Project management as a complex integrative field

The following discussion is mainly related to contextual issues and P2M/KPM characteristics 1 and 2.

We are surprised by the way the world (organizations, universities and professional bodies) sees project management as a set of methods, techniques and tools which interact with other fields (such as general management, information systems, engineering, etc.) and bring effective (?) ways of solving problems from launching new satellites to new product development, and organizational change. This approach is still positivist. The suitability of this paradigm to solve complex problems has to be questioned. We posit that the understanding of the true nature of project management is hampered by a lack of clear theoretical foundation, lack of clear epistemologi-cal stance and paradigm for most research.

This leads to nonsensical advocacy of one's own practice reinforced by the lack of critical thinking by practitioners. They seem to complacently accept seemingly reasonable answers, even if they lead to major failures. Positivism has led in some cases to oversimplification, and in many cases, has obviated against recognition of the complexity and of the relativity of the world. Field research shows that most universities consider project management as a transfunctional discipline and a sub-discipline in construction, engineering, IT or business faculties, and not a discrete discipline. This contributes to reinforcement of positivist paradigm in teaching, research and practice.

4.1.1 A need for complexity

Calling to attention the decision making theory and translation of the organization's mission to practice, Kurtz and Snowden (2003) question the following assumptions:

The assumption of order: that there are underlying relationships between cause and effect in human interactions and markets, which are capable of discovery and empirical verification. In consequence, it is possible to produce prescriptive and predictive models and design interventions that allow us to achieve goals. This implies that an understanding of the causal links in past behavior allows us to define "best practice" for future behavior. It also implies that there must be a right or ideal way of doing things.

The assumption of rational choice: that faced with a choice between one or more alternatives, human actors will make a "rational" decision based only on minimizing pain or maximizing pleasure; and, in consequence, their individual and collective behavior can be managed by manipulation of pain or pleasure outcomes and through education to make those consequences evident.

The assumption of intentional capability: that the acquisition of capability indicates an intention to use that capability, and that actions from competitors, populations, nation states, communities, or whatever collective identity is under consideration are the result of intentional behavior. In effect, we assume that every "blink" we see is a "wink", and act accordingly. We accept that we do things by accident, but assume that others do things deliberately.

We concur with them and argue that project management is a complex discipline as it deals with complex reality. Citing the law of requisite variety (Ashby, 1958), it is well-known that to control a complex system with n dimensions, you need an n + 1 dimensional system. This implies that the available control variety must be equal to or greater than the disturbance variety for control to be possible. In this direction, the following are pertinent to the management of complex situations (programs and projects):

• The Conant-Ashby Theorem: Every good regulator of a system must have a model of that system. Implication: The principle prompts one to think through and create a model of what you are teaching/managing/ guiding.

• The Darkness Principle: Even though a system is never completely known, it can be managed effectively (black box theory).

• The Redundancy of Resources Principle: To minimize the effect of disturbances or noise, the system requires backup systems of critical resources (human and machine) in order to maintain stability. Implications: Plan actions before disturbance or noise happen, because they will.

Project management applications may be seen as coming from some general principles. It needs to integrate both quality ("Be") and quantity ("Have"). It is a process of naming, of revelation, of creation. Thus, our purpose is to defend the proposition that project management has a raison d'être in itself; it is both a discipline and an art and contributes to a better understanding of the integrative epistemological position proposed, in which is the very nature of project management.

4.1.2 Project: A polysemic concept

Extending Leroy's perspective to approaching a project by listing its intrinsic characteristics (1994), we present three definitions, chosen to demonstrate the range of different perspectives in the approaching of the project concept.

A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service (PMI, 2004; connotes to instrumental perspective); an endeavor in which resources (human, material, financial) are organized in a novel way to undertake unique work with constraints of cost and time (Turner, 1993; connotes to cognitive perspective); a while of actions limited in time and space, inserted in and interacting with the socio-economic environment which is tended towards a goal, and redefining the dialectic between thought and reality (Declerck et al., 1983, 1997; connotes to political perspective).

This illustrates the polysemic nature of the concept of a project (Boutinet, 1996), which gives rise to two underlying visions which have evolved with the development of project management. On the one hand, the development of project management was accompanied by the constitution of codes of practice according to two plans:

(1) An underlying vision which is positivist: experiences and practices lead to standards and rules, standards and rules lead to theories, which lead to paradigms, and all these, according to certain assumptions, are used as a basis for codes of practice, bodies of knowledge.

(2) On the other hand, through projects, man builds reality and the management of projects by its mode of deployment within the ecosystem project/firm/context implies a systemic vision (Declerck et al., 1997). Citing Giambattista Vico (1708), Le Moigne (1995) states, "an 'intelligent' action, 'ingenium', this mental faculty which makes possible to connect in a fast, suitable and happy way the separate things". Thus, the evolution in the use of project management and/or management by projects (Giard and Midler, 1993) and its structuring characteristics suggest a constructivist vision.

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

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