Do We Need a Project Project?

6 June 2007 at 1:17 am 18 comments

| Steven Postrel |

A peculiar fact about business schools (at least in the USA) is that project management is not part of the regular MBA curriculum. Why is this peculiar? Only because a huge percentage of the work managers do is organized into projects, the success or failure of strategies often rests on the quality of execution of projects, and many of the principles and techniques of good project management are not immediately obvious. But hey, if anyone needs to know about this trivial stuff they can always go to a two-day workshop and get a certificate (probably from an engineering department). Or learn it on the job, which in this context often means screwing things up and trying to guess what you did wrong.

No need to dirty our students’ hands with all that icky planning and critical-path stuff–the organization faculty can stick to motivational theory, the operations faculty to stochastic modeing, and the strategy faculty to the resource-based view. Then we can all feel elegant. And our students can elegantly screw up product development, new process installation, quality-improvement initiatives, marketing campaigns, and all the other project-based activities where they are supposed to add value to the firm.

Of course, each business school department might acknowledge the importance of project management while preferring that some other group take on the teaching burden. But the strategy field in particular may be missing important research opportunities by ignoring or downplaying the importance of projects as units of analysis. Compared to a concept such as a “routine,” projects are easy to identify, possess fairly clear boundaries in time and organization space, have real meaning to organizational actors, produce observable outputs that can be compared to ex ante expectations, and naturally incorporate the creation of novel solutions to new problems.

The technology management field has a long tradition of empirical work looking at projects, especially in product development. My judgment of this literature is that while it has identified many important patterns, it has been light on systematic theory of its own or linkages to core ideas in economics and sociology. Hence, there is an opportunity for strategy people to use detailed project information to bring their theories down to earth while simultaneously providing useful theoretical synthesis of project management issues.

My earlier post about how management affects operational capabilities, discussed how David Hoopes and I are using detailed studies of product development projects to try to build an “engineering science of capability.” The project as a unit of analysis is critical to this research program.

From an empirical standpoint, projects are identifiable, have pre-specified objectives, and have measurable output, which makes them good places to look for collectively inconsistent behavior, as well as the mechanisms (impediments) that create the inconsistency. From a theoretical standpoint, projects link capabilities and positioning strategy; while strategy tells us what kinds of projects we want to execute, capability tells us what projects we can execute.

So it’s pretty important to know something about project management if you want to study organizational capability. But is it important enough for us to get our hands dirty?

Entry filed under: Former Guest Bloggers, Management Theory, Strategic Management, Theory of the Firm.

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jens Hørlück  |  6 June 2007 at 4:53 am

    Yes – we need project management.

    But the reason that projects often fail is the simplification of projects, very clearly demonstrated by Steven.

    “projects are easy to identify” – Sometimes yes. But often stakeholdes identify them differently

    “possess fairly clear boundaries in time and organization space” – Some construction projects: yes, but normally blurrred borders within an organization.

    ” have real meaning to organizational actors” – Yes. Very real, but different from actor to actor.

    “produce observable outputs that can be compared to ex ante expectations” – Here there are two problems: 1) projects very often are expected to have intangible results. 2) expectations drift over time due to learning and environmental changes. Do we need projects that deliver the specified or deliver the needed?

    “and naturally incorporate the creation of novel solutions to new problems” – Exciting and costly.

  • 2. Marcin Tustin  |  6 June 2007 at 7:58 am

    What is the academic literature like? Does it have good observations? In the field of computing this is something we still struggle with.

    Alternatively, are you talking simply about the teaching of basic tools such as project tracking and analysis? Or both?

  • 3. Chris Stevenson  |  6 June 2007 at 8:46 am

    Several Business Schools do offer a limited selection of Project Management courses. One question that must be asked is how can a University provide the right value for the cost of the course? Non-University training (which you can typically get an employer to pay for) is obviously cheaper, and is provided by industry recognized experts (such as the Project Management Institute, which does the widely recognized PMI Certification).

    So SHOULD B-schools provide some basic training on PM? Yes. Should it be a full course? Maybe. Could schools offer workshops and seminars on the topic? Absolutely. Would having a partnership with PMI be cost effective? Potentially. Can you integrate basic PM concepts into any course? Of course, and many do.

    Your point is very well taken, and it deserves further attention. And like any project, the implementation will be intriguing. Thanks for a great post.

  • 4. Gary Furash  |  6 June 2007 at 8:46 am

    The whole thing is kind of odd. There’s a huge body of popular and academic literature on project management, prestigious certifications, etc. but it’s notoriously absent from business discussions.

    In general, the assumption is that projects are nothing “special”, and no one needs any special training or knowledge to run them beyond whatever knowledge of the topic of the project is. This is can be easily demonstrated to be false, but that’s the way it is. This isn’t unreasonable, because ‘projects’ just look like stuff. In fact, some recent project literature suggests that you don’t really need project management at all.

    There doesn’t seem to be a huge body of empirical research on project techniques – just a large set of best practices that seem reasonable.

    Every so often the Project Management Institute, the certification authority for project managers, thinks about trying to setup a licenser process, like attorneys, etc. They toss the idea because it would be a huge amount of work on a state-by-state basis. I’m not sure it would be the worst idea in the world – not because of the odd economic effects of licincture, its just that it would make it clear to people that yes, while anyone can manage a project (just like anyone can defend themselves in court), there’s a bunch of knowledge and skills that goes with doing it well.

  • 5. Joe Mahoney  |  6 June 2007 at 9:32 am

    Joining Porter’s positioning School and Activity System (HBR, 1996) with RBV and dynamic capabilities would be a real service to the Strategy field. Steve Postrel makes a good case that Projects as the unit of analysis. may provide a useful pathway towards this joining.

    Jens’ comments suggest that Cyert and March’s Behavioral Theory of the Firm in which there are different coalitions with different perceptions and agendas would also need to be considered (eventually) for a more detailed theory of the (strategic) management of projects.

    Really outstanding conversation folks: Blogging at its best, for sure.

  • 6. Peter Klein  |  6 June 2007 at 10:01 am

    Mark Casson has tried to refocus the entrepreneurship literature by making projects, not opportunities, the unit of analysis. A project, in his model, is a stock of resources committed to particular activities for a specified period of time. (Opportunities are defined as potential, but currently inactive, projects). He doesn’t go into the details of project management but there might be a connection to the issues raised by Steve.

    Casson, Mark C. 2007. “The Economic Theory of Entrepreneurship: A Systems View.” Journal of Management Studies, forthcoming.

    Casson, Mark C., and Nigel Wadeson. 2007. “The Discovery of Opportunities: Extending the Economic Theory of the Entrepreneur.” Small Business Economics 28, no. 4: 285–300.

  • 7. spostrel  |  6 June 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks for the references, Peter. It seems a little odd to define the project as a set of resources (however qualified) and not to include a purpose or goal as part of the definition, but the semantics aren’t too important.

    As a linguistic footnote, I believe that in 18th centurey England what we now call “entrepreneurs” were sometimes called “projectors.” I kind of like that terminology, because it naturally captures the future-oriented aspects of new business creation. It’s too late to go back now, though.

  • 8. Eric H  |  6 June 2007 at 7:51 pm

    “A project, in his model, is a stock of resources committed to particular activities for a specified period of time.”

    Yikes, that’s a non-starter. Almost every project with which I have been involved required the project manager to obtain resources almost on the fly. That’s why construction is so difficult – almost nobody has an integrated construction outfit that does everything from soup to nuts. Instead, you sub out the plumbing, framing, electrical, etc. Each of those concerns then has to coordinate its own schedule with others doing the same thing. And the general contractor — the projector — has to bring it all together with a variety of threats, bribes, and begging (yes, fertile transaction cost research area). Since the schedules are always fluid, the subs line up other work and end up having to juggle crews around, maintaining the chaos. Plus, they’re all over-committed. In other words, a project is something that uses resources that are never committed to anything for any period of time.

    There are a few interesting reads at Lean Construction ( Notably to European readers, one of the main contributors graduated from Helsinki University of Technology, so some of his case studies have a European viewpoint. Unfortunately, once I started looking into academic treatments of these issues, I found that everyone seems to be trying to turn a pet theory into a consulting career. Take, for examples, Glen Ballard’s Last Planner theory and MIT’s Lean Enterprise Institute.

    Hal Macomber also keeps an interesting website on the subject,

    A really bad approach is to try to learn project management by trying to use Gantt chart generating software. MS Project, for example. Even after learning to do it the old-fashioned way, I found that Project was far too labor intensive to be of much use; I think you need a full-time employee entering data into it. I went back to doing it the old-fashioned way.

    Perhaps one of the things that should be taught in such a class is how to reduce the time required to learn from mistakes. Most organizations have at least two approaches to problem-solving: the band-aid and the investigation. The band-aid covers problems that are eventually revealed to be oozing sores (oozing time and money). The Root Cause Analysis goes deeper and prevents problems, but is not used as often as it should. I feel I should not go further since I promised an article on the subject for my wife’s blog. 8~)

  • 9. spostrel  |  7 June 2007 at 3:11 am

    Thanks for even more useful references. Also for the image of begging as a part of TCE.

    I probably was a little too easy on the Casson definition of a project. But even if specific resources aren’t tied to the project, there has to be some idea about the size and shape of the resources that will need to be applied. A total budget is the simplest version of such an idea. So if you apply a little poetic license to it, that problem with the defintion fades somewhat.

    “Unfortunately, once I started looking into academic treatments of these issues, I found that everyone seems to be trying to turn a pet theory into a consulting career. ”

    Do you have a better business model?

  • 10. Eric H  |  7 June 2007 at 11:51 pm

    “Do you have a better business model?”

    Good point (sheepish grin). How about, “Not trying to ram a pet theory down everyone’s throat just because I wrote a paper on it”?

    Which reminds me, have you seen Little Miss Sunshine?

  • 11. Grace  |  9 June 2007 at 12:35 am

    Funny that no one mentioned the abuse of Microsoft Project software and Edward Tufte’s attempts to visually describe the complexity of various tasks and milestones in projects.

    We often investigate project failures and report lessons learned. I wrote about one case recently.

  • 12. Vladimir Dzhuvinov  |  10 June 2007 at 11:58 am

    I don’t know about the MBA courses. But my engineering course (Southampton University, UK) offered modules on project management, risk management and operations research in the final year.

    I think engineers should have the possibility to take a course akin to an MBA course for managers. My undergraduate degree equipped me with good technical skills and a fair amount knowledge of what to expect in the industry in terms of teamwork and project management.

    But once you get into a real job you soon see that there’s more to be learned on the latter part. New “non-technical” questions begin to pop up and you may feel a need to sit back and reflect. This is where a follow-up course on project management, specifically tailored for engineers, could come handy.

  • 13. ChrisA  |  28 June 2007 at 8:34 am

    Check out the MIT Sloan collaboration with BP on projects.

    It is a year long executive education course. The students are real world experienced project managers, dealing with multi-year, multi-billion dollar projects in difficult environments. You don’t need to teach these guys about gantt charts and critical paths, what is taught there is management skills and the technology of management as applied to projects. There are multiple spin off academic reasearch projects resulting from the collaboration.

  • 14. JC  |  21 July 2007 at 9:26 pm

    Too bad this blog has gone off the boil – it’s a good topic, as Joe notes with his characteristic good judgment..

    Project management as opposed to ?? organization management ?? Temporary management as against permanent management ?? What exactly do we theorists think is different. The engineers and MIT folks have no different. For them life itself is a series of projects and so long as you are winning a few more than you are losing, you are ahead.

    As a young engineer I was always involved in project management – an entire nuclear submarine on one occasion. Is it different from managing ‘an organization’ ?? If so how ?? Interesting question.

    As Vladimir and ChrisA imply, project management teaching – as opposed to the doing is mostly about planning with maybe some selection thrown in. Even a tad of political theory.

    You cannot give a PM course without presuming enough certainty in the process to make planning the principal discipline.

    Yet is this what ‘real’ projects are about – obviously not. The difference between planning in the classroom environment and keeping the real project moving forward in the real and messy world – spite of mega-Murphy events from ‘unk-unks’ to deliberate attempts to mislead on the part of the sub-contractors – is what ‘real’ project managers do. Anyone here have a house built?

    Training people to use a PM software package, in the belief that that is where the challenge lies, is deliberately hoodwinking them into ignorance. All bait and no switch is you ask me.

    If that is the core of the course, it’s a waste of both money and time, but also a deliberate attempt to mislead the students.

    How can we teach project management under conditions of uncertainty?? Aye, there’s the rub. Anyone that cracks that one is sure to become rich and famous, although not published in our journals.

    On this note I have to say I heard the most compelling talk on project management in many decades – I was going to say years – at ESADE in May. It was given by Hans Siggaard Jensen:

    Anyone really interested in the management of real projects could do themselves a favor by contacting him. The stuff doesn’t publish well – but on the other hand the stuff that publishes well doesn’t relate to the real PM’s problems.

  • 15. JC  |  21 July 2007 at 11:12 pm

    OOPS – didn’t quite get the editing right on this message.

    Plus I wanted to suggest that people like Dick Boland, for one, who has worked with architectural partnerships, and others who have worked with film companies, know lots and lots about PM – yet seem to have had little impact on the discussion of how it does, or does not, differ from what we teach as the principles of management.

  • 16. Steve Waddell  |  31 July 2007 at 7:19 am

    Interesting post, particularly as our comany is launching a new PM certificate program with a local university this fall. If you want to learn more about project management training, there is an excellent article given at the PM Global Congress in 2006, entitled “The State of Project Management Training and Education”. It goes in to great detail, using data from PMI’s REP program, and discusses at length the growth in degree programs worldwide (from less than 10 in 1994 to over 185 in 2005). You can find it here:

  • 17. JC  |  31 July 2007 at 8:00 am


    Thanks for this link.

    I think the survey makes my points adequately. All classroom and standardized courses, fully accredited, blah blah.

    Nothing about how to respond to Murphy’s Law I suspect. But the devil, as every experienced project manager will tell you, is in the details.

  • 18. Nigel Wadeson  |  22 March 2011 at 6:40 am

    Projects are interesting because of the uncertainties that they involve. For instance, a blue skies R&D project can be contrasted to a production line that faces fairly steady demand for its output. The production line involves the continuing execution of a well understood process and a fairly steady requirement for a given set of resources. The project involves uncertainties about what exactly is to be done, how it will be done, and how long each part will take – and the need for reworking. This creates incentive problems for the people and firms involved as there is a need to keep the pressure up on time, budget, and the quality of the output. However, there can be strong problems of asymmetric information. There are also team production problems – each worker’s and each firm’s contribution is affected by the work of others -such as when one firm cannot start work because another is late with its part of the project or a firm faces problems because of the poor quality of work done by others. There are also signficant coordination problems caused by the need to have different resources in place at different and uncertain times. The project schedule has to be revised during the project and the project can be kept waiting for resources that either are not needed at the same times as those originally scheduled or are not available because they have not finished work on other projects at the times expected. Customer requirements can also change during a project which creates further frictions between the firms involved. It’s also worth noting that many projects ‘fail’ having gone over budget, finished too late, and not delivered what was hoped for – though this can result from the work simply having been inherently more difficult and costly than originally expected. The issues of abandonment options (and also options to reduce the project scope) and escalation of commitment are therefore also important.

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