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Lost roots: how project management settled on the phased approach (and compromised its ability to lead change in modern enterprises)

Author: Lenfle, Sylvain ; Loch, ChristophINSEAD Area: Technology and Operations Management Series: Working Paper ; 2009/59/TOM Publisher: Fontainebleau : INSEAD, 2009.Language: EnglishDescription: 22 p.Type of document: INSEAD Working Paper Online Access: Click here Abstract: The discipline of project management adheres to the dominant model of the project life cycle, or the phased stage-gate approach of executing projects. It implies a clear definition of mission and system at the outset (to reduce uncertainty) and subsequent execution in phases with decision gates. This approach contrasts with the way the seminal projects credited with establishing the foundation of the discipline in the 1950s were conducted. These projects started with missions that were beyond what was currently possible; thus any solutions had to emerge over time. They succeeded by a combination of parallel trials (from which the best would then be selected) and trial-and-error iteration (allowing for the modification of solutions pursued over a period of time). Although the success of these approaches was documented and explained by scientific work in the 1950s, today they seem to fly in the face of accepted professional standards, making managers uncomfortable when they encounter them. The explanation for this contradiction has its roots in the 1960s, when the so-called ‘McNamara revolution’ at the Department of Defense gave a control orientation to the PM discipline. This shift was cemented by the encoded practices of the DoD and NASA, contemporary scientific writing, and the foundation of the Project Management Institute as a professional organisation that translated the standard into the educational norm for a generation of project managers. The project management discipline was thus relegated to a “grunt work” niche – the engineering execution of moderately novel projects with a clear mission. As a result it has been prevented from taking centre stage in the crucial strategic change initiatives facing many organisations today. This article describes the historical events at the origin of PM’s reorientation, arguing that the discipline should be broadened in order to create greater value for organisations whose portfolios include push-theenvelope projects.
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The discipline of project management adheres to the dominant model of the project life cycle, or the phased stage-gate approach of executing projects. It implies a clear definition of mission and system at the outset (to reduce uncertainty) and subsequent execution in phases with decision gates. This approach contrasts with the way the seminal projects credited with establishing the foundation of the discipline in the 1950s were conducted. These projects started with missions that were beyond what was currently possible; thus any solutions had to emerge over time. They succeeded by a combination of parallel trials (from which the best would then be selected) and trial-and-error iteration (allowing for the modification of solutions pursued over a period of time). Although the success of these approaches was documented and explained by scientific work in the 1950s, today they seem to fly in the face of accepted professional standards, making managers uncomfortable when they encounter them. The explanation for this contradiction has its roots in the 1960s, when the so-called ‘McNamara revolution’ at the Department of Defense gave a control orientation to the PM discipline. This shift was cemented by the encoded practices of the DoD and NASA, contemporary scientific writing, and the foundation of the Project Management Institute as a professional organisation that translated the standard into the educational norm for a generation of project managers. The project management discipline was thus relegated to a “grunt work” niche – the engineering execution of moderately novel projects with a clear mission. As a result it has been prevented from taking centre stage in the crucial strategic change initiatives facing many organisations today. This article describes the historical events at the origin of PM’s reorientation, arguing that the discipline should be broadened in order to create greater value for organisations whose portfolios include push-theenvelope projects.

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