Is there any “science” in project management?

“Project management as profession” remains a fraught subject (initial post here, survey here, survey results here).  I doubt it ever will, at least not fully like law, medicine, or academia.   Furthermore, I believe that because project management is essentially a social science — i.e., a discipline about human action — we will have persistent trouble in trying to settle debates with evidence and experimentation.

To that end, Jim Manzi provides a useful summary of the epistemic challenge faced by social sciences — what they do, don’t, and could (eventually) know.   He sets up the problem in this excerpt below:

[W]e have no reliable way to measure counterfactuals—that is, to know what would have happened had we not executed some policy—because so many other factors influence the outcome. This seemingly narrow problem is central to our continuing inability to transform social sciences into actual sciences. Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior….

As they say, read the whole thing.

More on bridging the PM/Executive communications gap

I hope I didn’t scare you off the latest PM Network (September 2009) with my recent lament about a column (my lament is here).  The piece assumed that we still needed to convince PMs that they had to be business savvy. 

In fact, this issue is chock full of articles that assume PMs get that and want to get savvier.  One piece — Talking the Talk — hits on a number of recent Crossderry themes.  It echoes an earlier post about bridging the PM/Management Gap (here), but it speaks to the executive who wants to improve his/her communications with project managers.  The opening grafs hit the main challenge:

To the executive ear, project managers seem to be speaking an entirely different language.  “A lot of executives think project management is all Gantt charts and paperwork, so they tune those conversations out,” says Eric Morfin, partner, Critical Skills Inc., San Diego, California, USA 

My suggestion: take this article and use it to shape your exchanges with executives.  If you have a executive mentor,  “how to leverage these ideas” would make a great subject for your next chat.

Don’t PMs get that they’re “business” people yet?

I saw a somewhat depressing article in this month’s PM Network about the need for project managers to get business-savvy.  Not that there’s anything wrong with what Gary Heerkens writes (the article itself is here).  What saddens me is what this article implies about the mindset of project managers:

  1. Too many project managers don’t see “business understanding” as part of their job.
  2. This expectation isn’t explicit enough in PM job descriptions or how PM performance is managed.
  3. PMs seem to want the title, but not the responsibility. 

IMO, a project manager who can’t participate in business discussions can’t meet the substantive requirements of whole swaths of the PMBOK Guide.  How can a project manager participate in charter, scope, and change control discussions without knowing the business?  Otherwise, aren’t they really project coordinators, assistants, etc.?  As Gary notes (and understates):

Basing choices solely upon technical or functional considerations means all of the critical inputs required to make the best possible decision aren’t being considered.  Project managers who do not understand the business aspects of their projects are destined to make subpar decisions from time to time.

Is forensic science isn’t a science, can PM be a profession?

I enjoyed this Popular Mechanics piece on the problematic foundations that underpin forensic science — CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics.   Per the piece’s header:

Forensic science was not developed by scientists. It was mostly created by cops, who were guided by little more than common sense.

In fact, I was reminded of the debate that we’ve had about project management as a profession (here, survey here, survey results here).  The article reinforced just how far we have to go to true professionalization.

While we have many common sense PM practices, how many of them are demonstrably linked to project success?  Which are the most important and why?  The Value of PM is still pretty fuzzy

PMI and Agilests?

Cats and dogs, living together...

Cats and dogs, living together...

Greg Balestrero — CEO of the Project Management Institute — recently posted (here) on his experiences at the Scrum Gathering in Orlando.  In my experience, Greg and the PMI staff have been very eager to foster a better relationship among the various methodology camps.  Per Greg’s post,

[t]he intent of the visit was to bridge the gap between the Scrum Alliance and PMI. But I guess the real reason we attended was to dispel the myths that surround the PMBOK® Guide and Agile practice. There is a widely held opinion that the PMBOK® Guide and Agile don’t mix… they can’t be “shaken, nor stirred” together. 

Please read the post…it gives an interesting perspective on how to build alliances among disparate points of view and how to overcome misconceptions.

Why get involved w/ industry associations?

One of the reasons I’ve been remiss in my posting is that I’ve been preparing to host the Spring 2009 executive forum of PMI’s Global Corporate Council.  My SAP colleagues did a great job helping me host and this forum was particularly productive.

“Networking” is a pat response when one talks about joining or leading industry groups.  What exactly that means came home to me after discussions with my counterparts from Siemens, Joe Sopko and Kevin McDevitt.  On two topics, just a few minutes of conversation helped me confirm the validity of one approach (on how to augment on program management content) and introduced a better metaphor (for the architecture of our new methodology).

Nothing big, eh?  But how much benchmarking and justification will I avoid because I can say “well, Siemens had a similar problem and they did X“?

PMI CEO’s perspective on the stimulus package

I forgot to link to this Greg Balestrero post (here) on the US stimulus package (then still in debate).  He asks a lot of great questions about whether Congress and the Obama administration have thought through how to make this portfolio most effective.

I’ll focus my comments on Greg’s first two PM-oriented suggestions for the plan (#3 is to accelerate the spending):

First, get the people who know how to manage complex change initiatives — these are not career politicians but are experienced project professionals — who can manage change portfolios… that can get results.

Agreed, but one of the challenges with current legislative practice is that large swaths of the portfolio are fixed by the legislation itself, at least at the Federal level. Some of the more interesting work is happening at the state level. In a recent radio interview, the RI Director of Transportation sounded like he had his portfolio ready to go. In fact, he was ready to pounce on funds that other states would forfeit because their transportation portfolio process wasn’t as smooth.

Second, emphasize the competency of project management, like they have begun to do in many of the governments around the world. But they should not allow “pockets” of excellence to prevail. On the contrary, the governments should leverage the pockets of excellence to develop an enterprise discipline in project execution.

While enterprise-wide initiatives are great, I always wonder how deep they really can go. My experience is that in any organization of substantial complexity, it is hard to cover any but the most generic PM needs at the enterprise level. The differences in line of business, agency, etc. drive variation that’s hard to reconcile effectively.

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