Is Project Management Obsolete – What Do You Think?

Is project management obsolete?  I don’t think that “project management” is obsolete but I do think that some traditional roles of a “Project Manager” are becoming obsolete in projects that require a more adaptive approach.  I also think that there’s a need to redefine what “project management” is if it is to continue to thrive in the future.  There is a need to:

  • Separate the functions of “project management” from some of the traditional roles that have been played by a “Project Manager”, and
  • For the project management profession to “reinvent” itself and develop a broader view of what “project management” is if it is going to continue to thrive and remain relevant in today’s world.

Is Project Management Obsolete

Examples of Companies and Professions Reinventing Themselves

Any company or profession that doesn’t change and adapt to changes in the world around them runs the risk of becoming stagnant and no longer relevant. Here are a couple of examples:

  • American Express – American Express is a company that has been around for more than 150 years and has had to reinvent itself a number of times over that time. American Express started out in 1850 shipping boxes on railway cars. That business went very well for a while:

    “For years it enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the movement of express shipments (goods, securities, currency, etc.) throughout New York State.” (Wikipedia)

    Can you imagine where American Express would be today if it still defined its business primarily around shipping boxes on railway cars?

    American Express has continued to reinvent itself over-and-over again to remain a vibrant and competitive company.  Here’s another example – At one time not too long ago, American Express had a fairly large area of business associated with providing travel services to companies.  They provided on-site travel agents to help companies plan travel, book travel reservations, and other related services. In recent years, that business has declined as newer internet-based services displaced the need for on-site travel agents.  That’s another significant adjustment that American Express has had to make to adapt to changes in technology and the marketplace.

  • Quality Management – In the early 1990’s I worked in the Quality Management profession with Motorola. Prior to that time, Quality Management was heavily based on a quality control approach that relied on inspectors to inspect products for defects.That process was very reactive and inefficient and companies like Motorola began implementing a much more proactive approach to quality management that was based on eliminating defects at the source rather than finding and fixing them later.  That’s how Six Sigma was created at Motorola at that time.That caused a major transformation in the Quality Management profession.  Instead of being in control of quality through quality control inspectors, Quality Managers had to learn to distribute some responsibility for quality to the people who designed and manufactured the product and play more of a consultative and influencing role.  When I worked for Motorola in the early 1990’s,  my manager used to tell me that:

    “Our job is to teach, coach, and audit – in that order”

    That turned out to be a much more effective approach but it was a gut-wrenching change for many people in the Quality Management profession who were used to being the ones who owned responsibility for quality and were in control of quality.

    I published my first book in 2003 which was called “From Quality to Business Excellence“.  That book was designed to help quality professionals understand this transition and I also gave numerous presentations at that time to ASQ (American Society for Quality) chapters to help them better understand and adapt to the transformation that was taking place.   At that time, there were a lot of people in the local ASQ chapters had difficulty adapting to that change and who were out of work.

How Does This Relate to Project Management?

For many years, the project management profession has been dominated by an approach that emphasized planning and control. A project was deemed to be successful if it delivered well-defined project requirements within an approved budget and schedule. That approach hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s but we live in a different world today. There are two major factors that are creating a need for a different approach in today’s world:

  • Levels of Uncertainty – There is a much higher level of uncertainty because problems and solutions tend to be much more complex.  This is particularly true of large software systems. With a high level of uncertainty; it is difficult, if not impossible, to define a detailed solution to the problem prior to the start of the project.   The example I use in my training is “finding a cure for cancer”.  Can you imagine attempting to develop a detailed project plan for that kind of effort?  There is just too much uncertainty.  Instead of getting bogged down in trying to develop a detailed project plan upfront, it would be much better to get started and use an iterative approach to attempt to converge on a solution as the project is in progress.
  • Increased Emphasis on Innovation – In many areas, competitive pressures require a significant level of innovation in new product development.  In these areas, creativity and innovation are much more important than planning and control.  For example, think of what a company like Apple has to do to develop a new iPhone.  Do you think that they start with a detailed plan based on some well-defined requirements?  I don’t think so.

An Agile project management approach is very well-suited for a project that:

  • Has a high level of uncertainty, or
  • Requires an emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than an emphasis on planning and control.

An Agile approach uses a very different approach to project management.  In an Agile project, you probably won’t find someone at the team level called a “Project Manager” but that doesn’t mean that there is no “project management” going on:

  1. It’s a different kind of project management that is focused on an adaptive approach to project management to optimize the business value the project produces rather than a plan-driven approach to project management that is oriented around simply meeting cost and schedule goals for defined requirements.
  2. The project management functions that might normally be performed by someone called a “Project Manager” have been distributed among the members of the Agile team:
    • Each member of the team is responsible for planning, managing, and reporting on their own tasks and working with other members of the team as necessary to integrate their efforts
    • The Scrum Master plays a facilitation role and is responsible for removing obstacles if necessary
    • The Product Owner plays an overall management role to provide direction and decisions related to the direction of the project and is ultimately responsible to the business sponsor for the overall success or failure of the project from a business perspective

What Needs to be Done to Adapt to This New Environment?

In today’s world:

  • There are many project managers who have been heavily indoctrinated in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management who might attempt to force-fit all projects to that kind of approach
  • There are also many project managers who are used to a project management approach that relies heavily on well-defined document templates and checklists to define how the project is managed

In my book, I use the analogy of a project manager as a “cook” versus a project manager as a “chef”:

  • “A good ‘cook’ may have the ability to create some very good meals, but those dishes may be limited to a repertoire of standard dishes, and his/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals may be primarily based on following some predefined recipes out of a cookbook.”

  • “A ‘chef’, on the other hand, typically has a far greater ability to prepare a much broader range of more sophisticated dishes using much more exotic ingredients in some cases. His/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals is not limited to predefined recipes, and in many cases, a chef will create entirely new and innovative recipes for a given situation. The best chefs are not limited to a single cuisine and are capable of combining dishes from entirely different kinds of cuisine.” (Cobb – The Project Manager’s Guide to Mastering Agile)

I think that analogy captures the challenge for the project management profession very well – In today’s world we need fewer “cooks” and more “chefs”:

  • Project managers need to learn how to blend an Agile (adaptive) approach with a traditional plan-driven approach in the right proportions to fit the nature of the problem.  Force-fitting all projects to a traditional plan-driven project management approach is not likely to be very successful
  • This new environment “raises the bar” considerably for project managers and requires a lot more skill.  It is not a simple matter of filling in the blanks in well-defined project templates and following project checklists based on PMBOK®.

What Has Been Done to Transform the Project Management Profession?

PMI® has begun to recognize the need to deal with this challenge and has made steps in that direction but much more needs to be done:

  1. The PMI-ACP® certification is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion.  It recognizes the need for project managers to have an understanding of Agile and Lean but it is only a test of general Agile and Lean knowledge and doesn’t really address the big challenge that project managers have of figuring out how to blend those approaches with a traditional plan-driven approach to project management.
  2. PMI® still treats Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. PMBOK® version 6 will have some added material on how the various sections of PMBOK® might be applied in an Agile environment but that also doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. The whole idea of PMBOK® is not very compatible with an Agile approach.
    • Agile requires a different way of thinking that is much more adaptive and you shouldn’t need a 500+ page document to give you detailed instructions on how to do Agile.
    • The whole idea of developing a knowledge base associated with Agile and only changing it every five years is difficult to imagine
  3. Much of the training that is available to project managers today on Agile only addresses the basics of Agile and Scrum.  You have to understand the principles behind Agile and Scrum at a much deeper level to understand how to successfully adapt those approaches to different kinds of projects.  You can’t just do Agile and Scrum mechanically.

We need to go beyond these steps and “reinvent” what “project management” is (just as American Express and other companies have had to reinvent the business that they are in).  Here’s how PMBOK® currently defines “project management:

“Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.  Project management is accomplished through the appropriate application and integration of the 47 logically grouped project management processes, which are categorized into five Process Groups.”  (PMBOK® version 5)

There are at least two major problems with that definition:

  1. The phrase  “to meet the project requirements” implies that a project is limited to meeting defined requirements.  In today’s world, a project manager should be capable of taking on a project with broadly-defined objectives, figure out what needs to be done to accomplish those objectives, and also figure out what methodology is best suited for managing that effort
  2. The phrase “application and integration of the 47 logically grouped project management processes” implies that there is a defined process approach for project management rather than an empirical approach that is used in an Agile environment

Summary – Is Project Management Obsolete

Project Management certainly isn’t obsolete but the “handwriting is on the wall” that change is definitely needed for the profession to continue to grow and thrive.  The need for change doesn’t always hit you in the face immediately. Many times it comes about subtly and it may not be that obvious at first but I can certainly see the early signs that a change is needed:

  • I gave a presentation at a PMI chapter in New York city this week and it was an excellent group of people but attendance was much lower than in the past. This presentation drew about 75 people and previous PMI chapter presentations I’ve given in New York City have drawn about 200-300 people.
  • I also met a number of people in that presentation who are out of work and looking for new opportunities

Those are obvious early warning signs to me that a transformation is needed to redefine and rejuvenate the project management profession.  It reminds me a lot of what I saw in the ASQ chapters I presented to about 15 years ago.

I am very passionate about helping the project management profession recognize the need for this transformation and helping project managers to develop the skills to successfully make this adaptation.  That’s the essence of the three books I’ve published on Agile Project Management and of the online Agile Project Management training I’ve developed.