A position paper that I presented to the Education Track of the Project Management Institute in 1994. Published here November 2000.


Musings Index

Is the Approach to Scientific Development Appropriate for Project Management?

A position paper that I presented to the Education Track of the Project Management Institute in 1994

If project management is to be the modus operandi of the future for establishing a competitive edge, then its proper understanding and application needs to be much more widespread. To achieve that requires a significant educational effort. But what is the right approach? Can we learn from science? Consider the development of a new science or discipline which may be roughly categorized in the following progressive stages:

Stage 1 


Collection of anecdotes (empirical)

Stage 2


Generating hypothesis, theorizing, based on observations

Stage 3

Thesis testing

Seeing if what thesis predicts is true (gives support or contradiction)

Stage 4


Generate competing theories

Stage 5

New position

Theory that explains all of the foregoing

Stage 6

Mature science 

Well established discipline

Project management as a discipline is interesting because it consists of a number of functional areas, or sub-disciplines. Some of these functions, such as cost and time management, are comparatively well established and have well established principles of planning, measuring and control. Others are but neophytes. This is especially true of those areas encompassing people relationships, and involving psychological influence such as communications, contract negotiations, personnel management, power, authority and responsibility, cultural differences, and so on.

Project management may be about "getting things done", but it is also about the process or "manner of getting things done", if "customer satisfaction" is to be achieved and the project acclaimed as successful. In the development of the Project Management Institute's project management body of knowledge particularly, we have seen that project management encompasses both "objectives" (scope, quality, time and cost) and "subjectives" (risk, human resources, contract-procurement-commitment and communications). Therefore, project management needs both "things-people" (product-oriented and relatively predictable) as well as "people-people" (process-oriented and often unpredictable). However, conflict can arise on a project when the product people on the project are trying to get the process finished, while the process types are trying to keep it going! The challenge is to be able to integrate these two opposites and have them work together as a team.

Project management literature, and teaching and learning materials must necessarily encompass both worlds. They must at one and the same time be both pragmatic and practical as well as scientific and provable. Unfortunately, our traditional academic systems do not respond well to this integrated requirement.

The North American academic system is built around the concept of "reductionism", that is to say, like a work breakdown structure, you can take anything and reduce it down to smaller and smaller pieces. This approach is, for example, very successful in physics. Every other science has attempted to follow this model and, indeed, many have followed it very successfully.

As a result, many of our academic institutions are arranged around this model and are characterized by science specializations. This is also reflected in their institutional journal publications and the content of each closely reflects the degree of maturity of each specialization. For an organization, such as the Project Management Institute, which relies heavily on its publications to disseminate the word on project management to the majority of its members, the strategy of analysis fostered by such an academic review process may actually hamper progress.

This is because the psychological disciplines do not respond to the scientific model. Rather, they respond to an environmental systems approach, i.e. , to "relationships" and not to the classic scientific "reductionism". To take solely the one view or the other of project management is clearly insufficient. Yet one suspects that much of the conflicting discussions within the Institute, and particularly with regard to the body of knowledge may well be because of these opposing points of view.

Perhaps we should be asserting much more vigorously that project management is both an art as well as a science. That it involves both people and things, rigor and flexibility, and needs leaders (project managers) who can recognize when to apply each to the best advantage of the overall process. To achieve this it will be necessary for them to have instruction and experience in both realms, and we shall need educational establishments which clearly and comfortably encompass both. If we can establish that, may be we shall see more motivated team work and more consistently successful projects. With more consistently successful projects surely we can become more competitive internationally? After all, isnít that the kind of "project success" that is the ultimate objective?

The issues, then, are how do we achieve a paradigm shift in the thinking of our educational establishment on the one hand, and peoples' attitudes towards it on the other?

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