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
Collection of anecdotes (empirical)
Generating hypothesis, theorizing, based on observations
Seeing if what thesis predicts is true (gives support or contradiction)
Generate competing theories
Theory that explains all of the foregoing
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
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
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
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?