IPMA International Project Management Association
23 August 2022 / 8:54

What if the concept of project management had not existed?

Modern-day project management is roughly seventy years old and is evolving continuously. From traditional process and methodology-driven approaches to more flexible, agile-based approaches and various in-betweens, there is no shortage of prescriptions on how project management should be done or how projects should be delivered.

It is so pervasive that project management is used for all sorts of ventures, be they commercial, governmental, or not-for-profit. All sectors of the economy and industrial segments seem to use project management in one way or the other and benefit from its philosophy. Not surprisingly, project management is adopted for complex, complicated, and simple matters, including (but not limited to) sending rocket ships to other planets, healthcare problem solutions, education, construction, or more simple things like maintaining gardens (if it ever was simple to do gardening), and so on and so forth. The list is long, broad, and varied, to say the least.

That situation raises several questions. As modern-day project management is roughly 70 years old, what was before that? How were (uncountable) projects delivering structures such as pyramids, mega colosseums, and Eifel tower, just to name a few, completed after all?

The term “project management” was coined in the early 20th century, so how was it called, perceived, or understood before the formal establishment of project management as we know it now? Does it really matter if it is not called project management? Has anything changed since it was officially conceptualized as project management? All these questions lead to an overarching question: What if the concept of project management had not existed?

Certainly, it is not an easy question to answer, but to start the conversation, at least there are two ways to look at it: conceptual and practical.

At the conceptual level, defining and naming abstractions is an extremely important task for solving day-to-day practical problems. It helps create a common understanding and language and facilitates building knowledge in a structured manner to solve problems and support growth activities.

So, if it had not been conceptualized as project management, perhaps it may have been conceptualized as

1) Effort management / Work management or

2) Roll-up-the-sleeves management or a little quirky

3) Don’t Ask Me, Get It Done (DAM GID) management [smartly pronounced as: daem gud management].

It seems like no matter what it is called, it will encapsulate some sort of planning, control, and execution. Conceptualizing it as “project management” has provided a platform and language to build on. It is easy to remember and market. Further, by naming the abstraction, it has helped people in developing knowledge, processes, methods, techniques, and logic to give it a sort of structure or boundary. To put it simply, it provides a framework or a skeleton to do further work.

At the practical level, people working in the industry require a tool kit to get the job done. The tool kits comprise hard as well as soft tools, i.e., knowledge-driven tools. So, no matter what project management is called, the industry needs a tool kit. As long as the tool kit is easy to use and makes sense, the industry will embrace it. What that means is that giving existence to abstraction has far-reaching implications for the growth of the industry. Hence, the concept of project management has been helpful for the industry as it provides soft tools to accomplish the work.

The above discussion shows that perhaps asking the question, “What if the concept of project management had not existed?” is helpful from two perspectives:

  • It will help understand the evolution and do some research about the strengths and areas of improvement. That means finding ways and means to improve it further.
  • But more importantly, it is a question that should be asked to set the tone for future developments.

Given the widespread use and variations that exist, it seems there are several avenues for reflection to develop a new stream of knowledge for the effort management of non-routine tasks. Thinking about the future and asking, ” What if the concept of project management had not existed?” will help in coming up with new ideas about new ways of working on non-routine tasks. We discuss a few of such avenues below:

  1. Understanding how concepts are formed in other domains or sciences, such as medical science, anthropology, or social sciences, to name a few, is critical because it provides a platform for cross-fertilizing existing knowledge to create something new. The knowledge gained can be used to set the tone for the future evolution of project management
  2. Conducting longitudinal studies on all continents to gain insight into the differences and methods of completing non-routine work.
  3. It is very common for people not to use project management principles and methods to perform non-routine tasks on a day-to-day basis but still get the job done. That provides opportunities to examine behaviours and capture knowledge about why or why not project management is necessary.

Surely, one can say that when people complete non-routine tasks, the stakes may not be that high, as is often the case with business-focused projects. But that does not limit or eliminate the usefulness of understanding the behaviours of people when performing non-routine work, as that understanding can be extrapolated to build new ways of working on projects.

Conclusion:
Evolution is a natural phenomenon. With the exponential growth of knowledge across various different domains and sciences, people will naturally be interested in the evolution of project management as a domain. One way to examine evolution is to ask the question that is the core of the discussion in this article.

Answering the question is surely not an easy task. But thinking about the question will help start the thought process on a blank sheet. With that in mind, this article looks at some aspects to answer the question, or at least consider answering it. Trying to find or think about the answer will certainly have implications for both conceptual and practical purposes. Conceptually, the effort may lead to establishing a new project management style. Practically, it will lead to having more tools for people to complete non-routine work. Needless to say, the discussion in this article is limited, requiring more thorough thinking yet providing food for thought.

© 2022 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals as well as industry outlets.

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