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What's the reach of BoKs in understanding what management a project needs? | Project Research Institute

What's the reach of BoKs in understanding what management a project needs?

This has been a series of ten blogs starting with the 2005 paper referenced below. We have looked at how projects behave, sometimes in quite different ways to how the normal project management discourse says they should. We’ve looked at how elements of projects come together in often quite complex ways, in causal chains (often involving quite “soft” factors) and in combinations, to produce results that are often not obvious and sometimes quite counter-intuitive.

So as we come to the end of this series of blogs, what are the implications for the ideas that underlie our thinking about project management – the “bodies of knowledge” such as the PMBOK? Are they always “best” – is “best practice” really “best practice”?

There is a conventional view that there is no theory underlying such bodies of knowledge. But actually there are underlying assumptions, in particularly that project-management as we understand it is rationalist and self-evidently correct; an ontological stance (ie a view of reality) that is effectively positivist, and also perhaps that project management is particularly concerned with managing scope.  This leads to some particular emphases in the bodies of knowledge – in particular, a very heavy emphasis on planning, but also and implied control model that is very conventional (and old-fashioned), and also and emphasis on managing the project that is generally decoupled from the environment.

Now, the logic we have followed in these blogs is that when uncertainty affects a structurally complex PM-managed project the systemic effects discussed above start to produce problems. A well-planned project that faces no significant outside influences can follow its plan – and a project which is structurally simply can be re-planned in the face of changes from the outside environment. But a structurally complex project when perturbed can become unstable and difficult to manage, and the catastrophic over-runs described above can occur.

In this case, the underlying idea of the apparently self-evidently correct set of project management procedures (which cannot cope with such projects), might not be helpful to project managers, who are seeing project behaviour that is complex and non-intuitive: feed-back, non-linear behaviour and time-delayed effects.

Traditional project-management methods are clearly well-suited to projects with many elements and straightforward interdependencies, without high uncertainty. Where we have problems is when uncertainty affects a structurally complex and very time-compressed (“pace” in Shenhar’s terms) project; in these cases, complexity effects start to produce problems, and we may need to think about adapting our project-management methods

And we have only looked at dynamic complexity – when behavioural complexity affects a problem, then some of the aspects we have dealt with in recent blogs come in, and positivist normative advice could become even less useful

Bodies of knowledge are vital and important parts of our tool-box as project managers. However, we need to remember that standard guidance can be sometimes less suitable, and this is particularly so in projects that are uncertain, structurally complex (made worse by behavioural complexity) and time-compressed and we need to be intelligent and careful in how we apply our techniques.


Williams TM (2005) Assessing and building on project management theory in the light of badly over-run projects. IEEE Transactions in Engineering Management 52, 4, 497- 508


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