Thursday, October 06, 2005

On project management

I finished my last entry by taking a swipe at project management and even project managers. That was probably unfair but the fact is I am not a fan of project management

It could be a career limiting move to speak against project management but I feel I should say something to explain my sideswipe, I should explain my thoughts.

Of course I'm not naive enough heretical think projects “just happen" - there needs be some kind of project management but it is the form project management usually takes that I have a problem with. I am not alone in my views, but they are somewhat heretical.

In their book “Lean Software Development” Mary and Tom Poppendieck explain why much project management practice is contrary to the principles of lean. Henry Mintzberg wrote an entire book in criticism of strategic planning - although “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning” (1994, 2000) is largely concerned with the differences between strategy and strategic planning much of what he says can be applied equally to project management.

More specifically the authors Lauri Koskela and Greg Howell have written papers claiming the whole theory of project management is obsolete, e.g. “The theory of project management is obsolete” (2002) and the “Theory of project management explanation of novel methods” (2002). (Actually, one of their criticism is that project management lacks a theory and academic underpinning.)

I've even discussed this subject myself before - see "An alternative view of planning". Of course my view of planning it comes from the software/IT perspective and it may be dangerous to extrapolate to all project management, but this is the feel I know.

So, as I see it, the problems with current project management on multiple:

  • Planners are divorced from those doing the work
  • Planning is not used as a learning tool, it is used as a control tool, this can lead to planning being used to apportion blame
  • Responsibility is removed from those doing work, after all the plan says can be done so is merely an exercise in executing against the plan
  • Accuracy: planning is based on estimates which definition in wrong
  • Extrapolation from the past: planners so often assume that the future will be like the past
  • Planning limits our expectation, because extrapolate from the past, and because the use estimates, and because they ignore the learning we are limited to what we expect to happen
  • Plans become defensive barrier behind which people hide: manages no longer talk to those doing the work they talked of project manager, who in turn talks the people doing the work, nobody has to answer for this, we just compare ourselves to the plan - which of course nobody really believes

Finally planning is demoralising, what we have a plan or users execute. A good project manager execute the plan - the workers are minor fact, and all too often they know this.

So that, in a nutshell is why not fan of project management and planning.

Yes it sounds like I have moved from talking about project management to talking about planning - and I know they are different but is the emphasis put on plans is what I don’t like about project management. (Some of the points made above (e.g. responsibility, learning, accuracy) still hold even if you don't have a plan, you just have a project manager who create a barrier.) The subsequent “execution against plan” and “exception tracking” are all part of what we define as “project management” today.

So, what I put in its place?

The answer is quite long. I give you some ideas in the last, and earlier, blog entries. In a sense, the "alternative” is what this blog is all about. Or, put it another way: the alternative is a work in progress.

Stay tuned.