In its most primitive form, a project is simply an attempt to do something. Indeed, you can call it a project or not and you can manage it as a project or just by default as a part of normal operations. Nevertheless, almost all the definitions quoted as examples from the Glossary are biased by some vested interest or predetermined agenda to suit its surrounding context. Why shouldn't a project be a chaotic venture to some unknown destination - a randomized voyage of discovery with a total absence of management? Shouldn't that also be the subject of academic research?
But as soon as we introduce the notions of a specific product or outcome, and the business constraints of effectiveness and efficiency we change the whole picture. To this end, we assembled a number of First Principles of Project Management first presented in 2000, published on this web site in 2002, and updated in 2009. Interestingly, although we described these as "principles", as Dr. Lauri Koskela and Gregory Howell subsequently pointed out, all of these are really "prescriptions" that form the basis for potential "theories" that should come first.
Indeed, in their Review, Koskela and Howell observe:
"First Principles vs. Theories
We prefer theories to first principles, understanding that theories contain principles, both first and secondary, but also concepts. Before we can formulate any fundamental principle, we must have or must select concepts, which we can use in its formulation. The 'big idea' or conceptualization comes first, principles second. For example, if we view projects as transformation, we can next subscribe to the first principle of that conceptualization, namely the decomposition of the total transformation into sub-transformations and finally into assignable transformations, tasks. To us, this first principle is described in Wideman's Introduction.
To us, the first principles identified in Wideman's paper are rather critical success factors, taking into account that (1) in the Discussion section, on Issue #2 it is stated: "The key criterion is thought to be whether or not the principle is universally fundamental to project success as defined." and (2) there is no prior conceptualization for formulating such principles. One of the two most important functions of a theory is explanation (the other is prediction), and unfortunately critical success factors do not generally provide such an explanation."
In a subsequent paper, The underlying theory of project management is obsolete, the authors observed in their Abstract:
"In prior literature, it has been generally seen that there is no explicit theory of project management. We contend that it is possible to precisely point out that the underlying theoretical foundation of project management as espoused in the PMBOK Guide by PMI and mostly applied in practice. This foundation can be divided into a theory of project and a theory of management. We link theories to the body of knowledge by comparing prescriptions derived from theory to prescriptions presented in the PMBOK. Secondly, we show, by a comparison to competing theories and by an analysis of anomalies (deviations from assumptions or outcomes as implied in the body of knowledge) observed in project management practice, that this foundation is obsolete and has to be substituted by a wider and more powerful theoretical foundations."
And later in their Introduction:
"We show that project management as practiced today rests on an implicit and narrow theory that must be developed, extended and enriched. Indeed, it is the poverty of current theory that explains the other problems of project management, such as frequent failures (Kharbanda & Pinto 1996), lack of commitment towards project management methods (Forsberg & al. 1996) and slow rate of methodological renewal (Morris 1994)."
It seems to us that for all the project management pontification in the ten years or so since then, the fundamental position of having a need for an underlying theory that encapsulates the so-called "First Principles" that we collected around 2000 has not materially changed. In fact, it may have regressed.
18. Note that "effectiveness" precedes "efficiency" because effectiveness is built into the project during its definition phase before efficiency can be achieved in the project's execution.
19. On the PMForum web site, now defunct.