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Stuck in the ’60s

The great British leader Winston Churchill once said, “We are shaping the world faster than we can change ourselves, and we are applying to the present the habits of the past.” A half a century later, and one can say that nothing has changed regarding the validity of Churchill’s painful insight. This is how, in 2001, the British management business leader and philosopher Charles Handy vividly described the pace of change, “All of the world’s trade in 1949 happens in a single day today, all of the foreign exchange dealings in 1979 happen now in a single day, as do all the telephone calls made around the world in 1984. A year in a day is exactly how it feels sometimes.”3

Yet, in spite of these vast world changes, the theory of project management has remained largely unchanged. Just as Churchill astutely observed how we are stuck in our ways, so did the British executive and a professor of project management, P.W.G. Morris, note more recently that, “Modern project management... emerged... in a period that was more inflexible and less complex and where events changed less rapidly than today... it [the theory of project management] is in many respects still stuck in a 1960s time warp.”4

Practitioners must recognize that the prevailing theories and the basic assumptions of their discipline have a great impact on their own thoughts and practices. Albert Einstein explained it very succinctly: “It is the theory that describes what we can observe.” Peter Drucker added that the basic assumptions about reality largely determine what the discipline—scholars, writers, teachers, practitioners—assumes to be reality.5

Thus, a theory stuck in the ’60s might not be just old and irrelevant, but it might also adversely affect our performance. Indeed, in his 2005 seminal article, “Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices,” Sumantra Ghoshal cites Kurt Lewin’s argument that “nothing is as practical as a good theory.” Ghoshal stresses, however, that the “obverse is also true: Nothing is as dangerous as a bad theory.”6 This is exactly what Koskela and Howell claim in their paper “The Underlying Theory of Project Management Is Obsolete,” “In the present big, complex, and speedy projects, traditional project management is simply counterproductive; it creates self-inflicting problems that seriously undermine performance.”7

If conventional methods of project management can exacerbate rather than alleviate project problems, then we should not be surprised to learn about the widespread poor statistics of project results. For example, a recent study that examined ten large rail transit projects in the United States found that the projects suffered from an average cost overrun of 61 percent, whereas the average cost overrun of eight large road projects in Sweden was 86 percent.8 Results of software projects have received great attention in this regard. For example, in their study of software project failure, Keil and his colleagues reported that, “Based on a survey of 376 CEOs... roughly 50 percent of all information technology projects fail to meet chief executive expectations.”9

Research by the Standish Group, which has been doing surveys on information technology projects since 1994, shows that overrunning the budget is common and that delivering projects late is normal. Delivering less functionality than was originally planned is also nothing out of the ordinary. In short, project failure in the information technology world is almost standard operating procedure. The Standish Group’s 2006 survey showed that nearly two-thirds of all the information technology projects launched in that year either failed or ran into trouble.10

These unsettling statistics beg the question of why management theories are still stuck in the ’60s. One possible reason is that the research is detached from practice. This problem has not been confined only to researchers in project management. In research concerning general management (that is, with a focus on permanent organizations rather than on temporary ones), researchers are chronically wrestling with the problem of how to find ways to develop what is termed “relevant research.” Yet, this is the simple and painful conclusion reached by Sandberg and Tsoukas in 2011: “There is an increasing concern that management theories are not relevant to practice.”11 Attempting to respond to this concern in project management research, Cicmil et al. suggest that: “...what is needed to improve project management practice is not more research on what should be done... we know very little about the ‘actuality’ of project-based working and management.”12

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