In my last post, I summarised the 9 “meta-problems” blocking us from discussing and analysing project management.
In this post, we’re moving in a different direction. Now I will look at what we can do to solve these meta-problems and build a broad and rich narrative about project management.
Making projects sexy again
Projects and the benefits they could offer must have felt pretty sexy in the early days of formalised project management. Or as much as things got sexy in the 1940s through the 1960s. Massive projects delivered outcomes legendary in their impacts on human society. There were so many projects that had vast visions, such as the Manhattan Project and NASA space missions.
The cracks started to emerge as project management expanded; the world got faster. The increasing use of software and computer systems exposed the fragility of methods better-suited to physical materials. The failures of large IT projects spawned many warnings and cautionary notes: Royce in 1970, Brooks in 1975, Cobbs in 1995 are but a few of many.
For a long period in the 1970s and early 1980s, our ability to conceive projects outstripped our ability to deliver on them.
Projects were sexy again in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Remember Tom Peters and his “everything is a project” mantra? This conceived projects as a universal tool. Projects were the key to change, innovation, and improved productivity.
The Agile movement arrived in the early 2000s and stole the thought leadership on organised problem-solving. Since then, the project management profession hasn’t been able to steal it back. Agile is (or at least was) the new “sexy” in projects.
Now Agile has its own problems and has lost the excitement and fizz it once had. There are probably more formal agile methodologies now than there were traditional ones before agile arrived. Codification and orthodoxy have set in. Is the only way to introduce agile to an organisation is through an “Agile Transformation”?
In the meantime, traditional project management has doubled-down on “scope, schedule and budget”.
Where do we go from here?
Resolving the meta-problems
The first step is to “clear the decks” of our meta-problems. Then we can at least have a decent discussion about what works and what doesn’t. Doing that alone would help project management practice.
What we need is to define a kind of project management that:
- Has a broad vision of project management that is not technique-driven. Tools and techniques are only as useful as the purpose and principles that drive them.
- Is aligned and has integrated many and different perspectives. Can we find a framework that reconciles “traditional” project management and Agile? I think we can.
- Has a rich and broad concept of the project manager role. Project management can be so much better than the limited role that so many project managers accept.
- Has defined pathways to develop and assess project manager competency. There’s a lot to learn, and we need to show practitioners how to get from wherever they are to where they need to be.
- Is based on new and current models. Accept and absorb the most recent (and not-so-recent) research and thinking impacts our lives in the early 21st century.
- Is enabling, open and focused on value. Standardisation has some value: orthodoxy only has value if it is correct. Each project must adapt to its own unique parameters.
- Includes ways to accommodate and shape the “quick fix” syndrome. We’ll perhaps never obliterate the “quick fix” syndrome. But we want project managers to extract the value that drives this syndrome and have better ways of dealing with it to get better outcomes.
- Includes ways to mitigate the “no-trust” mess. Understanding the problem is the first step to finding a solution. We may not remove the “no trust” mess. And we can’t change a whole organisation with one project. But we can ensure that we mitigate its effects within the bounds of our project.
- Can deal with non-linear problems. Non-linear dynamics need very different approaches to linear situations. Not all dynamics are controllable or can be even anticipated. But we can help our project managers prepare for and recognise them.
To resolve and mitigate the nine meta-problems will produce better practice and engagement. The conceptual space around project management will be much clearer. It will be possible to have objective discourse and analysis without disappearing down a tool or technique rat-hole. And we will enable project managers to express their unique sets of skills and capabilities to manage their projects.
The Manifesto for Action
Within the limitations of a single blog, my mission is to do everything I can to drive those nine strategies and make projects “sexy” again.
Resolving the nine meta-problems with the above nine objectives is my “Manifesto for Action” on project management. If project management can achieve even some of these things, then it is worth getting excited about again. There’s no automatic need to throw everything traditional away. We need to reframe our perspectives on what we’ve learned. There’s no automatic need to discard the Agile manifesto just because it’s 20 years old, just as there’s no need to reject the PMBOK because it is rules-driven and deterministic.
The Manifesto for Action comes when it’s time to “make projects sexy again”.
How do we do that?
The first step is to define some foundation concepts that will give us a framework for analysis.