There has to be a better way, II

Question, wonderingAs I was mulling the blogs to write this week, along came my regular email from Projects @ Work including a link to David Schmaltz “Unlearning Project Management” published on March 17, 2008 (you may need to register to get access). The article is a recap of a PMI-published study by Lauri Koskela and Greg Howell entitled “The Underlying Theory of Project Management is Obsolete“. I’ve downloaded the study ($10 for members/$15 for non-members) and Mr. Schmaltz does an excellent job of summarizing it.

What is so interesting about the study recapped by Mr. Schmaltz is the confirmation of what I’ve felt since I started running projects: the standard approach is, at best, incomplete for the types of projects I’m asked to run: software development projects (while I’ve done other types of projects, such as Y2K and post-9/11 security response, my experience with software development is much more extensive and I’ll limit my comments to this area of expertise).

Why is it wrong? According to Schmaltz, Koskela and Howell argue that three beliefs that make the foundation of traditional project management are “: faulty and incomplete.” The three beliefs are: 1) The Transformational View of PM; 2) Management by Planning; and 3) Thermostatic Control.

The Transformational View argues that project work can be explicitly broken into smaller chunks that then can get ordered and assigned to the individuals who will do the work. What this view doesn’t take into account is that there is a “lot of implicit, non-sequential work involved, which cannot be explicitly defined, scheduled, or assessed.” Team interaction and stakeholder interactions come to mind.

The Management by Planning perspective assumes that the execution of the plan will follow the plan exactly and that the plan is complete. In practice, deviations from the plan are normal as the situation changes or new things are identified. In some cases, people decide not to follow the plan. Traditional PM does not address these situations beyond trying to correct the “misbehavior” to get back on the plan.

Thermostatic Control assumes that by measuring the result against the standard (plan) correction can be made to the execution of the plan. Unfortunately, this measurement usually takes place at the end of the task, which means it has no ability to improve the performance of the task.

This is not to say that traditional PM doesn’t work but that maybe there is more to it than the PMBOK and similar documents consider. Schmaltz’s The Blind Men and the Elephant attempts to address some of these limitations. Agile project management similarly attempts to adapt project management to reality. We must educate ourselves and our management on the limitations of traditional project management and how to overcome them. We must adapt our approaches to address these limitations or we’ll continue to hear how the majority of projects fail.

As tonight’s (March 24, 2008) PMI SV speaker, Dennis Stevens, mentioned to me after his presentation, most projects fail due to people issues not technical issues. And since the only way to run projects is with people, we have to address the people issues. More work is needed to expand our current project management theory.

Jose Solera, MBA, PMP


2 thoughts on “There has to be a better way, II”

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    Jose: Thanks for the comments on the first installment of Unlearning Project Management. There will be several additional installments over the coming weeks. In these, I will more deeply consider the dilemmas each of the three underlying PMI theories (Transformational View, Management By Planning, and Thermostatic Control) bring. I doubt that I will be proposing a replacement theory, but I do hope to bring a degree of mindfulness about the insidious effect tacit theories have upon us, and how we might condition ourselves to wake up in time to see useful variation from the prescribed path. Every theory is wrong, but some are more situationally useful than others. Warmly, David Schmaltz

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