Project Management

The Entropy at the Heart of Project Management

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Categories: Best Practices

By Lynda Bourne

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the concept of modern project management. How did we get here and where are we going?

People have been doing things that require planning and organization for millennia. But no one involved in leading these endeavors called themselves a project manager until the concept of being a project manager emerged from general business management in the United States starting in the 1930s and ’40s.

Following on from this start, the catalyst for modern project management was the development of PERT and the critical path method of scheduling in 1957. Practitioners of this new craft formed the early project management associations: INTERNET (now IPMA) in Europe in 1964, and PMI in the U.S. in 1969.

These new associations defined and created the concept of modern project management. In particular, PMI created the first project management body of knowledge in 1987 to support its original PMP examination. The structure of the PMBOK® Guide was reorganized in 1996 and remained fundamentally unchanged through to the Sixth Edition published in 2017. The project phases, knowledge areas and processes defined in the PMBOK® Guide had a major influence on the emerging understanding of project management worldwide.

The 20th century version of modern project management was based on reductionism (WBS, etc.), and focused on control (CPM, PERT, EVM). The prevailing view was the work of a project involved people with hard hats creating something you can kick.

Project success was achieved by implementing the processes in the standards effectively. Consequently, project failure could be overcome by the better application of better processes. Internationally, efforts were focused on identifying and defining the required processes, training people in the processes, and qualifying trained people as project managers (the PMP credential being the pre-eminent example).

Almost everyone involved in these developments through to the early 2000s believed projects were special and distinguishable, that project management was a transferrable skill, and that good project management could be defined. We thought that with a bit more work, we would be able to fully define projects, project management and the processes needed for project success.

Then there was entropy!
Entropy describes the level of disorder in a system and shows that all closed systems will tend to become less ordered over time. Work has to be applied from outside of the system to return it to an orderly state.

For 40 years, project management associations had worked to create order in the discipline of project management. But in the last 10 years, a range of external influences have caused a rapid increase in entropy. And because of these influences, it looks as though efforts to standardize project management into a single structure are no longer feasible.

The three primary drivers of entropy are:

1. Everything is a project. In the 21st century, almost anything can be a project. Traditional “hard hat” projects have been joined by:

  • School projects
  • IT projects
  • Business change projects
  • Research projects
  • Environmental projects
  • Volunteer projects, etc.

2. Methodology overload. Approaches to project delivery now include:

  • Agile, including Scrum, Kanban, XP and a range of blends; with ranges of control spanning SAFe and Disciplined Agile, through to people advocating no planning
  • Light and lean concepts
  • Complex project management
  • Traditional, waterfall, etc.

3. Project scope is expanding. Project management has expanded to include:

  • Portfolio management
  • Program management
  • Benefits management/organizational change management
  • Front-end loading

It appears there is no longer one right way to manage a project; the processes used to successfully run an agile project are fundamentally different to those needed to run a “hard hat” project. This dilemma led to the fundamental change in the structure of the Seventh Edition of the PMBOK® Guide. But this also means the concept of a project manager and the skills the person require are extremely variable.

This divergence is recognized in the way PMI is restructuring its range of credentials and qualifications. But both the revised PMBOK® Guide and the qualification framework seem to be adapting to the symptoms, rather than the fundamental changes occurring in the global understanding pf projects and project management.

The challenges for PMI, and all project management associations globally, are:

  1. Refine the definition of project management. My suggestion is “The management of a temporary team, created to deliver a predefined outcome for an organization, in a disciplined way.”
  2. Identify the universal factors that are consistently required to separate a project from other business and general activities. These appear to include:
    1. Temporary teams set up to deliver an objective
    2. Stakeholder engagement and communication
  3. Rebuild a purpose around these core attributes, augmented with industry and methodological specifics.

This approach would produce a knowledge framework with a constant set of core skills and knowledge, supported by workplace skills such as being a scrum master of a construction scheduler.

What future do you want for PMI and the project management associations?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: April 06, 2022 06:40 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Dear Linda
The topic you brought to our reflection and debate is very interesting and relevant.

Thanks for sharing and for your opinions.

We have really seen a big shift in the approaches proposed by PMI, in the launch of PMBOK 7th Edition, in the acquisition of DA and in the foray into the world of technology with Citizen Developer

Do these changes occur only in PMI (I know little about IPMA) or in the Project Management profession?

Good question Luis,
IPMA qualifications seem to be competency based but a competent 'Agile' PM has a different skillset to a competent engineering PM.
PMI and ISO standards are now similar in approach.
But these adaptations don't directly address the challenge of the diversification of the profession. A presentation similar to my article which covers some more ground is at:

Dear Lynda
Thank you for your comment and for the link you sent me.

I find what the author wrote interesting:
"The range of PM qualifications are expanding
•Association memberships are declining
•Qualifications are becoming confusing
•There is no longer the right way to manage a project
•The concept of a project manager is extremely variable"

It made me smile when I read:
"•Qualifications are becoming confusing
•There is no longer a right way to manage a project "

And I was worried about:
"•The concept of a project manager is extremely variable"

Very interesting and thought provoking

Dear Lynda,

I really like your refined definition of project management ("The management of a temporary team, created to deliver a predefined outcome for an organization, in a disciplined way.”)

I also smiled at "There is no longer a right way to manage a project ", as I've been trying to shift my thinking to that mindset.


Discipline vs. Free-For-All Fads
Professionalism vs. Populism
Infinite vs. Finite
6th Ed vs. 7th Ed.

With agile practices like Scrum I see a stronger converge of project and product management, because the product gets more in the focus.
Before agile I saw also many teams doing one project after the next working on one software project. It was a chain of projects.

Excellent article, with many valid points made.
Most of the skills/attributes needed by a PM are not found in PM textbooks or methodologies. For example . . written and verbal communication, working with stakeholders, people ability, problem solving, sense of urgency, willingness to take responsibility, understanding the business, numeracy, computer literacy. The list goes on.
To manage a project, it also helps if the person adopts some essential methods like defining the project, managing risks and issues, etc. However, what methods are best will depend on the project situation. Every manager and most professionals need some ability to manage projects. Some input on methods helps, but many do it intuitively.

Hello Lynda,

Enjoyed reading this because it's short, informative, has memorable one-liners and persuades me to think.

I think any new definition of project management must acknowledge that the character of an individual PM has a big say in how their project behaves regardless of the methodologies wrapped around the project.

Hello Lynda,

Thanks for your blog. I completely agree with you that there is no right or wrong to manage a project. You really are taking something from all of the management systems to successfully manage a project anymore.

You are correct everything is a project anymore from your household to your work to your education.

Thanks for your thoughts and sharing

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