Editorial for Project Management World Today Web Magazine. Published here March 2001


Musings Index

Real Progress

Our title could be referring to progress in any field, but this is a project management (PM) site and we are focusing here on real progress in the understanding of the PM discipline. One might expect the powerhouse of this knowledge development, "wisdom" is the popular term, to be out of the United States, but this does not appear to be the case. In June last year [2000] a ground-breaking paper was published on the Internet by Mark Seely and Dr. Quang Duong, both Fellows of the University of Ottawa, Canada.

As Seely and Quang observe, according to the Standish Group study of software projects in both the public and private sectors, nearly 90% of the studied projects failed, with more than one third cancelled before they were completed. This record of failure is interpreted by most as evidence that PM tools and techniques have not been effectively applied. The natural response is to apply further effort towards educating and certifying more project managers in the established skills and techniques.

However, Seely and Quang suggest that much of this failure may be due to a failure to match learning, experience and skill, and consequent management approach, to the complexity of the project at hand. Indeed, an individualās capability may well be constrained by their current learning, which may be too restrictive for the needs of the project.Ź They have therefore developed a learning curve framework they call the Dynamic Baseline Model ("DBM"). It has essentially four levels of competency: "Management by Rules"; "Management by Methods"; "Management by Objectives" and "Management by Values". Each level is described in some detail in their presentation which may be found at http://www.governance.uottawa.ca/english/education/dbm/splash.html

The Dynamic Baseline Model is also presented in Issacons #1150 through #1164.

Seely and Quang further suggest that as PM tools and techniques are more and more applied as a one-size-fits-all solution, there is a need to explore beyond these tools and techniques. Perhaps more fundamental issues are whether or not classical project management concepts still apply and to what extent do they they fit with the new business and industry realities? Now there is a new work out of Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, that attempts to address these questions. The findings are based on six years of on-going research led by Dr. Terence Cooke-Davies.

Terry is no stranger to project management literature. Ten years ago he wrote these prophetic words: "Growth, change and projects go together. We face an increasingly turbulent world in which business becomes faster paced more complex and more competitive. In this environment the rewards will go to those organizations which are more flexible, more in tune with their customers' wants, more focused on their main product or service, and more professional in every aspect of their business." (Management Today, May 1990)

Yet he continues to write today that "Projects are important to industry, but project performance continually disappoints stakeholder expectations. Organizations react to this performance problem in many ways, and purchase consultancy, training, methods and tools as possible solutions [but] there is no published evidence that any of these solutions are consistently successful in improving project performance." So, Terry's doctoral thesis sets out to answer the question: "What can be done to improve project management practices, and thus project performance?"

His work has resulted in a novel form of "continuous action" research by a "community of practice" formed of practitioners from major corporations commercially motivated to answer the question and implement changes. His thesis starts out with the obligatory literature review which covers recent PM evolution as it relates to project success. However, he quickly moves to what he calls the project managerās "worldview", that is: What does the literature tell us about what is distinctive about PM and how does the project manager approach his or her task? Coincidentally, this review not only reflects the way in which PM has developed in recent years but also how it extends to a much broader range of industries. This section alone makes for fascinating reading as it reveals (as weāve observed before in these pages) "an unbalanced worldview that lacked coherent underlying theory."

Terry's thesis goes on to describe his unique research methods based on a seven-step iterative process and its underlying theory. Along the way, he discusses how we learn in both the natural and social sciences, either of which on their own appear to be inadequate to the study of PM. As a basis for the study, six research questions were proposed:

  1. What aspects of project management are common to different industries?
  2. Which aspects of project management (such as practices or processes) are sufficiently important to project-based organisations that they are felt to be worthy of measurement across industries?
  3. What useful cross-industry "metrics" can be developed to measure the relative performance of these practices or processes, and what constitutes the "benchmark" for them?
  4. What evidence is there from actual project outcomes that the "benchmark" practices translate into actual project performance?
  5. In the light of project performance, which practices and/or processes can be demonstrated to have a determinative influence on project performance?
  6. How can metrics that are relevant to determinative practices or processes be incorporated into useful predictive models?

Good questions indeed. To learn more about this study, and the answers to these questions, contact Dr. Cooke-Davies through his web site http://www.humansystems.co.uk.

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