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Planned vs. unplanned fit - Does design matter? | Project Research Institute

Planned vs. unplanned fit - Does design matter?

An interesting question to pose is how much it matters whether fit is a product of design. Is it important that we planned our project management implementation to work this way, or just that we got there from here in the end?

In fact, this defines the distinction between static fit and dynamic fit that we discussed in the second column of this series. Static fit holds that there is one right approach for a given context and strategy; the degree to which what has been implemented aligns with this approach is the degree to which the solution does or does not fit the needs of the organization, and once arrived the organization needs to stay there. Dynamic fit suggests that attaining fit is an on-going and evolutionary process, and that what will work is a moving target as the organization changes, objectives change and the context of the organization changes.

Jelinek & Burnstein (1982) asserted that fit was a dynamic product of that required an appropriate level of flexibility between long-term strategy and the structure and process put in place to support that strategy. While the idea that if context changes and then the implementation must change, and vice versa, isn't new, it complicates the process of identifying what an organization should implement as project management. It implies that what is needed now may not be as relevant in the future, and that on-going investment and evolution of project management practices will be required.

In practice, this is exactly what was seen in conducting the Value of PM research project. Those organizations with the most effective implementations of project management, and that had realized the greatest degree of value from their implementation, were those that saw project management as a core strategic asset. They saw project management as a critical tool for success, and they continued to invest in, evolve and improve their project management practices. Project management wasn't a fad; it was an on-going capability that directly supported the organization attaining its strategic goals.

What's more, project management evolved significantly over the course of those organizations' adoption of it. In fact, a very common pattern emerged regarding the process of how project management evolved. Most organizations, when first adopting a project management capability, began with the simplest of implementations; often this was the adoption of status reporting, or using project charters to initiate projects. While this produced significant early value for the organization, it also became taken for granted rather quickly.

After the early successes of very minimal implementations, organizations subsequently typically implemented some standards-based form of project management. In essence, they bought a methodology or borrowed practices from a related or similar organization, and adopted them wholesale as their own. The experience of doing so, however, often was less satisfactory than expected. Practices were found too onerous, or insufficient or inappropriate. Required capabilities were not present. What was implemented simply didn't fit.

For most organizations, this began a long and on-going evolution of their project management practices, in order to develop something that did work and was appropriate. They began the journey of trying to develop something that did fit. Sometimes this was by design, and often it was by evolution. As problems were encountered, changes were made to ensure the problem didn't recur. As successes were realized, what worked was incorporated into on-going practice. What emerged, often over a period of fifteen and twenty years, was a set of practices that were unique and tailored to the organization, that reflected how they managed.

Even after this extended period of evolution, however, what was in place didn't always fit incredibly well. For some organizations, the result was so overwhelmingly large that no one really used it anymore; one organizations' project management practices required no fewer than ten 4-inch binders for its documentation. Others changed their focus, or were acquired, and found that their new direction didn't align with the practices that were developed. And some had sadly developed practices because what they said was an important as an organization was vastly different than how they actually behaved.

There are organizations whose project management demonstrates strong fit, whether by design or by evolution. The reasons that it does is because the organization has taken the time to evolve and adapt its practices to its environment, the types of projects it manages and the practices that it needs to be successful. This can be deliberate and conscious, and it can emerge over time; what is critical in both instances is some fundamental factors being in place. First, the organization must recognize and appreciate that there is no one way to manage, and they need to find an approach that works for them. Secondly, they must be willing to invest the time and effort in evolving that approach to work for them. And finally, they must have the willingness to invest in continuing to evaluate, learn and evolve their practices based upon evidence of what actually works.

Project management can happen by design or accident; it still has to fit.


Jelinek, M., & Burstein, M. C. (1982). The production administrative structure: A paradigm for strategic fit. Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review (pre-1986), 7(2), 242.

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