Project Management

That Which Divides Us

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Not long after PMI® awarded me my first monthly column in PMNetwork magazine, The Variance Threshold, in 1997, I received an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a conference held in Silicon Valley, entitled The Future of Project Management. I don’t remember the precise title of my talk, but its topic was something that I felt was fairly self-evident: that there were charlatans among us in the PM ranks, and that their ideas should be challenged before they made their way into the common PM codex. At the end of my talk most of the attendees handed in their speaker eval forms, rating me on a scale of one to five.

My composite score was a three. Nobody gave me a three. They all gave me either a one or a five.

I was somewhat discombobulated by this, but not the conference’s sponsor. He told me that that was the result he had hoped for when he issued the invitation, having been disappointed by more anodyne speakers in the past. He told me that, having read my articles, he was confident I would be anything but anodyne. It did get me to thinking, though: was the legit/illegitimate divide in PM really that close to being right down the middle?

Sometime later I was invited to participate in PMI®’s issuance of the Earned Value Management Practice Standard, which I gladly accepted. I was asked by the PM to take a stab at the Introduction and Chapter 1, and to have it ready prior to the editorial committee’s first meeting, in Costa Mesa, California. I wrote a few thousand words, polished them, transmitted the document, and set out for Costa Mesa. The editorial team in attendance comprised about a dozen people, and we were meeting in a hotel/conference center, in a ballroom with tables set up in a “U” pattern. The PM and I were at the bottom of the “U,” with a laptop hooked into a projector throwing my words onto a screen opposite. Five “contributing editors” (who hadn’t actually written anything, but were, apparently, there to evaluate what I had written) were seated on each side of the “U.”

The PM projected the first few paragraphs of my Introduction onto the screen. My memory is that all of the “contributing” editors to my left hated it, while all the ones to my right thought it was well-written and insightful. After what seemed like hours of haggling over those 300 words, the PM advanced the file to the next 300 words. Again, my perception, but all of the people on the right side of the tables, who had just gotten done praising the Introduction, ripped into the projected text, while the ones on the left praised it as well-written and insightful. This went on the entire weekend. I’m fairly sure none of the advanced polarization abated by the time we all went back to our real jobs.

I have dozens of other, similar stories, where a collection of PM aficionados would prove to be sharply divided on certain elements of the trade. I’ve long maintained that you can get fifty PMs into a room and they won’t agree on the color of an orange, and this notion has only been reinforced by the number of self-anointed Project Management “experts” I have encountered who, in fact, reveal themselves to be hopelessly misguided, and on a consistent basis. When challenged, these invariably crank up their belligerence while tossing aside any semblance of logic or the rules of evidence, confident that no one will continue a challenge in the face of such adversity.

A few of the topics that seem to draw the sharpest polarizations include:

Camp “A”

Camp “Z”

Estimates at Completion (EACs) are best generated by re-estimating the project’s remaining costs, and adding that figure to the cumulative actuals.

EACs are best derived through calculation.

A robust risk management capability is key to project success.

Risk management, as currently practiced, is openly fraudulent management science.

Return on Investment (ROI) calculations are useful for evaluating which projects to pursue, or to establish the value of Project Management Offices.

ROI has no place in Project Management.

Comparing budgets to actual costs provides useful cost performance information.

Comparing Earned Value figures to actual costs provides useful performance information.

Milestone lists, occasionally updated with the responsible PM’s take on whether or not it will be met on-time, is a usable management tool.

Without the percent complete data point, all schedule management systems are pretty useless.


 What do Camp A’s assertions have in common? A few things, to wit:

  • They are all based on a priori assumptions, i.e., no thorough analysis has been performed to test their validity (see my posting from a few weeks back, When Did A Priori Become A Priority?).
  • They will often show up included as paper presentations at PM seminars, either on their own or as part of a larger argument.
  • Their adherents are absolutely convinced of their efficacy, even in light of direct evidence to the contrary.
  • And, finally, whenever I encounter someone who holds these positions, my respect for their level of expertise is severely eroded (not that that counts for anything, it’s just part of the pattern).

Since the Project Management Institute® in general, and in particular, are predicated on a scholastic model, you won’t find any grand, sweeping official proclamations for or against either set of assertions as being valid or invalid – it’s just not the way they rock. Here in the blogosphere, though, it’s a different matter. I can pass along to GTIM Nation that I believe Camp A is invalid, and Camp Z is (sweepingly) right, and readers are welcome to challenge to their hearts’ content in the comments section.

So, yeah, Camp Z is on the right side of these particular divides.

Change my mind.

Posted on: September 16, 2019 10:22 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Is it? I think an article with more elaboration is called for to articulate your position. I am sorry if you have posted that already.

After reading this article, I decided to give it 3 stars just to be a wise guy. ;-)

John --
The blogging gods would be most disappointed if I didn't give your comment a 5.

Michael -- Glad you appreciated the humor. :-) Keep up the good work!

Great article.Thank you for sharing

While you may be right that ROI has no place in project management, project management is a factor in ROI. A well-managed project will serve the bottom line. Then again, if a project manager is investing his project budget in some person, item, or technique, then ROI is critical. It's all a matter of perspective...or is it?

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