The project management discipline is in crisis

March 9, 2010

I ran into this publication, The underlying theory of project management is obsolete, a while ago and thought it was quite interesting. I finally got around to writing a digest of it. Most of the material is directly quoted from the paper.

The article starts by establishing a baseline of the current PM theory as known according to the PMBOK Guide.

Theory of Project is described by these three principles:

  1. Project management is about managing work; this is the conceptualization.
  2. The work can be managed by decomposing the total work effort into smaller chunks of work, which are called activities and tasks in the PMBOK Guide.
  3. Implicit assumption associated with decomposition, namely that tasks are related if at all by sequential dependence.

Theory of Management consists of the following three sub-theories:

  • Theory of Planning
  • Theory of Executing
  • Theory of Control

The planning processes dominate the scene in the PMBOK Guide. The emphasis is on planning, with little offered on executing especially, making the overall management theory “management-as-planning”.

The underlying theory of execution turns out to be similar to the concept of job dispatching in manufacturing where it provides the interface between plan and work.  The basic issue in dispatching is allocating or assignment of tasks or jobs to machines or work crews, usually by a central authority.

Then the article proceeds to examining the current PM theory and argues that is not the best available:

Theory of Project

The current model is basically represented by a non-cyclical network graph in which each activity connects directly into its immediate successors.  Such a model fails to account for uncertainty in production process, which affects time as well as interdependencies between tasks.

The alterative “flow view” based on the queueing theory where the focus is directed towards uncertainty and linkages models the reality much better. The flow view especially addresses the goal “unnecessary work is not done”.

Yet another theory exists,  the value generation view. The basic thrust here is to reach the best possible value from the point of the customer.  The major difference between the suggested PMBOK view and the value generation view is that the customer is included in the conceptualization of the latter. The value generation view admits that at the outset, customer requirements are not necessarily available or well understood, and that the allocation of requirements to different parts of the (project) product is a difficult problem.

Theory of Management

Theory of planning:  As for the management-as-planning approach:
  • it has been held that it is not generally possible to maintain a complete and up-to-date representation of the current circumstances and the plan to change them.
  • the absolute separation of management and execution is not seen to adequately correspond to organizational reality.
  • the plans push tasks to execution without taking the status of the production system into account.
The two last aspects mean that this model “leaves the task of management essentially uncoupled from everyday activity” (Johnston & Brennan 1996). Also the model implies that the process and outputs of planning are not questioned.

There is another approach to management, called management-as-organizing, which has been presented as a counterpart to management-as-planning.  It models an organization as a set of interacting sub-units capable of sensing, planning and acting.  Communication is non-hierarchical, based on interaction between sub-units. In this approach, management involves design, co-ordination and enabling of otherwise autonomous activities.

Theory of Executing:  The main issue with the current dispatching model is that the unproblematic realization of tasks pushed by the plan to the execution is assumed.  It is very difficult to maintain an up-to-date plan, and thus the tasks pushed by the plan do not correspond to reality, i.e. their prerequisites in terms of predecessor tasks (or other inputs) do not necessarily exist. This leads to the situation that a major share of tasks to be commenced, when pushed by the plan, chronically lack one or more of their inputs.

Another erroneous assumption is that the task is fully understood, started and completed according to the plan once authorized. Whereas in reality the work in organizations is coordinated through making and keeping commitments. Thus action is coordinated by the commitments people make rather than by central control acting through commands.

The two basic shortcomings of the PBMOK suggested dispatching model are:
  • there should be two-way communication between the controller and the executors.
  • it is necessary to consider the commitment of the executor; a job will actually be started and completed only if the executor is committed to realize it.

Theory of Control: Another theory of control,  “scientific experiment”, that addresses learning and improvement  is suggested as a better approach to finding root causes for problems , and improving performance.  It reveals a fatal shortcoming of the PMBOK suggested model that does not address finding reasons for deviations, and eliminating those root causes.

The article goes on to present empirical evidence from one application domain, construction, that the existing PM theory is not valid.  The evidence is abundant, and you should read it yourself. I just want to include here one last quote:

The deficiencies of the theory of the project and of the theory of management reinforce each other and their detrimental effects propagate through the life cycle of a project. Typically, customer requirements are poorly investigated at the outset, and the process of requirement clarification and change leads disruption in the progress of the project. The actual progress starts to drift from the plan, the updating of which is too cumbersome to be done regularly. Without an up-to-date plan, the work authorization system transforms to an approach of informal management. Increasingly, tasks are commenced without all inputs and prerequisites at hand, leading to low efficiency or task interruption and increased variability downstream. Correspondingly, controlling by means of a performance baseline that is not based on the actual status becomes ineffective or simply counterproductive. All in all, systematic project management is transformed to a facade, behind which the job actually gets done, even if with reduced efficiency and lessened value to the customer.

A few points here that resonate with me personally when thinking of software development projects and project management processes used:

  • Rework indeed seems to constitute the bulk of the software development projects. No wonder the non-cyclical network graph model (think MS project / GANTT chart model) mentioned earlier does not reflect the reality. The execution of the original plans never goes as planned.
  • Most of the project planning sessions dont have a good way of incorporating customer feedback during requirement development and feature prioritization and so focus on product value is not always clear.
  • Planning & management indeed seems to be removed from execution. Management thinks of execution as of an ideal machine. Uncertainties of the production and requirement understanding are poorly accounted for in the plans and.
  • One way communication within command-and-control model. Such an important factor as commitments from your team members are usually overlooked although those are the most important elements enabling project success.


2 Responses to “The project management discipline is in crisis”

  1. […] March 14, 2010 A quick follow-up to my earlier post, The Project Management Discipline Is In Crisis. […]

  2. […] 16, 2010 A while back I posted a digest/review of a research paper on the theory of project management. It was an attempt to make it easy to read […]

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