Published here October 2005.


Musings Index

Project Management: An Ever-Changing Flux of Messy Situations?

With this title, readers of my Musings may be forgiven for jumping to the instant reaction: "Yes, been there, done that, so what's new?" But in fact this is now the stuff of serious research and this is how it has come about.

Back in 2002, Professor Peter Morris, a fount of project management thinking and a United Kingdom project management guru, published a paper in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers (UK) entitled Science, objective knowledge and the theory of project management.[1] According to this paper's abstract:

"Though there is reasonable agreement on most of the formal tools used for managing projects, there is still a range of views on what constitutes the discipline of project management. This paper examines the knowledge we have of the discipline and, in particular, how testable and public it is."

Good point, but "public"? Well, the paper is available to those who subscribe to the Institution's Proceedings or are willing to download a PDF copy of the paper for the princely sum of US$33. So, while the paper is available to the public it is unlikely to become common knowledge - unfortunately.[2]

But I digress. The abstract goes on to say that the paper:

" suggests that while the "hard systems" approaches of systems engineering and decision support have had a seminal impact on the development of project management, "soft systems" thinking also has an important role, particularly at the front end of projects. The human side of project management is also extremely important. The paper concludes that while we can certainly identify good project management practice, there will never be an overall theory of project management. Indeed, the very notion is mistaken."

Interesting conclusion. I have long held that we have failed to agree on any "theory of project management", let alone an overall one.

But along come two authors proposing "a fresh perspective" on project management based on a "soft systems thinking". To their credit, Peter Checkland[3] and Mark Winter[4] set about explaining the difference between hard and soft systems thinking - well at least for my benefit. As they observe:

"In essence, systems thinking can be thought of as thinking holistically - a mode of thinking which is complementary to the more reductionist thinking of natural science in which the emphasis is on "breaking things down" and looking at thinks in detail."[5]


"To summarize, systems thinking is a broad field in which there are many varieties and many strands, and different people in different areas continue to work on various theoretical developments and practical applications."

Two of these strands evidently constitute "a particular way of seeing the practice [of project management], which is, simultaneously, a way of not seeing it." What does this mean when it is boiled down? Well one way to describe a system is to characterize it in terms of context, content and process. On this basis the authors describe the two contrasting perspectives of project management practice as follows.[6]

The "hard" systems perspective
Context: A need exists for a new (or improved) product, system or facility, e.g. a commercial need for a new building
Content: A clear objective or goal has been specified, to be delivered on time, within budget and to specification.
Process: A management process, usually defined as a sequence of life-cycle stages involving techniques such as PERT & CPM.

The "soft" systems perspective
Context: There is an ever-changing flux of messy situations and complex issues, e.g. the flux of events in a building program
Content: "Messy" situations are the norm, in which ends and means are assumed to be unclear, particularly at the front-end of projects
Process: The process of managing, defined as a cyclic process of dealing with "messy" situations guided mainly by experience and intuition

Armed with these views, the authors come up with two 2x2 matrices, the first describes four different types of project and the second describes four different types of project situation. These are shown in Figures 1 and 2 below.

Figure 1: Different project types
Figure 1: Different project types
Figure 2: Different project situations
Figure 2: Different project situations

As you will see, the authors have identified four distinct descriptors: Painting-by-numbers; Quests; Movies; and Lost-in-the-fog. I must admit that I have never thought of any of my projects in those terms, but there is always something new to learn and I can well envisage the "Lost in the fog-type situations".

Does any of this help us to do our job of managing projects any better? Well, probably not. Indeed, as the authors observe in their Conclusions:[7]

"It is important to emphasize once again that they [competing views of systems thinking] are not alternative images between which a choice has to be made, nor are they prescriptions for practitioners to follow; they are two "ideal-type" conceptualizations against which more specific project management ideas and practices can be evaluated."


"To conclude, this paper argues for a broader image of project management practice than that which has been dominant in the past. It advocates a new perspective. With its focus on the process of "managing", rather than the life-cycle process of "project management", this new perspective seeks to enrich and enlarge the traditional life-cycle image of project management. It also offers to provide a new foundation for future research in the project management field."

What that actually translates into is expanding the concept of the project life span to encompass these other management dimensions. Be that as it may, while it may not be of immediate help, it is at least nice to know that somewhere, somehow, there are academics around who are giving serious thought to what project management is, what it could be and where it could be going.

1. Morris, P. W. G., Science, objective knowledge and the theory of project management Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Civil Engineering, 150, No. 2, May 2002, pp82-89
2. Professor points out that "public" does not necessarily mean "free".
3. Emeritus professor of systems at Lancaster University
4. Lecturer in project management at UMIST
5. Checkland, P., & M. Winter, Soft Systems: a fresh perspective for project management, New Civil Engineer International, February 2004 pp 25-30
6. Ibid, Abstracted from Table 1, p27
7. Ibid, p29
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