Project Management Institute

Case based project management education

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Teaching the project management lexicon, providing an overview of the framework, and instructing on techniques are pedagogically well understood. Lectures, text-based instruction, and classroom exercises all serve to educate on the fundamentals, but, at its highest level, project management is the synthesis of many aspects of management theory, engineering, sociology, psychology, and politics. Beyond the technical, project management approaches art—and therein is the challenge for the educator.

Project management is an array of skills, not simply a collection of terms, techniques, and concepts. A skill is practiced; at whatever level the skill is applied. Certain skills lend themselves to uninhibited practice, such as learning a software tool. For other skills, it is very difficult to develop practice simulations or problem sets. Managing risk, resolving human resource problems, terminating a sick project, and controlling vendor quality, for example, are very difficult to practice abstractly.

Yet no amount of information, whether of theory or in fact, in itself improves insight and judgment or increases ability to act wisely under conditions of responsibility.

Charles I. Gragg
Wisdom Can't be Told
Harvard Alumni Bulletin of October 19, 1940

Usually, it is not feasible for a student project manager to practice while managing a real project, complete with possible career-shattering outcomes, economic consequences, or other real life components. It is possible, however, to harvest information from projects of the past the fruits of applying project management to extant endeavors and thus provide the educator with a rich mosaic of subject matter. The challenge is how to package the material, ensure it is accessible, interesting, and educating.

Other areas of study have similar requirements, including business, law, and certain branches of science. In particular, executive management instruction strives to educate the student on topics such as achieving corporate advantage or acquiring another company, skills not easily practiced in a classroom setting. This paper relies heavily on the experiences garnered by management case teachers.


Eric Gioia, a colleague of mine, attended Harvard Business School's Program for Management Development, a program “…designed to provide high-potential managers and professional specialists with new concepts, best-practice techniques, and proven strategies for managing in today's competitive business world.” (Harvard Business School Website, 2003) In listening to Eric's description of the program and in reviewing the materials (some ten binders packed with case studies, notes, discussion group questions, and other tidbits), it became clear to me that the same approach could be used to educate project managers.

At the same time, I was reading three books and, coincidentally, a case study. These materials served as the raw materials for experimenting with the case-method and project management. The three books, Moon Lander (Kelly, 2001), The Anatomy of Major Projects (Morris & Hough, 1987) and Opening the Xbox (Takahashi, 2002) and the case study, Microsoft .NET (Maccormack & Herman, 2002) provided excellent case material.

Project management is the practitioner's discipline, born from necessity and honed through years of experience. The dedication and accomplishment of project managers produce the most amazing outputs. From the Channel Tunnel to putting a man on the moon, project managers rule the industrialized world. No amount of instruction will lead to greatness, but the case-method provides ample opportunity to stand next to greatness--greatness in success and greatness in failure--and learn what may be learned.


Two sources in particular were relied upon heavily in writing this paper and have been of considerable help. First, the ABCs of Case Teaching, a collection of papers by Vicki Golich, Mark Boyer, Patrice Franko, Steve Larmy, and others, published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, George Washington University, is a veritable bible for the would-be case writer and teacher. Second, SWIF Learning, A Guide to Student-Written, Instructor-Facilitated Case Writing, by Paul Michael Swiercz, Ph.D., of the George Washington University, is a fabulous and concise reference on how to write a case study.

I would also like to thank the Harvard Business School for pioneering the case-method and making the fruits of their work available through the Harvard Business School Online library.

The Case-Method

What is a Case?

A case is a story, based on real-life and thus complete with all the messiness of real-life. The “case study” handed to you at a tradeshow, promoting a product or service from a customer's point of view, is likely a success-story not a case study. Unfortunately, for the marketing manager, a correctly written case probably wouldn't reflect quite as positively.

A case should imbue the complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties confronted by the original participants. A critical aspect of a case is how readily a student will “inhabit” the case, or see through the eyes of the protagonist, which may be an individual or even a group within a case. A student must tease out key components from contradictory and complex information (Golich, et al, 2000). One valuable feature of the case method is that it instills in the student an understanding the real-life is not easily categorized, neatly analyzed, and “written up” as fact.

At the Harvard Business School, a case about the Walt Disney Company is taught alongside a case about the leveraged buy-out of Berkshire Partners. The number and variety of cases depends on the breadth and depth of the particular course. A senior project management course might include twenty or thirty cases covering many aspects of project management. A risk management course may cover five cases thematically aligned to help students learn to recognize risk patterns or develop stronger risk mitigation strategies.

The case is the informational component of the case-method but does note stand alone. The student and the preparation, group relationships, and discussions are paramount in the approach.

The Process

The task of a student commonly is taken to be one chiefly of familiarizing himself with accepted thoughts and accepted techniques (Gragg, 1940). Students learn what has been thought of before, and are tested to a certain level of memorization. This is the passive mode of education.

A study performed by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company concludes that students retain 10% of what they read; 26% of what they hear; 30% of what they see; 50% of what they see and hear; 70% of what they say; and 90% of what they say and do (cited in Golich, et al, 2000). If these results are indeed accurate, then the passive mode of education leaves much to be desired.

The case-method is active and participatory. Students are expected to participate the discussions, explain their viewpoints in both written and oral form, and actively question the viewpoints of others, including the instructor. Life is not a spectator sport. The case-method attempts to simulate the characteristics of ambiguity, complexity, and the interplay of personalities found in life; it embraces the messiness of life and uses it to the advantage of the student.

Central to the case-method is group interaction, both in small groups as well as whole class discussion. Rather than just reading the case and talking about it, students analyze the case and then group together in small teams for discussion; followed by a class discussion, including at times an “epilogue,” where the real outcome of the case is revealed and discussed (Golich, et al, 2000).

Running one case is not enough. It is important to have a number of cases as a valuable aspect of the case-method is that it teaches students to assimilate, associate, and transfer knowledge from previous cases and case discussion. In addition, many students familiar with conventional lecture and text-based approaches, the case-method method will be new and unfamiliar. It takes time for the students to familiarize themselves with the process and warm up to the open classroom discussion that is so critical to the case-method.


With good instruction, well-written cases, and a volume cases analyzed, the case-method provides critical benefits to the student, including:

1) Sharpen their skills - both quantitative and qualitative - in analyzing material

2) Enhance their ability to use new concepts and information introduced in the case to substantiate the points they make (learn to use empirical evidence to support their arguments and why it is important to do so)

3) Improve their ability to listen and to communicate with faculty and other students

4) Contest or refute the points of others, using reasoned argument

5) Build on points made by others to develop a response that draws on the best thinking of a group

6) Develop hypothetical solutions to problems

7) Examine the consequences of decisions they make.

(Golich 2000)

In summary:

1) Integrating theory and practice

2) Develop tolerance for ambiguity and incompleteness

3) Learn to distinguish between the significant and the trivial

4) Develop shared learning skills

5) Provide an opportunity for original thought.

(Swierecz, nd)

Students engaged in case study are curious, critically reflective, life-long learners who understand that the quality of the information they possess is their responsibility (Golich, et al, 2000). An additional benefit it that student relationships often continue long after the course is complete.

Writing Cases


Some cases for project management already exist, but the case-method isn't as broadly applied as it is in general management education and the selection is limited. In addition, the topics, arrangement, and teaching purposes for cases designed for project management education are not identical to those designed for general management. A great place to start is the Harvard Business School (HSB) Online.

HBS Online provides not only a wonderful resource for case teaching, it also offers a tremendous library of case studies, including many on specific projects. The Harvard Business School Online website is located on the web at

The Anatomy of a Case Study

Cases aren't necessarily snapshots of major events, such as the development of the Concord jet, rather; they can be any shared slice of reality that helps the student understand “multi-layered problems seen from multiple-viewpoints.” (Golich, Boyer, Franko, Lamy, 2000) A case may be the description of a single project phase, an explanation of a technical failure, or an exploration of whole project and its stakeholders. There is no “correct” format for a case study or a “right way” to write a case, but a few principles and guidelines maybe helpful.

A case generally consists of four parts, although not necessarily labeled as such:

1) The introduction, which outlines the issues and draws the reader's attention

2) The background section, which provides insights into the broader context of events and forces

3) The core analysis, which contains information directly relevant to the decision [or issue, risk, theory, process, etc] at hand

4) The appendixes, including any necessary notes, tabulations, calculations, references, etc., which are germane but which are too long or two technical

(Swiercz, nd)

Teaching Purpose

A case study has a teaching purpose, that is, a concentration or focus such that teaching the case imparts a specific ability, knowledge base, or attitude upon the student. For example, the teaching purpose of an HBS Online case study entitled BAE Automated Systems (B): Implementing the Denver International Airport Baggage-Handling System (Applegate, Montealegre, Knoop, 1996) is the following:

“Describes the negotiations that took place between the City of Denver officials, airlines, consulting companies, and BAE for the construction of a backup baggage system to enable the Denver International Airport (DIA) to open. When DIA finally opens in February 1995, 16 months behind schedule, it has three separate baggage-handling systems instead of a single state-of-the-art integrated baggage handling system.

Teaching Purpose [emphasis added by author]: Students should review the entire project to distill the main lessons for city officials, DIA project managers, and subcontractors such as BAE.”

In this case, the teaching purpose is lessons learned.

Functional Purpose

In addition to a teaching purpose, a case has as functional purpose as follows:

1) Descriptive cases are narratives that provide a detailed account of circumstance or situation.

2) Explanatory cases require that the writer assume the role of an expert and uses that expertise to translate a difficult subject in a language accessible to the reader. Explanatory cases remove obscurity; they exist to make the difficult comprehensible.

3) Exploratory cases invite the reader to tour new terrain. The writer assumes the role of a knowledgeable, but unobtrusive guide.

(Swiercz, nd)

Case Types

Finally, cases can be broadly group into types, employed depending on teaching purpose, functional purpose, case subject, or class format:

1) Profiles – A profile of a particular company, industry, division, group, or project

2) Decision-making episodes – Cases demonstrating an effective or ineffective decision-making process

3) Theoretical explanations – Cases written to illustrate a theory's application or performance in context

(Swiercz, nd)

In our example, BAE Automated Systems Baggage Handling System, the case is an exploratory profile.

Objectivity & “Teach-ability”

A case study doesn't offer opinion or speculation; it simply addresses the facts. Students are expected to form opinions, action plans, and strategies based on the case material. Subjectivity is the student's responsibility; objectivity is the case-writer's goal.

The case doesn't stand alone in the case-method, and accounting for the teaching process (see section Case Teaching) in the writing of the case will improve its teach-ability. In particular, the following guidelines are helpful:

1) Does the case tell a story?

2) Will the student be able to identify and “inhabit” the protagonist?

3) Are the objectives, challenges, decisions, risks or other themes central to the case supported with unbiased information?

4) Is the case complete in terms of information to support the teaching purpose, allow student analysis, and encourage discussion?

5) What questions should be asked of the students to help them discover the essence of the case?

6) What possible lines of discussion might stall the case? What questions would get it back on track?

Selecting a Case

Finding a case site and a case subject can be challenging. The case may be about a failure, a deficiency, a dysfunctional group or organization, or any number of other scenarios. The case may be about a success or a healthy group or organization, but, even here, there are challenges.

With a negative scenario, one may immediately encounter resistance, after all; who wants to be the subject of a case study on what not to do? It is best to appear as a partner or a benefactor, promising the host organization knowledge in return for participation. Also, remind the organization that they purpose of the case is to help students with their studies (Swiercz, nd).

Obviously, selling the idea of a positive case to the host organization is easier, but that doesn't mean landing interviews and getting access to research material will be smooth. The key in both scenarios is to give something back to the host organization, whether it is in knowledge, satisfaction in helping an educational initiative, or through potential positive public exposure.

Identifying a Case

It is easier to find a case site and then look for a case subject, particularly when writing cases for project management. Identifying a project with case-writing potential and then penetrating the project, if it is still ongoing, or researching a closed project in an unfamiliar organization may prove difficult.

Identifying a case is vastly simplified if one can rely on personal relationships, affiliations with companies and other organizations, or by selecting projects with readily available sources of public information. In fact, it may be easiest to start with your own company or organization and look for potential case-material on internal projects.

In certain circumstances, adequate research material may be available and the host organization's participation may not be necessary. In addition, a case-writer may decide to write a case about a project or organization that no longer exists. In both situations, the researcher must particularly careful in recycling research from other parties or relying on uncorroborated information. Again, the case-writer is ultimately responsible for the quality and accuracy of the research underpinning the case.

Ethical & Legal Concerns

Many case-writing organizations secure a written release from the host organization. The release provides two protections:

1) It protects the subject company [host organization] from publication of information that may, at worst, be incorrect or, at a minimum, be misleading.

2) If the case is commercially published, a company release will protect the writer and sponsoring institution by providing written verification that permission has been granted to use the material in question.

(Swiercz, nd)

The case-writer is responsible for the quality of the case and for protecting the host organization's sensitive or confidential information. As the case writer, you are not an investigative journalist (Swiercz, nd). You are there to get the facts and package it so other may learn from the organization's experiences.

Case Teaching

A deeper exploration of case teaching is beyond the scope of this paper but a brief overview of the process should give the reader a sense of the power of the approach.

Case teaching is very different from traditional forms of lecture and text-based approaches. A case teacher must prepare the case for the students, which includes either choosing the case from an existing library or writing the case from scratch, preparing discussion questions, guiding the students through the case, and debugging the case process if the case stalls or the students fail to “get” the case.

At the same time, a case teacher must resist the temptation to lecture and provide all the answers; the case teacher allows the students to own the discussion. Conceptually, case teaching assumes that learning is more effective if the students discover or construct knowledge with faculty guidance (Golich, et al, 2000). The core responsibility of a case teacher is to be a facilitator (Shapiro, 1984). This is challenging for many teachers.

While there is no standard method for teaching cases, a process typically used involves individual analysis, followed by discussion, and closing comments or lecture by the instructor. The instructor typically provides two or three primary questions regarding the case. The students respond in essay format. Some instructors allow the discussion groups to turn in a single set of answers, developed from the cumulative analysis and discussion performed by the group.

Student Analysis

The purpose of student analysis is to familiarize the student with the case material and prepare their conclusion or recommendations.

There are many approaches, but generally, the student may go through a process similar to that described below:

1) Who is the protagonist?

2) What are his or her objectives (implicit or explicit)?

3) What decisions (implicit or explicit) must I make?

4) What problems, opportunities, and risks do I, as the protagonist, face?

5) What evidence do I have to help make the decision? Is it reliable and unbiased? Can I improve it?

6) What problems, opportunities, and risks do I face?

7) What alternative courses of action are available?

8) What criteria should I use to judge the alternatives?

9) What action should I take?

10) How should I convince others in the case and in the classroom that my approach is best?

11) What did I learn from this case?

12) How does it relate to past cases and my own “live” experience?

(Shapiro, 1988):


A key aspect of case teaching, and a benefit to the student, is that he or she is required to not only analyze the material, discover the essence of the case, and develop a recommendation, strategy, or a conclusion; the student must then present their findings to a discussion group. During discussion, the student might have to answer questions, defend their position, admit faulty analysis, and adjust their findings according to other's viewpoints.

During discussion, the case teacher is under pressure to unobtrusively guide the discussion, debug hung discussion, and preventing the discussion from simply degenerating into a swap meet of opinions (Golich, 2000).


In most real-world situations, there is no single “right answer” to a problem. Student case analysis results illustrate the vastly different approaches employed to solve a particular problem. Case teaching involves describing the situation and encouraging students to arrive at their own conclusions; however, cases are in fact based on real-life so something did occur.

In closing a session, the instructor may choose to lecture briefly on the actual outcome while assimilating and touching on student analysis and comments.

Case-Based Education for Project Managers

It remains a fact that many arrive at project management accidentally, either because of natural ability, or simply by being the next in line to manage. The fortunate among us belonged to a number of project teams before being appointed project manager and learned the basics by being in the project environment, however; most of us managed our first projects with very little or zero formal project management education.

Fortunately, this is changing as increasing numbers of colleges and universities include project management content, either embedded in application area curriculum such as information technology, or as stand-alone programs. In addition, many internal professional development organizations provide project management training to new project managers and advanced topics for seasoned project managers.

A recent survey found that over 130 colleges and universities provided formal project management training, from associate certification through doctorate programs (Tisch & Simpson, 2003). The Project Management Institute enjoys increasing membership and the steady rise of the certified Project Management Professional (Project Management Institute Website, 2003). A Google search returns countless companies provide training to business and government. In general, there is increased focus on educating the project manager and the educational venues continue to broaden.

What of offering continuing education opportunities to the most senior project managers? What of other executives seeking to projectize their organizations, or simply get a lot smarter on project management, and fast? The case-method has great utility for programs of study that strives to bridge the theoretical and practical, simulate multifarious situations, and transmit complex concepts, attitudes, and skills—very much the level of study a senior project manager or executive would benefit from. For these individuals, an intensive case-based program similar to Harvard's executive education program would be a fabulous addition to the available educational resources. Furthermore, the method's focus on original thought and rigorous analysis is sure to result in new ways of thinking about managing projects, new techniques for success, and a general strengthening of the underpinnings of project management.

Applegate, L.M., Montealegre, R., Knoop, C.I. (1996, May 26) BAE Automated Systems (B): Implementing the Denver International Airport Baggage-Handling System Harvard Business School Online.

Golich, V.L., Boyer, M., Franko, P. Lamy, St. (2000) The ABCs of Case Teaching. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. George Washington University. Retrieved from

Gragg, CL (1951, July 1) Because Wisdom Can't be Told Harvard Business School Online.

Morris, P. & Hough, G. (1987) The Anatomy of Major Projects. New York : John Wiley & Sons.

Maccormack, A. & Herman, K.. (2002, March 14) Microsoft .NET. Harvard Business School Online.

Project Management Institute Website. Retrieved from

Shapiro, B.P. (1984) An Introduction to Cases Harvard Business School Online.

Shapiro, B.P. (1984) Hints for Case Teaching Harvard Business School Online.

Swiercz, P.M.. (nd) SWIF Learning, A Guide to Student-Written, Instructor-Facilitated Case Writing. Retrieved from

Takahashi, D. (2002) Opening the XBox. Roseville, California : Random House, Inc.

The Wiessman Center for Leadership Website. Referencing Vicki Golich, Workbook on Case Teaching for Mount Holyoke College Case Method Project Faculty Development Workshop. South Hadley, MA May 30–June 2, 2000. Retrieved from

Thomas, JK. (2001) Moon Lander. Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press.

Tisch, Jim & Simpson, Lynette. (2003) Project Management Education Survey. Robbins-Gioia, LLC. Available upon request: [email protected]

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003



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