A memetic view of project management
A few days ago I came across an interesting perspective on project management put forward by Jon Whitty, an academic who teaches at the University of Southern Queensland. Whitty’s view, which he published in a paper entitled A Memetic Paradigm of Project Management, presents a somewhat heretical take on the discipline of project management. In this post I outline and comment on some of the essential points made in the paper.
Whitty begins with the uncontroversial statement that project management, by and large, fails to live up to the expectations of stakeholders. This is well documented by studies such as the Standish Report, so needs no further explanation. To quote Whitty, this widespread failure suggests that academics and practising project managers “…still do not really understand the nature of projects, and that too much research effort has been directed towards clarifying the reasons for project success and failure, while downplaying research on why projects exist and behave as they do …” Whitty believes that the current paradigm of project management cannot help us understand the true nature of projects. Instead, a more critical approach, which considers projects to be a “…human construct, about a collection of feelings, expectations and sensations, cleverly conjured up by the human brain…” might be a more fruitful way of looking at projects. Here’s where the memetic bit comes in. I expand on this in the following paragraph.
The term meme was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, in which he presents the idea that the genes that survive evolution (i.e. those that are passed on) are the ones whose characteristics serve their own interests. In other words, genes act “selfishly”, to propagate themselves. In the book he draws an interesting parallel between this view of biological evolution and that of the evolution and propagation of ideas. Ideas, according to Dawkins, propagate themselves through assorted means ranging from education to mass media. A meme is basically an idea (or any unit of information) which gets transmitted (from person to person) through communication or repeated action. It is important to note that a meme isn’t just any random, fleeting thought; it is an idea that is transmitted with a fair degree of fidelity. Some examples of memes are: a folk tale or a joke (or even a methodology!).
Now, with that explanatory detour out of the way, I can get back on topic. In the paper, Whitty suggests that the discipline of project management should be viewed as a collection of related memes which propagate as a group (such groups of memes are called memeplexes). With the background of the previous paragraph, this isn’t surprising at all- basically any academic discipline or professional practice can be considered so. The implications of considering project management to be a memeplex are interesting, and form the main focus of Whitty’s paper. I look at a few of these in the following paragraphs.
A basic consequence of a memetic view (of any discipline) is that it turns the notion of knowledge being created by scholars or practitioners on its head. Memes create the scholars and practitioners, rather than the other way round! This isn’t as strange as it sounds, if one thinks about it for a while. For instance, project management as a discipline has given rise to various standards, bodies, certifications etc. thus legitimising it as a profession. To gain acceptance into the community of project managers, an aspirant subscribes to standards, joins professional bodies and gains certifications, thus being created by the memeplex.
The rapid development of project management as a discipline is a memeplex characteristic. In the last decade or so, there has been a huge growth of membership in professional bodies. Further, in universities and business schools, project management has gained legitimacy as a sub-discipline of management, with all the attendant trappings such as journals, academic conferences, textbooks etc. In a memetic view, all this only serves to propagate the memeplex. Whitty raises the concern that “…a large amount of memes in the PM memeplex are today being generated and replicated by University Business Schools. Moreover, as we continue to define organisational success in monetary terms our education sustems seem more naturally an extension of corporate training…” The implication being that the memes propagated aren’t necessarily good or correct, because their propagation is driven by a lopsided notion of what is good.
One can take the argument even further. Project management, as it is practised, consists of a set of mental models – ways of looking at how things work in the real world. One example of such a model is a project plan, which serves as a representation of the project from start to end. Project management texts are vehicles for recording and propagating such mental models (which are nothing but memes). The important point is that new knowledge is always seen through the filter of existing knowledge. So, the chances of a radically new idea making it through to mainstream are small, simply because it is seen through the lens of existing ideas. Radically new ideas are typically discarded as the memeplex propagates or evolves. This, too, isn’t a limitation of project management alone; it’s true of any discipline.
The paper has a lot more than I can go into in the space of a blog post. So, rather than continue my second-hand account, I’ll refer you to the original piece for more. I’ll sign off here with one final nugget from the paper: Whitty draws attention to the fact that false memes frequently get propagated along with true ones. The point is, once ensconced in mainstream thought, an incorrect idea gets the stamp of legitimacy and thus becomes almost impossible to question or correct. In contrast, a memetic approach – wherein it is known that propagated memes aren’t necessarily correct – recommends that practitioners be critical of ideas and practices handed down by authority. That, in the end, is excellent advice for us all, regardless of whether or not we agree with Whitty.