Looking down at Château-d'Oex from our chateau on after a snowfall. © E. Forrest Christian.

Project Management Methodologists vs. Theorists

Forrest ChristianProject Management Leave a Comment

Project management in software is hard for a variety of reasons. In the December 3, 2003 edition of the Application Developer Management e-newsletter, Scott Withrow tackled “Selecting a Project Manager”. While he is speaking of specifically ones for software development projects, his thoughts could represent the thinking of a range of business functions. Unfortunately, he gets a couple of points quite dangerously wrong.

Are They [sic] a Theorist or a Practitioner?

Projects’ dynamic nature makes it difficult to develop best practices, whic is where theorists and practitioners part company. Theorists tend to minimize the impact of an organization’s project environment, focusing on how project management practices should be pursued. Practitioners, on the other hand, must react to the many dynamic (and usually conflicting) forces surrounding their projects.

I’ve met these people that he calls “theorists”: they are hopelessly connected to some pet idea of how something needs to be done. One of my previous clients had these people running the Project Office. They would develop some wretched piece of automation to “help” the project that we actively worked around and, in the end, for which we developed a replacement system that won management’s approval for rollout throughout the enterprise. These people, if they are what Withrow calls “theorists” are actually just Peter-Principled staff who are simply trying to demonstrate their superiority rather than attempting to serve their constituency (the PMs).

These people are not theorists. They do not develop theories. They do not attempt to see the world in a new light. Rather, these are people who don’t perform project management well and have grabbed hold of a popularizer’s work, much like any poor manager who becomes enamored of the latest management fad without really understanding it. For the most part, these so-called “theorists” are very short on theory.

The Practitioners who reject theory are no better to have around. Saying that they will do what it takes to get the job done falls well within a theory of management called “cando-itis”. Because their work has no basis, no “theory” behind it, they cannot recreate previous successes because they don’t understand why it happened.

What Withrow really meant was Methodologists vs. Practitioners. Methodologists are the irritating people because they hold that their way is the only way. We need methodologists to help create new forms of behaviour in project management. However, like in social sciences, these folks tend to be pretty divisive. In risk management, I’ve seen some nasty meetings between practitioners and the PMP methodologists. The best methodology is the one that is working in your current situation. Your methodology will be different in different situations: some just aren’t going to work in another environment.

So, theorists good, methodologists only tolerable at conferences and as authors.

Image Credit: Looking down at Château-d’Oex from the chateau on after a snowfall. © E. Forrest Christian.

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