What is Project Management?

Recently pinning an Infographic to my Pinterest Board on Projects and Change, I mused on why it worries me a little about the rise in people taking PRINCE 2 qualifications.

On the face of it, it is a good thing: a robust methodology, a reasonably rigorous exam, and a focus on creating a controlled environment for our projects.  After all, one of my most oft- (over-) used sayings is that “project managers crave control above all else”.

However, PRINCE 2 does not teach us how to manage projects.  It is about how to create one form of controlled environment around a project.  PRINCE is fundamentally about governance – a worthy, indeed crucial, topic.  But practitioners need more.

In the UK public sector, there is also a real sense in which people are taking the exam and getting qualified for no better purpose than to boost their CV and hence salary.  There is nothing wrong with this from the individual’s point of view: I would.  But if I were the Government department, local authority or NHS Trust being asked to stump up hard cash – and scarce cash these days – I would want to see a better business case.  What use will this person put the training to?  What projects will they lead or play an important part in?  Is this the best use of a training budget?

For people with little or no PM experience and for those who will go on to manage only very small projects, I doubt the value and would anticipate a short skills-based training would give a better return.  Those who thrive in a project environment and want to take on bigger PM roles would then get much from PRINCE training.

The “so what?”

For me, project management is a three-fold discipline.

The Project Management Triangle

PRINCE 2 training and certification can only give practitioners one of these aspects – structure.  In the absence of powerful skills development and experience in the other areas, you will not become a skilled PM.


4 thoughts on “What is Project Management?

  1. Shim Marom

    Hi Mike,

    I’m curious why you decided to single out Prince2 while ignoring the PMBOK. Are you comfortable that PMBOK does ‘teach us how to manage projects’?

    Cheers, Shim.

    1. Mike Clayton Post author

      Familiarity. PRINCE is a big thing in the UK, PMBOK isn’t. It does however seem to me that PMBOK has a more comprehensive coverage of tools an techniques but no, I don’t believe it alone can teach anyone PM. It is, I suspect, a better catalogue of the things we should learn while PRINCE is a specific (and valuable in some contexts) methodology.

      1. Shim Marom

        Interesting comment Mike as I am not familiar with PRINCE.

        I am equally uncertain whether PMBOK, in itself, can teach anyone how to become a PM. From my perspective it can be a good reference methodology once you have some prior knowledge. But, thinking about it, this is a common problem with all methodologies. You can’t just pick up a book and become an expert as it lacks context and a ‘story’ within which to see how all the dots connect.

        Cheers, Shim

  2. Terry McKenna

    Mike –

    Interesting and provocative post.

    In essence you raise a key issue as to the role of methodologies in project management. I think you are correct in stating “PRINCE 2 does not teach us how to manage projects”, but the same can be made of other “certifications” such as PMP, as Shim implies, with PMP referencing the PMBoK Guide so heavily. I do not think that a “project” can be encapsulated in such forms, as the reality of “projects” does not readily adhere to the definitions upon which these rely as a basis of their validity.

    Undoubtedly what a given methodology provides for its followers (and I use that word advisedly) is a shared lexicon and often a prescription for running a project. I have a perception (as one who is PRINCE2 and PMP certified) that PRINCE2 in particular lends itself to literal interpretation and a paint-by-numbers mindset: I still recall with some horror a PMO member who clung for dear life to a PRINCE2 guide as if it contained all there was to know about projects.

    I have begun looking into how methodologies came about and have produced a paper on this. (http://www.usq.edu.au/users/usqpm/docs/Reconceptualising%20project%20management%20methodologies%20for%20a%20postpostmodern%20era.pdf). I have developed if not a jaundiced eye, then at least a critical mindset which lends me to challenge any methodology, particularly when its advocates start using phrases such as “best practice” in conjunction with their preferred approach (TSO is somewhat guilty of this in relation to PRINCE2, but they are not alone).

    If we look at their respective histories it quickly becomes apparent that they are often a conglomeration of ideas and concepts which, as Shim indicates. fail to demonstrate how the dots connect.

    So, to attempt to answer your question, “what is project management?”. I expect I cannot give a succinct answer on that, other than to state the we will not find the answer in any one methodology, nor indeed in their collective wisdom.

    Regards, Terry


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