Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Development of Valid Project Management Principles Requires Partnering with Project Managers

The upcoming several blogs will provide a brief overview of the new book: Becoming a Project Leader: Blending Planning, Agility, Resilience, and Collaboration to Deliver Successful Projects, to be published in 2017 by Palgrave. The book was written by the blog's co-authors Alex and Jeff in collaboration with Terry Little and Bruce Maas. These blogs will highlight the four roles assumed by successful project managers as depicted in the following figure:

Figure 1: The four roles of the project manager
Whereas the Industrial Revolution emphasized skill and task specialization, the current information revolution has led in the mid-1990s to the use of the project method as the predominant management strategy for structuring organizations. As summarized succinctly by Tom Peters in 1999, “All white-collar work today is project work.”1
Paradoxically, the sharp increase in the popularity of the project method has been accompanied by an increasing dissatisfaction with current project management results. As accurately summarized by the opening statement of a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review, "Projects fail at a spectacular rate.”2 This point was emphatically remade in a recent issue of the same journal: “Why don’t most project managers sound the alarm when they’re going to blow past their deadlines? Because most of them have no earthly idea when they’ll finish the job.”3 And why don’t they have any idea when they’ll finish? Because prevailing project management principles and practices were developed by the research community without intensively involving practitioners. As a result, their prescriptions are not only inadequate but also misleading.
In one of our previous blogs published January 2016 we shared the story of Jim Carroll, a VP of a large industrial organization, who was a member of a group of experienced practitioners at the Construction Industry Institute who developed a list of nine principles they believed essential for project success. Alex argued vehemently with Jim that these principles were inadequate. Failing to convince him, Alex asked Jim to go home and reflect on the projects he himself had led in the past, to see if applying the nine principles could explain the success or failure of these projects. To his great credit, Jim took this assignment very seriously and the following day he humbly told Alex that there was no correlation between the nine principles and the success and failure of his own past projects. The important message of this story is that even when experienced practitioners attempt to develop project management principles, they may fail unless they systemically reflect upon their own experience.
The overall objective of our research has been to develop practice-based principles for managing projects. Believing that management is best learned by emulating exemplary role models, we’ve based this book on more than two decades of research that has attempted to capture the proven practices of some of the most competent project managers. Toward this end, we’ve used multiple, complementary approaches to collect firsthand data on the practices of successful project managers, focusing our studies on a selective sample of the best practitioners in leading organizations.
Our first approach consisted of field studies and structured research tools, which included two-to-four-hour interviews and up to one-week-long observations of practitioners from various organizations such as AT&T, Bechtel, DuPont, General Motors, IBM, Motorola, PPL Electric Utilities, Procter & Gamble, and Turner Construction Company. Our second approach involved facilitating reflective dialogues among project team members. We collected most of the cases, stories, and practices through our role as the facilitators of the project management knowledge-development and knowledge-sharing communities in three organizations: NASA (five years), Procter & Gamble (three years), and Boldt (two years). Overall, more than 200 project managers from over 20 organizations participated in our studies. To make sure the principles we developed were a valid interpretation of the stories we had collected, we adopted a third approach: testing our interim results in real-life situations through consulting engagements.
Our intensive collaboration with the best practitioners enabled us to define the four primary roles of project managers (Figure 1) illustrated by four metaphors (Figure 2). In the following blogs we will expand each of these four roles.

Figure 2: Metaphors for the four roles of the project manager


1.  Peters, T. The Wow project. Fast Company 1999; April(24): p. 116.
2.  Lundin, R.A., Arvidsson, N., Brady, T., Ekstedt, E., Midler, C., and Sydow, J. Managing and Working in Project Society. 2015, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.  Klein, G. Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review 2007; 85(9): p. 18-19.

Terry Little was program manager for over 25 years at the Department of Defense, and is considered by many to be the best program manager in recent DoD history. Mr. Little served as Executive Director of the Missile Defense Agency—the senior civilian in an organization of approximately 8,000 employees—while also directing the $14 billion Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program. Previously, he was the first director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence, which enhanced all acquisition activities through streamlining contracts, devising incentives, and overseeing contractors.

Bruce Maas is the Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Maas has served as the director of the EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute, the leading professional association for information technology in higher education, and he is presently serving as the board chair. He is also a member of the Internet2 External Relations PAG and Co-Chair of the Internet2 Global Summit Planning Committee. In addition, Maas is a member of the Board of Directors of Unizin and is serving a three-year term on the Board of Directors of IMS Global.

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