9 Project management “meta-problems” that block discussion and analysis

How do we improve our conception and practice of project management? I don’t mean project management in the PMI sense. I mean, a broad organised approach to solving problems and enabling new outcomes.

There are many points of issue and problem in the various spheres of project management. But analysing and discussing them ends up down some rat-hole of practice and technique. Or vested choices and commitments hijack the discussion. We have made no real progress based on the “traditional” vs “agile” wars. Nor have the arguments between different branded methodologies been very productive.

So it’s time to take a step up and out of that level of discussion.

We need to take a more holistic and broad perspective on project management. We need to have a less biased and principle-based dialogue about what’s wrong and how to improve it. What’s stopping us? Project management “meta-problems”.

A “meta-problem” is a problem that sits above specific issues of implementation and practice. I mean other than questions like “Which is better: Scrum or Kanban?” or “Should I use a 3x3 or 5x5 risk categorisation matrix?” or even “Is the Agile manifesto still relevant?”. And a gazillion just like that. I’m not talking about those.

A “meta-problem” controls the framing of the discussion. A “meta-problem fundamentally impedes our ability to analyse and discuss project management practice and constructs.

I wrote a series of posts on my blog looking at each of these “meta-problems”.

Let’s recap these nine meta-problems and then give each an overview.

Summary

  1. The narrow vision of standardised techniques
  2. Fragmented and conflicted views
  3. The sheer size and scope of project management capability
  4. Project manager competency (or lack thereof)
  5. The fundamental concepts of project management are obsolete
  6. Project management as a disabling profession
  7. Can’t help with the “quick fix” syndrome (even when it’s needed)
  8. Cannot clean up the “no trust” mess
  9. Using linear tools to solve non-linear problems.

Overview of the eight “meta-problems”

1. A narrow vision of standardised techniques

The practice and theory of project management derive from a narrow set of concepts. The conceptual basis is to follow “natural” rules that define the right way to run a project. These rules flow into practice using a small set of standardised techniques.

Repetition of this core set of techniques in different projects is the basis for project management practise.

A “brand name” framework such as PMBOK or Prince2 or Scrum may define this core set of techniques. Or an enterprise may develop or adopt a framework as its “standard”. And yes, I include Agile in this narrative. Agile’s wider adoption has seen a more codified and proceduralised form emerge at the expense of its core concepts.

2. Fragmented and conflicted views

The narrative of project management is fragmented and conflicted.

The divisions are both unnecessary and superficial. The most fundamental split is between “traditional” project management and the “agile” alternatives. Even within these two subsets of project management, there are many positions.

No coherent and pervasive theory covers all project types and situations. But there are endless viewpoints of the “right way” to practice.

You can find this “right way” promoted and embedded everywhere. In research, professional organisations, tertiary curriculums, books, blogs, private training and tools.

Freud called this tendency “the Narcissism of Small Differences”.

3. The sheer size and scope of required project manager capabilities

On the one hand, we have narrow and conflicted viewpoints of project management. On the other hand, there is the sheer size and scope of the knowledge, skills, and behaviours demanded of a project manager.

Project managers operate across many technical and practice domains. They need the skills to traverse organisational and stakeholder social and organisational structures. They must resolve behavioural dilemmas in their teams. And deal with the unexpected realignment of the project system and its constraints.

Traditional training pathways provide few tools to deal with this enormous scope.

4. Project manager competency (or lack of it)

Given the first three meta-problems, it is not surprising that there is a low level of competence in project management practice.

But on top of this, the industry takes a commoditised and packaged certification approach to skills development.

Competence doesn’t include the ability to practice project management. It also includes the ability to analyse and critique project management concepts and practice. To identify and select from a rich range of alternative approaches to unique project situations.

Reflective practice is either uncommon or almost entirely private.

5. The fundamental concepts of project management are obsolete

Management theories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries pervade project management practice. Henri Fayol still drives both management and project management foundations. Taylor’s concepts still propagate through both management philosophy and individual execution.

The Bodies of Knowledge (BOK’s) from professional societies evolve slowly but still form the basis of much modern practice.

All this despite the many new concepts that have evolved over the past 50 years of formal project management.

6. Project management as a disabling Profession

The PMI, APM and other project management professional societies started long ago. They do an excellent job for their members and stimulate discussion and analysis of project management. To a degree. These associations worked hard to get entrenched in the spheres of regulation. They follow a centuries-old path for professional societies, for example, guilds and unions. This strategy establishes its BOKs and frameworks as the standard for “permitted practice”.

Over time, the associations may grow and become more accepted in their industry, and there is a potential tipping point. At this tipping point growth and market position become more important than the practice or welfare of its members. The growth and market position becomes the defined method to achieve its members’ goals.

If this tipping continues without a balancing initiative, then the professions become “disabling”. “Disabling professions” emphasise orthodoxy of practice and control the power to practice.

Disabling professions focus on form, tools and process and the paraphernalia of delivery. The enabling capabilities that users desire are delivered only by exercising approved practice. So medicine has for years focused on the practice of curing ills and not on the outcome of “good health”.

Consumers of project management services have little choice in what makes up project management. The result is a disabled partnership of permitted but still dysfunctional practice. Or they reject it and look for a “quick fix”.

7. Can’t help with the “quick fix” syndrome (even when it’s needed)

The concept of a “quick fix” is pervasive amongst project stakeholders. We often see this at the “messy front end” of projects during conception. At this stage of the project, future difficulties are easy to avoid or discount. But it also can occur at any stage in the project.

The “quick fix” syndrome is when a stakeholder wants to remove or discount an implementation stage so they can reduce perceived time or cost. It’s not the removal of any process stage that’s the problem. It’s the denial of the underlying need that the process stage is to serve.

Project management runs into problems at this stage. It gets trapped in its processes with an audience who is more likely to be process-averse. Project managers receive neither process value-recognition nor quantitative information that their defined processes need. In this situation, project managers must “prove” the existence of adverse outcomes or risks.

There are few tools in the project management toolbox to counter this position.

8. Project management cannot clean up the “no trust” mess

Let’s look at four reasons that a lack of trust extends up and down most organisations:

  1. Loss of confidence in institutions globally
  2. Outdated management models
  3. The dissonance between an organisation’s stated values and perceived behaviour
  4. Poor relationships between supervisory personnel and individual contributors

The probability is high that a project manager and the project team will experience the toxic impacts of bad trust relationships.

It’s tough to overcome an endemic lack of trust in an organisation from within the context of a project. Standard toolsets don’t help you, either agile or traditional. Standard toolsets both rely on and can undermine trust between stakeholders.

As a project manager, you have to attempt at least to do what you can. Choosing to address lack of trust issues is not easy: it is a leadership function. It’s the most fundamental problem you have to solve to deliver your project. Depending on how severe the problem is, this might occupy the vast bulk of your time.

9. Project management uses linear tools to solve non-linear problems

We plan and execute projects linearly, but we experience our project tasks non-linearly. This paradox exists in every project and causes endless conflict amongst the stakeholders.

Projects are full of non-linear relationships and processes. Project management does little to address such scenarios. Are there knowledge, concepts or tools to describe, recognise and influence such situations?

Common examples of non-linear situations include:

  1. Human cognition and emotion.
  2. Human social and communication processes.
  3. Technology instability

Conclusion

Even to begin the process of improving project management, we must resolve these nine meta-problems. At least resolve them at a conceptual level. The good news is that many of these problems have self-inflicted causes. But that’s also the bad news.

I will continue this narrative on AdamOnProjects.com and here at Medium from time to time. My next series will look at sources for solutions to these meta-problems.

Please join me.

I want to change the way you think about and do project management. http://www.adamonprojects.com

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