I had an interesting discussion with a major university about helping them develop an integrated university project management curriculum with Agile that included a master’s degree program in Agile Project Management. They correctly recognized that the world of project management is changing rapidly and they didn’t want to make a major investment in developing a project management curriculum based on an old and outdated notion of what “project management” is. I think they are absolutely correct in that; however, it isn’t totally clear how a master’s program in project management should be structured to reflect the evolution that I believe is going on in the project management profession today.
Similarities Between Project Management and Modern Physics
We can learn a lot from how the science of physics has evolved because I think there are a number of interesting similarities to the evolution that is currently going on in project management. For many years until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, physics was based on what is called “Classical Physics”.
What is Classical Physics?
“Classical physics is the physics of everyday phenomena of nature, those we can observe with our unaided senses. It deals primarily with mass, force and motion. While its roots go back to the earliest times, to the Ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Archimedes, it later developed into a cohesive system with the contributions of Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Classical physics achieved phenomental success, as the Calculus of Newton and Leibniz gave it the tools to tackle even even problems not imagined by its pioneers.”
“Around 1900, give or take a decade, surprising new experimental evidence, primarily about atoms and molecules, showed us that these small-scale phenomena behave in ways not anticipated by classical theory. This ushered in a new era called “modern” physics. New laws and methodology were developed to deal with the rapidly expanding experimental evidence. Relativity and quantum mechanics added new tools to the study of nature. These did not make classical physics “wrong”, for the old laws were working just as they always had, within their limited scope—which was the study of large objects (not atomic scale ones) moving relatively slowly (not near the speed of light). “
“So classical physics is still the starting point for learning about physics, and constitutes the bulk of the material in most introductory textbooks. It is the theory underlying the natural processes we observe everyday. It is the key to understanding the motion of pulleys, machines, projectiles and planets. It helps us understand geology, chemistry, astronomy, weather, tides and other natural phenomena”
Simanek, Donald E., What’s Physics All About?,
What Happened to Cause People to Rethink Classical Physics?
That notion of physics that was intended to define how the entire universe worked held together for a long time; however, serious weaknesses began to appear around the early 1900’s:
“By the end of the nineteenth century, most physicists were feeling quite smug. They seemed to have theories in place that would explain all physical phenomena. There was clearly a lot of cleaning up to do, but it looked like a fairly mechanical job: turn the crank on the calculator until the results come out. Apart from a few niggling problems like those lines in the light emitted by gas discharges, and the apparent dependence of the mass of high-speed electrons on their velocity”
“Twenty-five years later, this complacency had been completely destroyed by the invention of three entirely new theories: special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. The outstanding figure of this period was Albert Einstein. His name became a household word for his development, virtually single-handedly, of the theory of relativity, and he made a major contribution to the development of quantum mechanics in his explanation of the photoelectric effect. “
Slavin, Alan J., “A Brief History and Philosophy of Physics”,
How is This Transformation Related to Project Management?
Classical Physics is analogous to traditional, plan-driven project management. Similar to the laws of classical physics, the traditional, plan-driven project management approach has been widely accepted as the only way to do project management for a long time. And the way traditional, plan-driven project management is done hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s. It assumes a very predictable view of the world where it was possible to completely define a project plan with a fairly high level of certainty prior to the start of a project. That is similar to classical physicists who believed for a long time that a model of the universe could be completely predicted based on some relatively simple and well-defined laws of classical physics. In recent years; however, it is apparent that we are in a much more dynamic and more complex universe with much higher levels of uncertainty where that traditional, plan-driven approach to project management no longer works well at all.
PMI is moving slowly towards recognizing the need to take a broader approach to what “project management” is; however, there are many project managers who still believe that traditional, plan-driven project management is the only way to do project management and there are some well-engrained stereotypes of what “project management” is that are also based on that notion. PMI has created the PMI-ACP certification that recognizes the need for project managers to know something about Agile and Lean; however, PMI still treats “Agile” and traditional, plan-driven project management principles and practices as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. It’s up to the individual project manager to figure out how to put the two together.
What Can We Learn from This Similarity?
Traditional, plan-driven project management (just like Classical Physics) will never be totally obsolete and will continue to be a foundation for many areas of project management:
“…classical physics retains considerable utility as an excellent approximation in most situations of practical interest. Neither relativity nor quantum theory is required to build bridges or design cellphone antennas.”
The never-ending conundrums of classical physics, Trent University
However, it is important to recognize and not ignore the limitations that are inherent in a traditional, plan-driven project management approach. Experienced physicists have learned to recognize the limitations of classical physics that it only works reliably in a certain range of situations as shown in the figure below:
“Classical Physics is usually concerned with everyday conditions: speeds much lower than the speed of light, and sizes much greater than that of atoms. Modern physics is usually concerned with high velocities and small distances.”
Similarly, project managers also need to recognize that a traditional, plan-driven approach to project management only works reliably in a limited set of situations. In the project management world, this can be expressed with the Stacey Complexity Model:
In this model there are two primary dimensions – one is requirements complexity and the other is technology complexity.
- Traditional, plan-driven project management still works in areas of low complexity such as some construction projects but even in some of those areas, project managers have recognized a need for a somewhat more adaptive approach
- As you get further out on either complexity axis, there is typically a need for more of an adaptive Agile approach that is better suited for dealing with uncertainty but this is not a binary and mutually-exclusive proposition. There is a need to blend both approaches in the right proportions to fit the situation
Implications for a University Project Management Curriculum with Agile
Just as “Modern Physics” is the integration of Classical Physics with a more modern approach to physics, I believe that there is a new vision of what “project management” is that integrates an Agile approach in the right proportions with a traditional, plan-driven approach. My view is that there is a “Modern Project Management” concept that is emerging that is analogous to the concept of “Modern Physics” that integrates these different approaches together in one discipline similar to the way that Physics has evolved. If someone were to get a Master’s degree in Physics today, it seems unlikely that the studies would be limited to Classical Physics with no mention of the other areas of Modern Physics. But that is, in fact, the way a number of universities have structured a Master’s Degree in Project Management program today. Universities need to move beyond that notion of project management and develop a much broader and well-integrated curriculum to address this need.