Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

On the inherent ambiguities of managing projects

with 9 comments

Much of mainstream project management is technique-based – i.e.  it is based on  processes that are aimed at achieving well-defined ends. Indeed, the best-known guide in the PM world, the PMBOK, is structured as a collection of processes and associated  “tools and techniques” that are categorised into various “knowledge areas.”

Yet, as experienced project managers know, there is more to project management than processes and techniques: success often depends on a project manager’s ability to figure out what to do in unique situations.  Dealing with such situations is more an art rather than science. This process (if one can call it that) is difficult to formalize and even harder to teach. As Donald  Schon wrote in a paper on the crisis of professional knowledge :

…the artistic processes by which practitioners sometimes make sense of unique cases, and the art they sometimes bring to everyday practice, do not meet the prevailing criteria of rigorous practice. Often, when a competent practitioner recognizes in a maze of symptoms the pattern of a disease, constructs a basis for coherent design in the peculiarities of a building site, or discerns an understandable structure in a jumble of materials, he does something for which he cannot give a complete or even a reasonably accurate description. Practitioners make judgments of quality for which they cannot state adequate criteria, display skills for which they cannot describe procedures or rules.

Unfortunately this kind of ambiguity is given virtually no consideration in standard courses on project management. Instead, like most technically-oriented professions such as engineering,  project management treats problems as being well-defined and amenable to standard techniques and solutions. Yet, as Schon tells us:

…the most urgent and intractable issues of professional practice are those of problem-finding. “Our interest”, as one participant put it, “is not only how to pour concrete for the highway, but what highway to build? When it comes to designing a ship, the question we have to ask is, which ship makes sense in terms of the problems of transportation?

Indeed, the difficulty in messy project management scenarios often lies in figuring out what to do  rather than how to do it.  Consider the following situations:

  1. You have to make an important project-related decision, but don’t have enough information to make it.
  2. Your team is overworked and your manager has already turned down a request for more people.
  3. A key consultant on your project has resigned.

Each of the above is a not-uncommon scenario in the world of projects. The problem in each of these cases lies in  figuring out what to  do given  the unique context of the project. Mainstream project management offers little advice on how to deal with such situations, but their ubiquity suggests that they are worthy of attention.

In reality, most project managers deal with such situations using a mix of common sense, experience and instinct, together with a deep appreciation of the specifics of the environment (i.e. the context).  Often times their actions may be in complete contradiction to textbook techniques.  For example, in the first case described above, the rational thing to do is to gather more data before making a decision. However, when faced with such a situation,  a project manager might make a snap decision based on his or her knowledge of the politics of the situation.  Often times  the project manager will not be able to adequately explain the rationale for the decision beyond knowing that “it felt like the right thing to do.” It is more  an improvisation than a plan.

Schon used the term reflection-in-action to describe how practitioners deal with such situations, and used the following example to illustrate how it works in practice:

Recently, for example, I built a wooden gate. The gate was made of wooden pickets and strapping. I had made a drawing of it, and figured out the dimensions I wanted, but I had not reckoned with the problem of keeping the structure square. I noticed, as I began to nail the strapping to the pickets that the whole thing wobbled. I knew that when I nailed in a diagonal piece, the structure would become rigid. But how would I be sure that, at that moment, the structure would be square? I stopped to think. There came to mind a vague memory about diagonals-that in a square, the diagonals are equal. I took a yard stick, intending to measure the diagonals, but I found it difficult to make these measurements without disturbing the structure. It occurred to me to use a piece of string. Then it became apparent that I needed precise locations from which to measure the diagonal from corner to corner. After several frustrating trials, I decided to locate the center point at each of the corners (by crossing diagonals at each corner), hammered in a nail at each of the four center points, and used the nails as anchors for the measurement string. It took several moments to figure out how to adjust the structure so as to correct the errors I found by measuring, and when I had the diagonal equal, I nailed in the piece of strapping that made the structure rigid…

Such encounters with improvisation are often followed by a retrospective analysis of why the actions taken worked (or didn’t). Schoen called this latter process reflection-on-action.  I think it isn’t a stretch to say that project managers hone their craft through reflection in and on ambiguous situations. This knowledge cannot be easily codified into techniques or practices but is worthy of study in its own right. To this end, Schon advocated an epistemology of (artistic) practice – a study of what such knowledge is and how it is acquired. In his words:

…the study of professional artistry is of critical importance. We should be turning the puzzle of professional knowledge on its head, not seeking only to build up a science applicable to practice but also to reflect on the reflection-in-action already embedded in competent practice. We should be exploring, for example, how the on-the-spot experimentation carried out by practicing architects, physicians, engineers and managers is like, and unlike, the controlled experimentation of laboratory scientists. We should be analyzing the ways in which skilled practitioners build up repertoires of exemplars, images and strategies of description in terms of which they learn to see novel, one-of-a-kind phenomena. We should be attentive to differences in the framing of problematic situations and to the rare episodes of frame-reflective discourse in which practitioners sometimes coordinate and transform their conflicting ways of making sense of confusing predicaments. We should investigate the conventions and notations through which practitioners create virtual worlds-as diverse as sketch-pads, simulations, role-plays and rehearsals-in which they are able to slow down the pace of action, go back and try again, and reduce the cost and risk of experimentation. In such explorations as these, grounded in collaborative reflection on everyday artistry, we will be pursuing the description of a new epistemology of practice.

It isn’t hard to see that similar considerations hold for project management and related disciplines.

In closing, project management as laid out in books and BOKs does not equip a project manager to deal with ambiguity.  As a start towards redressing this, formal frameworks need to acknowledge the limitations of the techniques and procedures they espouse.  Although there is no simple, one-size-fits-all way to deal with ambiguity in projects,  lumping it into a bucket called “risk” (or worse, pretending it does not exist)  is not the answer.

Written by K

January 30, 2014 at 9:07 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Kailash,

    For those of us that have gone through the PMBOK, I think a universal reaction is that it is very dry, and that projects don’t really go like that. But in all fairness I recall this to be acknowledged in its intro. As per your closing, it’s a challenge to within such frameworks to include a back door for the “…and then the cat jumped in amongst the pigeons” events. Certainly many of my most painful business experiences were with dogmatic types that kept an iron grip on their clip boards at all times!

    I think a large part of the problem is that frameworks such as PMBOK are directed in the other direction. They work to suggest tools for bringing order and structure to (project) endeavours that had frequently suffered and spun out of control from too much improvisation that was presented as common sense and instinct. Perhaps it’s more a matter that, once you prove that you know and understand the rules, then you have the knowledge for when you can break them.

    When the phrase “artistic processes” is mentioned, it makes me think of the famous abstract painters. A casual observer might think that the likes of Picasso and Dali had never taken formal classes, but I expect that they were subjected to much more formal art education than today’s art students, in terms of assignments in replicating classical works and exercises. As much as many people don’t care for their work, they weren’t simply splashing paint around (okay, some were, but I’m not thinking about Pollock!). I suppose that in a way this is an analogy for the study that Schon is advocating.

    Another dynamic that I see coming into play is the tension that comes into play when trying to run projects for an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are often very much people who have established a business from nothing through common sense, grit and instinct (experience would have dissuaded them). Having gained success in this way, I think they find it daunting to be presented with PMs who want to establish controlled methodology instead of just “git ‘er done”. In other words, there can be pressure to take any openings to too easily cast the frameworks aside.


    David Turnbull

    February 1, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write a very thoughtful comment.Your point that one must be able to prove that one knows and understands the rules before one can break them is an excellent one. Indeed, I think the problem is that many PMs know the rules but do not really understand them. For if they did, they would know how and when they can – even, must – be broken.

      Your remark about artists is an excellent one, as it highlights the flip side of the point made in the post: we tend to overlook the formal training that artists undergo before they get to the point where they know when and how (and which) rules can be broken to create extraordinary art.

      Your other point about PM in an entrepreneurial environment is also interesting. Speculative endeavours, more often than not, proceed by trial and error so these are best managed by agile-like rather than big bang approaches. However, they are probably even less structured than that, with longish periods of relative inactivity punctuated by intense bursts of work when a new approach to the problem is surfaced. In such situations, a get it done approach is probably the only sensible one. Nevertheless, I reckon that these too are situations that the BOKs ought to take into account, if for no other reason than to tell literal-minded PMs that there times when other approaches are necessary.





      February 2, 2014 at 9:20 pm

  2. K, nice that you’ve picked up some of Schon’s work, but I was amused at his dilemma. It was not the dilemma of a professional practicing in his profession, but of an amateur.

    Last time I built a gate…exactly like Schon’s, being an architect I knew that ‘squareness’ was going to be one of the main games, and worked hard to achieve it from the very start of the project (I ‘designed out’ the risk of the gate being not square by my work process, which, for the amusement of all, was to ask my then 4 year old son to make sure that one side stayed where it should be… as pickets were attached to rails and the brace; it worked too, and a wonderful father and son time was had).

    But, what Schon has identified is that a profession is more than a set of recipies (and I mean a proper profession like architecture, engineering, accounting, medicine, law, etc.), that’s why it takes many years of undergraduate study and many years of practice to become a useful professional; these professions constitute a way of understanding and enquiring, a way of bringing a huge library of options to bear on a subject, and an approach that knows how to find the questions to ask. This cannot be captured in a single book that pretends to represent a ‘body of knowledge’. The ‘body of knowledge’ of any real profession is in university libraries, the minds of the professionals, its traditions and theoretical constructs and their criticism, its publications, and above all, its practice, and I’m sure that you know this in your own area as well.

    When applying this to project management, I don’t disagree that there are technical matters that need to be grasped, and grasped with proper professional and intellectual rigour, but it needs a depth of practice and reference to a history of practice of others to inform professional-level decision making. Perhaps what is absent in some areas of PM is a means of building that depth.



    February 1, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and commenting…and making me smile- I loved your first line and the story that follows it!

      I think your short summary of Schon’s message about “artistic practice” is an excellent one, and I particularly like what you say about balancing professional and intellectual rigour with a depth of practice and understanding of its history. To that I would add that PMs need to develop an understanding of the context in which their project is embedded – the social, political and even cultural environment in which it unfolds. Some PMs seem to get this almost intuitively while others remain totally oblivious. I’ve often wondered if it is possible to actually teach these things in a formal setting, but I suspect there isn’t (case studies just don’t cut it).I guess some things are best (or only!) learnt through experience…and for some people even that doesn’t seem to do it.





      February 2, 2014 at 9:27 pm

  3. Well said. The facts on the ground are open to being sliced and diced into a myriad of categories, and the choice of label matters. The experienced professional is more likely to apply a situationally appropriate set of labels.


    David Pratten

    February 3, 2014 at 4:09 am

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Indeed, the BOKs offer a standard set of labels, categories, tools etc. through which one can organise and manage a project. However, as you mention, these categories are far from the only ones possible…but they are the ones that gain mindshare.

      This point is nicely summarised by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star in the following quote from their book, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences.

      “Objects become natural in a particular community of practice over a long period of time. Objects exist, with respect to a community, along a trajectory of naturalization… The more naturalized an object becomes, the more unquestioning the relationship of the community to it; the more invisible the contingent and historical circumstances of its birth, the more it sinks into the community’s routinely forgotten memory.”

      The problem is that the ways of thinking propagated by the BOKs have become naturalized within the PM Community. Going beyond these is difficult. Among other things, it requires practitioners to be aware of the contingent nature of projects, and hence that standard tools and techniques need to be adapted (or sometimes ignored!) when dealing with specific situations.





      February 3, 2014 at 8:56 pm

  4. […] Kalash Awati deconstructs the fallacy of technique-based project management, by examining the way in which we handle ambiguities. […]


  5. I never cease to be amazed that project managers continue to believe that cherished projects will proceed according to some brainiac plan(s) on paper, as if somehow, the very act of making a plan wills everything into alignment that in turn ensures that all possible actions and reactions from kick-off to lessons learned conform/adhere to what’s in a plan in a way that mirrors what PMBOK says.

    PBMOK describes, and perhaps to some degree defines, PM technique(s) and templates that at best work in a world where work is conducted in environments (and systems) that are devoid of anything and everything that could possibly resemble a human, since it is the human in the middle (between the project plan and the project deliverable) that the plan — one way or another — affects most deeply. I agree there’s a need for depth — perhaps mastery within the profession, but that mastery is perhaps less about project management, and more about the subtleties of a thing called leadership (something else that can’t be learned from a book. Just sayin’ 😉 ) Or perhaps it’s that edge when knowledge and practice becomes wisdom… when one transitions from ‘doing’ project management to ‘being’ a project manager (or director…)



    March 3, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    • Hi FS,

      Thanks for your comment and my apologies for the delay in responding. I totally agree that what’s needed has more to do with wisdom than process or technique. The best word I’ve come across to describe such practical wisdom” is phronesis, something that ancient Greek philosophers knew and understood better than (it seems) we ever will.





      March 20, 2014 at 8:23 pm

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