies are based on this approach. It has however been criticized for failing to deal adequately with the emergent nature of front-end work, for tending to treat all projects as if they were the same, and for not accounting sufficiently for human issues, which are often the most significant.”

Winter 2006

“Human issues” cannot be neatly quarantined into clean process boxes like “communications management”. And most projects don’t need a “communications plan”. Instead they need good communications between participants. Social, psychological and political influences contribute as much, if not more than technology or process.

Agile arrived in the early 2000s claiming to resolve these issues but has had its own problems in achieving its grand vision. Agile in many areas has regressed so much to codified and rule-based forms that some of its’ founders have disavowed it. Terms as “ Dark Agile” and “ Agile Industrial Complex” were born to describe this frustration.

The response of the PMI, for example, has not been to embrace the principles of Agile into the PMBOK. Instead, the PMI has doubled down its model of project management by creating a PMBOK-like version of agile. The “Agile Practice Guide” is far more compatible with their certification and standardisation business models.

What can we do about this?

Practitioners must explore a broad range of classical and alternative project management concepts. Greater emphasis must be given to “human issues” and their impact on projects. Project management practice must derive from a deep and broad range of concepts.

We’ll examine these ideas in more posts in the future.

Stay tuned.

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