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:
- 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.”
- Identify the universal factors that are consistently required to separate a project from other business and general activities. These appear to include:
- Temporary teams set up to deliver an objective
- Stakeholder engagement and communication
- 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?