Why Traditional Project Management alone is insufficient


Explaining how complexity and uncertainty necessitated changing military strategy, tactics and leadership, General Stanley McChrystal wrote in his 2015 book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (emphasis mine):

Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different from anything we’d planned or trained for. The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built.

I argue that modern complexity is also overwhelming time-honored traditional project management processes.

Concept image representing networking. This image is 3d render.

Short History of Project Management

While managing projects has been around over a millennium (Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, etc.), modern project management emerged in the 1950s as engineering-based quantitative techniques from the field of operational research. Techniques such as PERT, CPM, Work Breakdown Structures, and Earned Value were developed to plan, monitor and control the engineering and production of sophisticated programs within the aerospace and defense industries.

These methodologies remain prevalent and continue to serve as the foundation of project management knowledge and practice.

Project management grew rapidly despite concerns, even in its infancy, of project delays, cost overruns, and outright failures.  In the 1960s various governments commissioned studies to examine embarrassing delays and failures of major public projects. A commonality among the studies was that most failures were the result of difficulties that lay outside of project management methodologies, to include complexity and uncertainty.

Today, most organizations use some form of project management.  This includes more recent adaptations that began to differ from, yet remain complementary to, traditional project management methods. Examples include new product development, program management, partnering, critical chain, supply chain management, agile, lean production, etc. While differing in their functional approaches, these new methods remain firmly embedded in the reductionist approach associated with traditional project management.

Yet, conduct a simple search of the internet and you will find ample illustrations and current examples of continued project cost overruns, schedule delays and failures.

Project Complexity

Traditional project management methods, again, are engineering-based qualitative techniques. They are based on the underlying assumption that everything can be designed, structured and measured, therefore making linear processes appropriate.

However, modern projects are complex. As I discussed in an earlier post concerning complexity:

Sargut and McGrath (2011) published in HBR the now classic article Learning to live with complexity. They identified three properties associated with complexity, which are:

  • multiplicity – the number of potentially interacting elements
  • interdependence – how connected those elements are
  • diversity – degree of their heterogenity

Complexity inevitably advances uncertainty. During conditions of uncertainty it is more appropriate to learn from natural science theory versus engineering solutions. In their book Resilience Thinking (2006) on ecosystems, authors David Salt and Brian Walker describe a typical method of managing which should resonate with most managers:

Our modus operandi is to break things we’re managing down into component parts and understand how each part functions and what inputs will yield the greatest outputs.

They go on to warn, however:

the more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that system’s resilience…making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.

Simply put, you cannot optimize complex projects with set linear processes, no matter how well understood, as the sheer number of diverse, interacting elements with various levels of connectivity makes set processes vulnerable to failure.

To close, I’ll again quote a lesson learned from General McChrystal in his 2015 book Team of Teams:

In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.

I agree General.

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