David Porter, MD of Endeavour Programme, on Project Management Starts with Philosophy – AIPM Opinion Piece

We think of project management as practical methods, skills, systems and tools for achieving practical and measurable outcomes.  However, a project management philosophy underpins this.  All forms of human knowledge have a philosophy, as philosophy is the discipline which examines our understanding of the nature of knowledge itself.

Project Management even has a book called the Project Management Book of Knowledge. We believe that when the body of knowledge is applied effectively the results will lead to an outcome which delivers certain benefits, at a certain time within a certain cost limitation. When this does not happen, we mostly focus on the word effectively and our assumption is that more effective application of the existing paradigm is the answer. Thus, we apply more tools, methods, training and processes that are all aimed at effectively implementing a dominant project management philosophy.

But what if this doesn’t work very well?

Here are some things that do work well; commercial aircraft, cars, heart bypass surgery, this computer I am writing on.  What do all these things have in common?  Our expectation of their performance, and their actual performance are pretty well aligned.  I expect to have a smooth and safe flight in an A380 from Sydney to Dubai, and that mostly happens. I regard the risk of falling out of the sky as pretty remote and the evidence supports that perception.

Let’s look at the performance of major projects.  The evidence is that the likelihood of cost and time overrun is in excess of 50 percent, sometimes a lot more. If you look at almost every piece of research using significant data sets in every industry, you cannot avoid this conclusion. If aircraft had the same statistics, there would be no airline industry.

Maybe we should consider our philosophical perspective.

In the pantheon of philosophical traditions, Project Management can be considered foundationalist. That is to say that its basic ways of thinking have been developed and are understood by its participants as fundamental and self-evident. While many project managers use different approaches, they still assume that the whole answer to project performance is contained in the underlying logic.  That underlying logic is very simple: Ad hoc organisation of finite ventures is unreliable and wasteful, and therefore if the tasks and people which contribute to the venture are identified, planned and managed, then predictable outcomes will be achieved. This is a reason-based philosophy and Plato would be thrilled. Sadly, as the research shows it doesn’t work very well in practice and the great empiricist philosopher David Hume would not be slightly surprised.

Project Management methods and theories are not revealed through rigorous experimentation or observation, as they are for the natural sciences, or even much of social science. For example, observation, experimentation and inductive reasoning led Newton to develop his three laws of motion, and subsequent testing of these theories over and over have verified their applicability, at least at a human scale. Every time we fly in an A380 aircraft we are putting our faith in the applicability and robustness of Newton’s laws. However, Newton understood the link between his insights and the philosophic lens through which he looked.

It seems that many practitioners and scholars of Project Management seem to be insensitive to the empirical discipline they demand from the professions they manage.  At best it seems that we seek marginal improvement by working on variables, such as leadership capability, that are slow, expensive, and difficult to alter or replicate.  This is not to say that it is unwise to strive to improve performance in this way, but rather that it is insufficient to achieve reliable outcomes.

This brings us to the challenging point.

Perhaps our model for managing projects is inadequate for reliably delivering the time and cost objectives it claims to be able to achieve.  Perhaps it is time to stop believing traditional project management, as its stands, is sufficient.

This the basis of the notion of data driven project management. We propose that an empirical base for project decisions is a necessary step in the evolution of project management, and that the technology to do this is now available.

In 1903, a new technology, the internal combustion engine, made air flight a reality, and now we can travel in confidence from Sydney to Dubai in an A380 aircraft. The Wright brothers did not achieve flight by continuously improving the glider, they added a technology.  The result changed the world.

As a profession, we must move on from our foundationalist philosophy and accept that we must be judged by the empirical philosophy that we demand from the professions we manage.   When this discussion is opened, there is room for the profession to move to a new level of reliability in delivering time/cost and benefits outcomes.

Key Statistic

The chance of crashing in a plane is 1 in 11 million, compared to the risk of a project running over time or over budget at around 50 percent.


About Endeavour Programme

Endeavour Programme’s artificial intelligence platform mitigates time and cost overruns on projects. Our world-first technology Octant AI, predicts problems on major projects faster, earlier and over 200% more accurately, allowing users to make better decisions earlier. We harness the power of project data to improve performance in a $10 trillion global industry. We are the vanguard of a paradigm change.

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