Today on PMChat, we asked the question “Is Project Management Rocket Science?”. Our discussion was inspired by a 2015 article in the APM “Journal” magazine which asked the same question and challenged us to consider whether PM is complex or whether we make it harder than it needs to be.
In response to the APM article, we spent a few questions thinking about environmental complexity and uncertainty. We then looked at the Big Question and pondered the “YES” and “NO” cases, and considered our reactions to each.
We started with a simple question that has no right or wrong answer – whether you think Project Management is complex, or whether we make it seem that way.
As always, I’ve added my responses to each question in italics.
Q1. In your experience, do you think Project Management is, in general, complicated or simple? Do our PM processes and tools make it simple to roll out, or do they simplify something that is far more complex?
A1. I think the fundamentals of # Project Management are sound and well understood by the general PM community, but that peoples’ behaviors and competence make it seem more complicated than it needs to be.
Rocket science takes something super complex and breaks it down into smaller & smaller pieces until the risk and uncertainty is minimised. Our next question considers whether we can realistically take the same approach to deconstructing risk in our projects.
Q2. If rocket science can decompose complexity until it becomes manageable and predictable, why can’t Project Management do the same? Is it possible to remove all uncertainty and risk from your project environment?
A2. No. We make decisions in complex environments that are shaped by humans. We work with imperfect, uncertain constraints rather than predictable materials. We end up planning where we can and then deal with the uncertainty to get things done.
We use Rocket Science as a metaphor for extreme complexity – the argument is that with enough planning, a team of engineers can build a complex solution with predictable materials, technology & outcomes. Let’s think about whether this is a fair comparison.
A3. I think the rocket science comparison shouldn’t be taken literally. As a metaphor, it fails because it suggests that all project environments can be made predictable and stable. I’m not sure that they can.
A4. I agree. I think the metaphor is just that, nothing more. Project frameworks give us structure, no matter how complex the processes & deliverables BUT we can make them complicated via our behaviour.
On the other hand, Project Management does planning like no-one else. Our planning is grounded in fundamental practices, processes and principles. Let’s think about whether they give us the ability to break down the “rocket science” complexity.
A5. I think the beauty of Project Management is that we can provide structure and certainty amidst chaos. Our structures hold and give us shape, even when we are dealing with complicated people, deliverables and outcomes.
Q6. The “NO” argument says that projects are not rocket science – that they are simple constructs and that they become complicated when people make poor decisions and don’t manage to the plan. What do you think?
A6. I think I agree, but I’m not sure. Project structure provides …structure…while human decisions and behavior make things messy. At the same time, our reason for being is to make sense of complexity.
In our final question, we took the foot off the pedal and thought about whether there is a more appropriate comparison for Project Management than rocket science!
A7. I like the meme about riding the bike when everything is on fire. It has a grain of truth. Riding a bike is simple and gets you to the end, but you have to navigate all the muck along the way!
Join us next week on the PMChat tweetchat – you can find us on Twitter at the #PMChat hashtag.
In more exciting news, we’ll be moving to a new timespot, so look for the chat at Tuesday 15:00 PT, 18:00 ET, 23:00 GMT / Wednesday 08:00 AEST, 10:00 NZST.