On the role of processes in project management
The word process has several different connotations – an online dictionary lists more than twenty meanings of the word. Amongst these, the following is the sense in which the word is used when we speak of a project management process:
Process (noun): a systematic series of actions directed to some end.
The key word here is systematic – which (again from the same online dictionary) means according to a method. The word process thus has a very precise meaning – a series of methodical actions which are directed to some (definite) end. The word, as used in normal parlance, evokes a world in which a sequence of well-defined actions lead to certain desired results. This may be an excellent approximation to reality on the manufacturing shop-floor, but is little more than an illusion in the messy world of projects. Having made a potentially controversial statement, I’d better clarify what I mean. I do so below.
The objective in manufacturing is to mass-produce items in a controlled and repeatable manner. In constrast, in projects the aim is to create unique products (or services). In the former case, it makes perfect sense to formalise actions required to create the product into well-defined and detailed processes. Such processes tend to be very prescriptive: e.g. immerse the widget in the solution for 3 minutes, then air dry at 200 C for 2 minutes. Such prescriptiveness is required for ensuring repeatability (of processes) and reproducibility (of results). It also confers an advantage in quality improvement efforts: such processes can be tweaked in a controlled fashion whilst maintaining a sensible baseline for comparison. In the case of projects, though, the notion of a process isn’t quite the same. Given that every project aims to create a one-off, unique product, how does the idea of “systematic actions directed to an end” apply? I take a brief look at some half-answers below.
Wikipedia defines a project management process as a management process of planning and controlling the performance or execution of a project. The definition isn’t much help, so let us start with a commonly accepted example of a project management process instead: schedule development or scheduling (as per PMI or PRINCE2). Now, although schedule development has a bunch of inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs, these leave much open to interpretation. That is, they aren’t as prescriptive as processes in manufacturing. They don’t even come close to being “a systematic series of actions directed to some end.” Yet, they are often considered by project managers as being so. That, in my opinion, is the problem. Let me hasten to add that frameworks and methodologies aren’t at fault here – most do emphasise that they provide guidelines not recipes. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, this is largely a problem of our own making. To paraphrase the Bard: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our processes, But in ourselves, that we are obsessed with them.
The history of project management yields a clue as to why the notion of process – despite its shortcomings – is so ingrained in project management theory and practice. As Patrick Weaver points out, the roots of modern project management lie in concepts of scientific management, or Taylorism as it is called after its founder, Fredrick Taylor. To quote Weaver, “…Project management has evolved in its specialist area along very similar lines to general management theory. In early days, project management closely mirrored the classical school of management with a focus on scientific processes…” Why this early focus on scientific processes? Well, Weaver mentions that, “…it is entirely reasonable to argue that the evolution of modern project management is a direct consequence of the need for professional schedulers for a forum to discuss and develop their new discipline….” Since scheduling is arguably the most mathematical (or statistical) process in the project management process pantheon, the focus on scientific management is really no surprise.
In recent years things have moved on. In their paper on future challenges and opportunities in project management (which I have reviewed in an earlier post), Shenhar and Dvir point out that there are three central paradigms of project management: operational/process, team/leadership and business/strategic. The process-based approach, rooted in scientific management, corresponds to the first. The team/leadership view puts people at the centre of focus, and as we all (should!) know, people aren’t as simple as processes. The last perspective is the big-picture: project management as a strategic tool. As is the case with people, this too cannot be reduced to formulaic processes. The fact that the latter two perspectives have been getting more attention in recent years indicates that things are changing. So, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the practice of project management is cured of its process obsession.