Project Management – The Biggest Problem

January 31, 2024


After almost 1000s of answers from more than 400 project managers from around the world, the conclusion “answer” — the biggest problem project management is facing is that seemingly no one can agree on what project management is.

Certainly, almost of all us would agree that a project is a “unique endeavor” constrained by scope, time, and cost. But beyond that starter definition, there appears to be very little agreement on the actual practice of managing projects.

In summarizing the online responses:

  • There was no clear consensus on what project management is — or should be (e.g., tactical versus strategic, project versus product, value versus plan, etc.).
  • There was no clear agreement on how project success should be measured.
  • There was no clear understanding of how to improve project management (success rates, image, competency, etc.).
  • There was no clear agreement on whether project management is a profession or a collection of processes within another field.
  • There was general agreement that project management needs to do better at producing results and demonstrating value, but no agreement on how.
  • And there was agreement that the representative PM bodies are too focused on defining and explaining the tools and producing certifications.

One issue that emerged from the responses and related discussions was that the term Project Management might be a misnomer. As it is practiced today, project management should always begin with a qualifier Construction PM, IT PM, Pharma PM, Aerospace PM, and so on, as no two industry groups see projects in the same way or implement them using the same methods, tools and techniques.

Can? should? Project Management be seen as a unified discipline or should it be segmented by industries?

Several industry-specific certifications have been introduced recently. But the sheer number of professionals that call themselves project managers (with no qualifier) suggests that a sizable majority of the project management community wants to be unified and work together as a whole to define project management.

At the very least, the need for qualifiers placed before the title of Project Manager seems obvious. But some things can be done to bring practitioners closer on many issues to present a united front concerning a general project management profession.

Professional associations need to stop focusing on certifications and start focusing on addressing the issues that project managers face.

No certification whether knowledge-based or competency-based is going to make a project manager better.

All a certification can do is attest to the current state of that individual’s knowledge or experience.

Certifications, bodies of knowledge, associations, and professional organizations attempt to treat project management as a coherent, well-defined, and understood discipline.

Based on the results of the online discussion, there is little evidence supporting this treatment. Certainly, the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK Guide, with its knowledge areas and process groups, has done a fair job of defining what project management entails and the general role of a project manager.

But the application of the knowledge areas and process groups appears to be so different within specific industry groups that the objective of achieving a “common understanding based on common terminology” appears to have failed.

Each industry sees a different knowledge area or process group as the most important or irrelevant. Construction sees scope management as a part of change control, estimating, Quote to Cash, and procurement.

The software industry sees schedule management or planning as too restrictive, and aerospace and defense contractors are all about schedule management and earned value.

Likewise, project managers must understand that different organizations have very different views of project management. Even when project managers use the same processes and tools, they often have different authority and responsibility levels. Consequently, what may be appropriate or applicable in one organization would not work in another. One size does not fit all.

The project management community must also come up with new metrics for success to replace the oft-recited triple constraints. Too often we see on-time, on-budget, and on-scope cited as the indicator of successful Project Management when in fact these are the minimum acceptable performance criteria.

Rarely do we see mention of benefits, value, or customer satisfaction as measures of success.

The project management community must find ways in which to accurately define and explain PM as a discipline, and the benefits and value that competent PM practices produce. Project managers must be able to articulate how solid, fundamental project management practices benefit organizations.

Project managers could be considered the last generalists in a world increasingly segmented by the principle of specialization. Project management is in a unique position. it not only exists in every industry but also in areas such as education, non-profits, disaster relief, and the military.

It touches all levels of management, interacts with every line of business and department, and can be applied to products, processes, strategy, change and any other undertaking an organization decides to pursue.

Due to this varied existence, and because the professional associations are not industry-specific, project managers have the opportunity to learn from every other industry and share knowledge and lessons learned that no functional manager could imagine.

But first, we must address these lingering issues and decide, as a discipline, who we are and what we do.



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