The unbearable narrowness of the project management narrative

by | Dec 2, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

Last post I reprised the goal of the AdamOnProjects (AOP) blog. In this and the next few posts I’ll outline several problems that I see in the world of project management.

Firstly I see a set of “meta problems” in project management. By “meta-problem” I mean a problem that impairs our ability to conceptualise and analyse project management as a whole: that stands between us and our understanding of how project management works

The first “meta problem” is narrow vision on what constitutes project management.

Much of the narrative of the practice and theory of project management comes from a very narrow vision focused on standardised techniques.

The presumption is that such techniques, when applied to the technical objects in the project domain, produce successful outcomes. The emphasis is on concrete process, quantitative measurement, and a vision of projects as following some simple “natural rules” that can easily be codified and replicated.

This narrow vision tend to follow the narrative of the project management approach chosen by the practitioner, author, teacher or mentor, usually a “brand name” methodology or framework such as PMBOK or Prince2 or Scrum. And yes, I include Agile in this landscape as it progressively becomes more codified and proceduralised – so-called “Dark Agile” or the “Agile Industrial Complex.

Branded project management frameworks break down living projects into its component parts in neatly partitioned and numbered sections. Everything is organised and everything has a place.

Over decades of evolution the BOKs and branded methodologies have been refined, distilled and commodified. At least one contributor to this trend has been the focus on building a certification regime (aka business).

Linkage to a certification scheme delivers conflicting goals: on the one hand to create a complete and robust set of processes that inform sustainable project success; and on the other hand the need to support a learning program. In fact they are divergent goals: a framework for successful project management needs to cater for many situations and types of problems. But a BOK supporting learning requirements has to have two key attributes that are not really required for project practice: it has to be both “learnable” and “testable” in a mass-market setting, i.e. with relatively low investments of time and money.

What is also remarkable about most BOK’s is what they leave out, thus increasing the narrowness of the project management vision. Even the older PM textbooks from 1990’s (i.e. pre-Agile) acknowledge that many other skills are needed to be a successful project manager.

Such skills as human psychology and behaviour, organisational dynamics, communications and interpersonal relationships are acknowledged but pushed to other sources for project managers to follow-up on their own.

The PMBOK both acknowledges the need for additional skills but leaves them out of the nearly 800 pages that make up the 6th Edition. The PMI does publish other resources that describe skills and attributes of a good project manager (e.g. the Project Management Talent Triangle) but devotes remarkably little space in the PMBOK itself: about 10 pages on “Project Manager Competencies”

This results in a very narrow and limited perspective in those PM’s who come through the learning and development processes attached to the branded frameworks. It results in an endless emphasis on technique and process. This is manifested in the core practices and techniques of project management praxis: the “iron triangle” as the ever-present touchstone for correct practise and a never-ending cascade of information and process: issues, risks, budgets, schedules, change control, PMO’s, regimented reporting, methodologies, frameworks, competency scales etc.

This focus on quantitative rendering of project activity results in what Robert Chia refers to as “false concreteness” and a misfocus on objects and away from human factors. The lived experience of all project managers is one of “complex social settings characterized by tensions between unpredictability, control and collaborative interaction among diverse participants on any project.”(Cicmil et al 2006)

Standard and commoditised narratives on project management have as much to do with the lived experience of a project manager as an autopsied cadaver has in relation to the living human. The process results in a lifeless and sterile form, all organs and components excised and dismembered, the parts weighed, measured, inspected and catalogued. But these quantitative assessments say nothing about the person’s personality or relationships (were they a jealous husband, a loving father or a gifted mathematician) – and these processes cannot parse a living human in their interactions with the real world in real time to give any meaningful answers.

In order to improve project management theory and practice, we need to broaden our perspectives on what constitutes a project and how we go about managing them. They need to recognise and deal with the living dynamism and messiness that we see in real live projects.

I’ll be covering that in the near future, but next post we’ll be covering the second “meta-problem” in project management.

Stay tuned.

Sign up for the AOP Newsletter

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