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gari jenkins


It has been said that ‘an academic is never happier than when he has a model to play with’. Interpret this how you will. New models for project management. So, you’re thinking - oh no, not another set of buzz-words, TLAs and the usual assortment of meaningless jargon that are usually trotted out by people who obviously don’t get out into the real world enough, using anecdotal evidence from XYZ corporation as a justification.


Firstly – why do we need models of project management at all? Models are
the structures by which we think about the activities associated with projects and their management. If we use a limited model of the subject, possibly by default rather than by deliberate choice, we unnecessarily constrain our thinking. It is vital for ensuring the best chance of success in our projects that the thinking is right first.


Next – why do we need new models of project management? One argument for a re-think of the basis of project management is that other areas of business have improved their performance markedly over the past 10 years, while the torrent of project failures continues unabated. Even where there is relative success in projects, the continuous re-evaluation of the models that we work with provides a source of performance improvement. The models that we will be considering here are all the firstorder models – those that have the most far-reaching consequences for the reality of how we manage projects. There are many others, all of lower order, that we could consider, but the main ones are the definition of the project, its management and three main elements of this: strategy, systems and skills.


The definition
When I was first taught project management, the phrase ‘a project is a project is a project’ was the maxim for the subject. Projects were considered to be very large undertakings that were highly complex and required large systems to manage them. They were also unique.  This missed the 98% of project-based work that is not in large-scale, completely unique projects. Such a limitation has had grave effects for the developments of the subject, where this uniqueness has been the key feature. The vast majority of projects share common process elements and it is this process that is the focus for the ‘new’ models. Classifying projects according to their volume (number of times the process is carried out) and variety (level of difference in the process each time) shows the true diversity of work that is project-based, as shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1 – Not all projects are unique


Some projects are completely unique processes – first-timers. However, the majority are either ‘as-buts’ or ‘painting by numbers’ (i.e. we’ve done this many times before). It is in these categories that the idea of process – and one that is likely to be repeated – is vital. It is through this repetition of process that
the fundamental idea of the TQM movement, amongst others, of Continuous Improvement has application. The vast majority of projects do not have any meaningful review – resulting in very low levels of improvement from one project to the next. In contrast with the other end of the volume – variety scale (high volume – low variety processes) are supermarkets, fast food restaurants and production lines. It is these areas of repetitive operations that have seen the highest rates of improvement in their processes – something that would never have happened if the notion of process (and not the uniqueness of particular products) had not been adopted.


The idea of the first-timers was promoted along with the view that there was a highly Tayloristic ‘one-best-way’ to run them. The success of these methods was never tested, and must surely now be up for question.  Take for instance the reliability of project management basics such as critical path method. Recent work on Critical Chain has shown the flaws in this. But project management is also not just about planning, and the new models of the subject include (not exclusively) three areas that need to be integrated into our consideration – strategies, systems and skills.

Comparison with repetitive operations shows that one key aspect that preceded the high rate of development of the subject area (Operations Management), was the recognition of its strategic importance. Twenty years
ago, very few organisations had an Operations Director. Today it is commonplace. For most organisations, despite projects forming a significant activity in terms of both revenue-earning and organisational change, the firms with knowledgeable representation of project issues at board level are few and far between. This results in the situation – justified by case after case – that over 80% of all project problems, and hence failures, are caused by the systems in which people work. This includes the strategic decisions (or lack of them), and the processes that people work in – creating constraints (particularly resource and policy constraints) that project managers have to work with or work around. The new model places projects at the heart of strategy delivery and revenue earning – coordinated through programmes with active Strategy Deployment. A model for this is shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2 – The Role of Projects in Strategy Deployment

“Project Management – we have a procedure for that.” He reached into the
cupboard and pulled out the Project Manual. Blowing the dust off it, he
remarked, “This is what we are supposed to do…” This doesn’t happen in
Association of Project Managers members’ organisations, I am sure, but the
‘one size fits all’ approach is alive and well. The new principle is that the
level of system burden imposed on the project manager should depend on
two factors - the industry norm and the level of complexity of the project –
not just its size or scope. The complexity may be determined as the product
of the technical complexity (level of novelty), the organisational complexity
(number of people, departments, organisations etc. involved) and the
resource complexity (the size of the project). The new challenge under this
model, is to find systems that fit the application, are used and in doing so,
deliver business benefit, rather than fill pages in project manuals.

I have argued so far that there is a new model for what constitutes a project, that projects are key business processes that should form part of an organisational strategy process, and the systems should be contingent upon the environment. This puts a new requirement on the skills of the project manager. The key skill is that of an integrator. Figure 3 shows that there is the need to integrate the project elements on the left, with the knowledge and practice elements on the right (HRM – Human Resource Management, SCM – Supply Chain Management, OB – Organisational Behaviour).


Figure 3 – The Integration Model

Isn’t this general management? It is not a useful question, and drawing lines in the sand to indicate what is ‘out’ and ‘in’ is good practice for project scoping, but limiting to the consideration of a wide subject such as project management. There is a whole body of relevant knowledge waiting for integration into this work. The challenge of this model is to identify the relevant knowledge.

There are many reasons for a re-think of project management – not least because of the poor perception of project management performance in business. This re-think means new models, and the first-order ones of definition, strategy, systems and skills have been identified. Other models include the way in which we treat quality – using a product or a servicebased
model. All the major project management bodies of knowledge (e.g. www.pmi.org www.apm.org.uk) take a product-based approach, yet most projects deliver services. Most of our time modelling is directed towards on-time completion, whilst most project customers want projects at the earliest possible time.

I could continue but this simply illustrates that there is much work to do to get the thinking right. The process for that could use a model all of its own. Now there’s a thought…

This article was originally written for the Association of Project Management. Further information about the topic can be found in the author’s book: Project
Management Third Edition, H. Maylor ISBN 0273655418, published by Pearson Education/ FT Prentice Hall.

Project Management
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