Understanding the lived experience of managing projects

the need for more emphasis on the practice of managing

Mark Winter, PhD,

Janice Thomas, PhD,
Athabasca University

Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference
11-14 July 2004 – London, UK

“Chaos is the law of nature; Order the dream of man.” Henry James

“What really exists is not things made but things in the making.” William James

“You can never step into the same river twice.” Heraclitus

“Practice has a logic which is not that of logic.” Pierre Bourdieu

Project managers often speak of their experiences of managing with a kind of natural affinity to jugglers and plate-spinners: so much time spent managing day-to-day issues, so much time spent trying to balance priorities in relation to unexpected events, changing requirements, and new developments. Yet the classical textbook view of project management tends not to reflect this. Traditional approaches to theorizing project management are dominated by assumptions privileging stability, linearity, routine, order, and control. The process perspective embedded in traditional project management ideology is essentially that of a structured process consisting of the various subprocesses described in publications such as the Project Management Institute's (PMI, 2000) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). To understand the lived experience of managing projects, this paper argues for a different processual perspective, one centered firmly on the actual process of managing rather than the classical management process. To this end, a new reflective practice framework of different “images of managing” is presented for use on professional development programs to help people reflect on their own experiences with a view to becoming more effective practitioners. In other fields such as teaching and nursing, such activity is central to professional development whereby practitioners focus directly on the practices of teaching and nursing; in essence, this paper argues that in the project management field, we need to focus a lot more on the actual process of managing. Supported by research and practical data collected over the last eight years, the ideas here have been developed in face-to-face and online educational environments working with experienced project managers and other practitioners involved in managing projects.

Turning now to the structure of the paper, we begin by discussing the traditional process view of project management, which has dominated the literature so far, and then seek to extend the meaning of “process” to the actual process of managing. A broad concept of “managing” is presented based on the work of Checkland (1989) and this is followed by a framework of different “images of managing” that practitioners can use to help reflect upon their own real-world experience. We conclude this first part by examining the philosophical underpinnings of the two perspectives—the life-cycle process of project management versus the process of managing in managing projects—highlighting the different assumptions embedded in the two perspectives. The second part of the paper explores the practical impact of adopting this managing-centered perspective in the teaching of executive-level project management programs. Examples from two such programs are presented and the paper ends with several points for the future of project management education.

Extending the Meaning of “Process” in Project Management

The term “process” has many meanings in the management literature and this paper seeks to establish a new meaning of “process” in order to advance our understanding of managing in project environments. To help summarize this perspective, we need to differentiate more clearly between the classical life-cycle process of project management—the standard textbook view based on the work of Fayol (1949) and other management theorists—and the actual process of managing enacted by practitioners. As educators and researchers, we often talk about the practice of managing projects, but talk very little about the actual process of managing. As this paper will show, the process of managing is a different processual perspective to the classical management process of planning, organization, and control, and yet it is the classical view that continues to dominate our understanding of project management. Consider for example Sparrius's (1994) paper in the Project Management Journal entitled “The Process Perspective on Projects” which states: “all projects embody a management process and a technical process. The management process and the technical process are intertwined and proceed concurrently…the technical process accomplishes the project's objective and creates its result. …The management process is project management”—see Exhibit 1. Similarly, Duncan (1993) adopts the same perspective in a paper entitled “The Process of Project Management” in which the management process in Exhibit 1 consists of five basic processes—initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and reviewing—and it is these processes that are seen to represent the “process of project management” as defined in publications such as the PMBOK Guide.


Exhibit 1

Now let us pause for a moment: what if we take seriously the messages implied in the quotes at the start of this paper and theorize the practice of managing projects from a different processual perspective? What if we focus not on the different management processes described in publications such as PMBOK Guide, but on the actual process of managing? How might we theorize this process in a way that might be helpful to people on project management professional development programs?

Theorizing the Process of Managing

According to Vaill (1989), the process of managing is “a rather mind-boggling phenomenon to try to theorize about…[partly because] intelligence, experience, and skill are being exercised, albeit in ways that we hardly know how to perceive, let alone describe.” It's not surprising therefore, says Vaill, that the classical management process is substituted, it's so much easier to talk about “management” than “managing” and so much easier to write about! Similarly, Mangham and Pye (1991) state: “we cannot capture the essence of the doing of managing…The best we can offer is some adumbration, some hazy outline of it.” In contrast then to the classical management process of project management, what might be a hazy outline of the process of managing?

Based on research carried out on various management programs over the last eight years, there is a broad image of managing that many people seem to identify with in relation to their own real-world experience. When asked, in the context of an exercise, to identify which definition of managing best describes their own experience—from the list of definitions shown in Appendix 1—experienced managers almost always seem to choose the broad image of managing shown in Exhibit 2 (Checkland, 1989), not as the definition, but as the definition that makes most sense to them in relation to their own real-world experience. Experienced managers indicate that this image does describe, albeit in a broad sense, the lived experience of managing in practice. In fact, consider the scope of the idea of “managing” anything: the organizers of an international research conference, the GP running a local surgery, the secretary of a local pressure group, the leader of a scout group, the single parent, all these are “managers” in the broad sense of that term. As Checkland (1989) states in Exhibit 2, to “manage” anything in everyday life is to try to cope with an ever-changing flux of interacting events and ideas that is continuously unfolding through time. The manager tries to improve situations that are seen as problematical—or at least as less than perfect—and the job is never done because as the situation evolves, new aspects calling for attention emerge, and yesterday's solutions may now be seen as today's problems (Winter & Checkland, 2004). Moreover, this is particularly true for project managers and more general managers, as Eccles and Nohria (1992) point out in the following extract:

“Observing managers in action reveals that even though they may describe their work in rational terms, they spend very little of their time explicitly engaged in planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting. These activities, as Jane Hannaway found in her study of managers at work, ‘do not in fact describe what managers do.’ At best they describe vague objectives for managers which they are constantly trying to accomplish in a far more messy and hectic stream of ongoing activity. Managers are in constant action.” (p. 47, italics added).


Exhibit 2

Hannaway's “messy and hectic stream of ongoing activity” is essentially the ever-changing “flux of interacting events and ideas” and the “constant action” is the practice of managing. As already stated, project managers often speak about their experiences with a kind of natural affinity to jugglers and plate-spinners: so much time spent dealing with day-to-day issues, so much time spent trying to balance priorities in relation to different stakeholder expectations, budgetary constraints, unexpected events, and hidden agendas. As Checkland (1989) points out in Exhibit 2, management “problems” may occasionally be temporarily “solved,” but this is a special case of the continuing process of managing; choose the right time frame and all is seen to be flux. And notice the process here: the actual process of managing rather than the life-cycle process of project management.

In summary, although not a model of the actual practice, we suggest that Exhibit 2 offers a broad conceptual starting point from which to understand the lived experience of managing. As the illustration in Exhibit 2 shows, the flux part is shown separately from the act of perceiving and evaluating, and the act of perceiving and evaluating is itself shown separately from the act of deciding to act. The actual reality of course is much more complex and dynamic, and the various elements in Exhibit 2 are nothing like as separate in reality as the model might suggest. The reason for separating out them out essentially—as the next section will show—is so that the process itself—the actual process of managing—can become an object of study. With this as our starting point, we seek now to show how we might reflect upon this process as opposed to the life-cycle process of project management.

Images of Managing

Just as Morgan (1986) presents different “images of organization” for understanding different aspects of real-world organizations—based on the view that “organizations and organizational problems can be seen and understood in many different ways”—this section shows that there are different “images of managing” through which the lived experience of managing in organizations can also be understood (Winter & Checkland, 2004). In other words, rather than trying to state what “managing” actually is, or what the process could or should be, a more defensible approach in our view is to ask: how might we understand the practice of managing from different theoretical perspectives? In response to this, our research suggests that there are different processual perspectives that can enable experienced practitioners (and practitioners-to-be) to reflect upon and learn from their own real-world experience. In the context of a professional development program for example, a question for experienced project managers might be: in studying these different images of managing, what do you learn about your own experience of managing and how might this change your approach to managing projects? To illustrate this, Exhibit 3 shows some example images that experienced managers might be asked to reflect upon.


Exhibit 3

Taking Schön's (1983) work as an example, the image of managing described by Schön in “The Reflective Practitioner” is essentially the image of reflection-in-action. To summarize this perspective, practicing managers and other practitioners constantly have to deal with complex situations for which there are no “right” answers, and how they deal with these situations—the process dimension shown in Exhibit 2—is rarely through the systematic application of textbook theories, but through sophisticated processes of “reflection-in-action” (e.g., thinking on one's feet) and “reflection-on-action” (e.g., thinking back on events and planning the next move etc.). The core of Schön's argument is that given the complexity of real-world situations, practitioners are not usually able to follow or apply the ready-made prescriptions and propositional knowledge taught on education and training programs. For many practitioners, real-world situations are always much more complex than the textbooks imply, and therefore, according to Schön, propositional knowledge will always be of limited value. In short, the process is much less a process of applying propositional knowledge and much more a process of appreciating, probing, modeling, experimenting, and diagnosing etc., using intuition and experience. It is also important to point out that the key terms—reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action—are deliberately hyphenated throughout Schön's work to indicate that the thinking is actually in or strongly linked to the action and that thinking and reflection are actually forms of action in themselves. Also, Schön's use of the word “reflection” is not so much a reference to practitioners standing back in order to learn from their experience, but more a reference to how practitioners actually think about the issues and situations in the messy, indeterminate zones of real-world practice. In this sense then, Schön's image is a way of making sense of the actual doing of managing and much less a reference to the notion of learning from past events. In summary, despite its limitations (e.g., Moon, 1999), Schön's image of the reflective practitioner is generally seen as a helpful way of understanding what it is that (more reflective) managers and other practitioners actually do in practicing their craft.

Another processual perspective that can serve as a reflective prompt on professional development programs is the organizational sensemaking perspective (Weick, 1995). This presents a view of managing as the ongoing efforts of managers to make sense of the ever-changing flux and to create relatively shared understandings for the people they lead. From this perspective, managing can be seen as the processes of action and interaction that enable individuals to make sense of organizational activities and to act. Sensemaking is the process of creating and applying generic and extra-subjective sensemaking tools where appropriate. Organizational sensemaking begins either with an action or an outcome and results in the alteration of beliefs to create a sensible explanation for the action or outcome (Weick, 1995, p. 168). Belief-driven sensemaking is based in beliefs arising from ideology or paradigms of thought and occurs either through arguing or expecting. Action-driven sensemaking starts with an action for which an individual is responsible or which has happened and that requires explanation. Taking this perspective seriously means recognizing the multiple perspectives and understanding of reality present on projects and paying particular attention to the role of the project manager in negotiating shared generic sensemaking scripts and in recognizing when generic scripts no longer fit and creating opportunities for intersubjective sensemaking to fill in the gaps. Viewing project management from this perspective helps managers understand the reasons for the communication failures and unmet expectations so common in projects and provides tools to assist in remedying this situation (Thomas, 2000).

As Exhibit 3 shows, other processual perspectives on the practice of managing include judgment making, intuitive knowing, and managing as a performing art, all potentially useful perspectives in the context of professional development. Whatever perspectives though are offered to practitioners, adopting this managing-centered perspective also requires a different philosophical perspective (see Exhibit 4).


Exhibit 4

How might we summarize this shift of perspective? In essence, theorizing based on the right-hand side pays attention to the activities and realities of interactions and activities on projects. What is of prime interest is the actions of the main players and what they actually do in managing projects (e.g., how they reflect on complex issues at the start of projects [re: Schön's image of reflection-in-action], how they make sense of situations that initially make no sense at all [re: Weick's image of sensemaking], and how they make judgments about conflicting objectives and conflicting priorities [re: Vickers’ work of judgment making]). In other words, concepts of interest tend to be described by verbs rather than nouns. Primacy is given to movement, process, action, and the lived experience of practitioners over the static characteristics of abstract management processes. The metaphor of “permanent white water” (Vaill, 1989) usefully describes the complex, turbulent, and changing environment in which all managers are trying to operate. In essence, thinking in these terms requires a shift of perspective that we argue is crucial to understanding the lived experience of managing projects. It prompts a different way of thinking about managing as a fundamentally social process. This relational perspective also recognizes the inter-relatedness of the text and the context and the importance of actions of individuals in trying to accommodate new experiences in defining and redefining what “managing” will be required next. Tsoukas and Chia (2002) in talking about organizational change make the point that:

“Noticing how organizational members reweave their webs of beliefs and habits of action in response to local circumstances an new experiences and how managers influence and intervene into the stream of organizational actions, is a perspective organizational scientists must take if they are determined to convey a sense of the organizational flow.”

Embracing the managing perspective also entails looking on change as normal rather than something to be “managed.” Much of organizational theory is fundamentally built to explain order and this makes it very difficult to understand change and improvisation (Weick, 1998). To treat change as a natural state rather than an epiphenomenon or exception is the focus of much recent research across disciplines today (Prigogine, 1989; Stacey, 1996; Sztompka, 1993). In organizational theory, Orlikowski (1996), Weick (1998), and Feldman (2000) have all made significant contributions to our understanding of what happens in organizations. These scholars approach change as normal and explore what this premise entails for our understanding of organizations. For example, according to Tsoukas and Chia (2002), change is the reweaving of actors’ webs of beliefs and habits of action as a result of new experiences obtained through interactions. Insofar as this is an ongoing process, that is, to the extent actors try to make sense of and act coherently in the world, change is inherent in human action. Organization is an attempt to order the intrinsic flux of human action, to channel it toward certain ends, to give it a particular shape, through generalizing and institutionalizing particular meanings and rules. From this perspective, organization is a pattern that is constituted, shaped, and emerging from change. This represents a significant challenge to those who expect management theory to be about limiting change.

Adopting this managing-centered perspective also requires a shift of focus from seeing social reality as existing “out there” to a view of social reality as socially constructed and continuously evolving. According to Schön (1987) for example:

“Underlying the practitioner's reflection-in-action is a constructionist view of the reality with which the practitioner deals—a view that leads us to see the practitioner as constructing situations in practice,… In the constructionist view, our perceptions, appreciations, and beliefs are rooted in worlds of our making that we come to accept as reality.” (p. 36).

Schön's (1987) perspective is also consistent with the core image of managing shown in Exhibit 2, for example, according to Checkland (1999):

“As human beings experience the unrolling flux of happenings and thoughts which make up day-to-day life, both professional and private, they are all the time likely to see parts of the flux as ‘situations’ and certain features of it as ‘problems,’ or ‘issues.’ These concepts and this kind of language—of ‘situations’, ‘issues’, ‘problems’—are very commonly used in everyday talk, but they are subtle concepts, and we need to beware of giving them a status they do not deserve. We must not reify them; they do not exist ‘out there’, beyond ourselves, as we can assume ‘that beech tree’ and ‘that dog scratching itself’ do. ‘This situation’ and ‘this problem’ indicate dispositions to think about (parts of) the flux in particular ways, and they are themselves generated by human beings; also, no two people will see them in exactly the same way.” (p. A28).

The main argument in all of this is not that the life-cycle process in Exhibit 1 is either wrong or should now be abandoned, only that it is a process perspective on project management and not the process perspective, as many publications continue to imply.

Returning now to the different images listed in Exhibit 3, it is important to indicate that the phrase “images of managing” is our phrase and not a phrase used by authors such as Schön (1983) and Weick (1995); in other words, we are choosing to see their work and the work of Vickers (1965) and Claxton (1997) etc., as offering different processual perspectives on the art and craft of managing, even though the authors themselves do not present their work in this way. Also, like Morgan's notion of different images of organization (Morgan, 1986), each of the perspectives shown in Exhibit 3 is a particular way of seeing, and also simultaneously, a way of not seeing, in the sense that each perspective will illuminate certain aspects of a person's experience and not others. Of course the same perspective will also illuminate different aspects for different people depending on their educational background and professional experience; a group of managers for example asked to reflect upon the work of Schön will no doubt create different interpretations and derive different insights in relation to their own real-world experience. And finally of course, the list of perspectives shown in Exhibit 3 is merely illustrative and not exhaustive. In other words, the primary focus here is encouraging people to reflect upon their own real-world experience and to explore the insights and implications that flow from these different perspectives. Indeed, the same concept might also be applied to leadership where a question for experienced managers on a management program might be: in studying the images of transactional leadership and transformation leadership (for example), what do you learn about your own style of leadership and how might this change your approach? In summary, Exhibit 3 is not a prescription for people to apply in practice, but a prompt to help people understand their own experiences with a view to becoming more reflective practitioners in the art and craft of managing. We turn now to the practical value of adopting this managing-centered perspective in project management programs by focusing on several examples from the authors’ own teaching and research activities.

Focusing on the Process of “Managing” in Professional Development Programs

Management education and management research have been under almost constant criticism for two decades now. The call is frequently for more accountability which usually amounts to desires for more relevance, more directly actionable knowledge. On the education side, these pressures are manifested in a simplification of the management discipline toward memorizable lists of variables and concepts focusing on functionalist and managerialist agendas (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992). The role of educators in this model is to disseminate the knowledge to students in a form that is readily understandable. Unfortunately, this has furthered the simplification agenda whereby management knowledge has been codified, commodified, and simplified in many instances until it no longer bears any resemblance to the ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty inherent in today's practice world. What is possibly worse, some would argue, is that much management education has become a passive transfer of simplified knowledge and techniques in the absence of efforts to develop critical evaluatory skills necessary to make knowledge actionable in particular contexts.

To date, management research has been notably silent on the effectiveness of MBA programs in expanding the intellectual capability of their students. In addition, MBA programs have been criticized for emphasizing simplistic models, ignoring important work, failing to meet society's needs, and fostering undesirable attitudes toward simplification and certainty (Cheit, 1985). Many believe that the increasing adoption of reductionist agendas, simplification and reliance on rationality assumptions evident in most MBA programs leads graduates to believe they have all the answers, and perhaps worst of all, that there is one right answer. Largely in answer to these concerns, discussions of critical management pedagogy have received considerable attention in recent years (see for instance, Reynolds, 1998, 1999; Dehler, 1998; Alvesson & Willmott, 1992; Reed & Anthony, 1992). Drawing from work in critical pedagogy out of the education arena (particularly, Freire, 1972; Giroux, 1981), management theorists are actively engaged in making sense of what a critical management pedagogy would entail and what its benefits would be. Critical pedagogy takes a constructivist approach, recognizing that knowledge is socially constructed and that this makes the underlying values and historical assumptions in place a key part of the usefulness of any knowledge in any particular situation. Proponents of critical pedagogy suggest that critical pedagogy is necessary to turn out “students as critical citizens capable of governing rather than simply being governed” (Giroux, 1997, p. 259). If this is the case, then perhaps critical management pedagogy should be about developing more reflective managers capable of managing and changing organizations as opposed to simply being managed (or being a member of management)?

From a critical perspective then, an important role for management education is to develop practitioners with the ability to synthesize and embed management theory within their own experience and theories of practice, to critically assess and reformulate theories, and to recall and make actionable this knowledge on the fly when appropriate circumstances present themselves. There seems to be consensus that a capacity for critical reflection is a fundamental component of a critical management pedagogy. Critical reflection entails:

  • Questioning the assumptions and taken for granted notions embedded in theory and practice;
  • Surfacing the processes of power and ideology inherent in institutional practices, procedures, and institutions;
  • Exploring the hidden agendas concealed by claims of rationality and objectivity;
  • Working toward realizing a more just work environment (Reynolds, 1998, 1999).

Following Giroux (1981) there seems to be agreement that implementing a critical management pedagogy requires changes to both curricular content and pedagogical method (Reynolds, 1998, 1999; Dehler et al., 2001) although some efforts involve taking action on one of these two fronts alone. Against this background, we explore now how certain elements of management programs can be used to develop critically reflective practitioners capable not only of making knowledge actionable but of developing new knowledge to fit their own particular contexts. We provide two examples of how critical approaches have been implemented in specialized management programs offered in modularized and online settings. One of them is sponsored by a consortium of companies and is offered in short modules over a course of two to three years. The other is an online program offered to students situated in numerous time zones and countries. Students work full-time and take a series of courses, typically over a three-year period. Courses are paced and involve cohorts but are offered through asynchronous technology. Both are specialized programs focusing on a particular variant of management known as project management. All students are middle managers or higher with significant project management knowledge and experience.

Of particular significance is the nature of the programs and students from which our examples are drawn. There has been substantial discussion of the different character of “executive” program students (see for example Mutch, 2002) and the difficulty in encouraging them to think in any other than efficiency and relevancy contexts (Reed & Anthony, 1992). Project management programs provide an excellent arena to test this thinking as project management has traditionally been taught as an expedient approach to reducing uncertainty and controlling unique undertakings. Students with prior learning and experience in project management can be expected to have a very strong task/results orientation and high expectations of relevancy of material for improving practice. Thus, if critical approaches are successful with these sorts of executive students, they are likely to be useful in other contexts as well. These examples are also well situated to provide insight into the debate over the educational/academic value of short and/or online programs. Often these programs are thought to be good for transfer of knowledge but the traditional situated educational sites are given precedence in their ability to engage students in ongoing and critical debate. In particular, online delivery is often looked down upon as some sort of second-class approach to education delivery. Our examples show that critical pedagogy is not only possible in an online environment but in many ways may even be enhanced.

A New Type of Dissertation for Post-Experience Students

In 1999, one of the authors developed a new MBA module called Managing-in-Action for a part-time Executive MBA and a significant part of this was a new dissertation option centered firmly on the practice of managing (Winter, 2002). Building on the ideas and experiences from this early work, the author is now developing the ideas further through a funded program of action research on a project management professional development program in the U.K. (Winter & Gale, 2003). The main argument of this work is that the classical research dissertation is not always appropriate for busy managers on part-time programs, mainly because the academic activity of producing a research dissertation is somewhat far removed from the everyday practice of managing. As Mangham (1990) points out:

“A sound education for managers (as for anyone else) should provide a setting for performance that is relevant to the real interests of the students and the situations that they confront on a day to day basis. …At present, much of what is offered [on MBAs] consists of a series of subjects—finance, operations, marketing, organizational behaviour…[and yet managers]…are not confronted on a day to day basis with subjects; they have to wrestle with problems which do not come complete with questions and answers.” (p.114)

There are also significant learning and development opportunities available to people studying part-time and this essentially is what the new dissertation option is designed to exploit, namely the opportunity for mature students to develop their own experience of managing through a period of more deliberate and more reflective engagement in real-world practice. As Brown and Duguid (2000) state: “learning to be requires more than just information. It requires the ability to engage in the practice in question.” Such opportunities cannot be exploited however if the only option available is the classical research dissertation. Also, the opportunity to engage more deliberately and more reflectively in one's own professional practice is highly relevant to professional development programs where the emphasis is (by definition) more on preparing people for the realities of real-world practice than on conventional academic research. This is not to suggest that conventional academic practices should be marginalized, only that if the core purpose of a part-time project management program is professional development, then this suggests the need for additional dissertation options to allow practitioners to learn and develop through processes of reflective practice and critical reflection.

Against this background, the new dissertation is called the practice dissertation to differentiate it from the research dissertation, which has its roots in technical rationality and scientific inquiry. In contrast to the research dissertation, the practice dissertation is rooted in the ideas of reflective practice, a less established but growing body of ideas on what practitioners actually do in practicing their profession. Like other new fields of study, there are (not surprisingly) different ideas about reflective practice (see for example, Schön, 1987; Eraut, 1994; Bright, 1996; Fish & Coles, 1998; Moon, 1999), and there is no assumption here that the ideas are all-encompassing, only that they provide a helpful way of making sense of what practitioners actually do in practicing their profession, and (hence) an appropriate foundation upon which to develop a new kind of dissertation for practitioners studying on part-time programs. They also accord with ideas on situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and the increasing emphasis on facilitating reflective learning in higher education (Brockbank & McGill, 1998).

In choosing this option, the practitioner-student is given the opportunity to make sense of their own experience of managing, a reflexive process of keeping a practice journal, reading various papers on the different images of managing (Exhibit 3), and reflecting on the different images in relation to their own real-world experience. Moreover, the role of the academic supervisor in supervising this dissertation changes from that of supervising a research project to that of facilitating a learning process involving the critical examination of real-world experience, relevant theory, and ongoing interaction. The role of the student also becomes one of thinking and theorizing about the process of managing rather than theorizing about traditional management theory. This decentered and participative learning partnership requires the faculty member and student to challenge functional and nonfunctional management boundaries and look at their interplay in the practice of managing. Both students and faculty are encouraged to explore how and why theories work (or don't work) in a particular context and to learn from each other's perspectives on the situations and theories in order to broaden and complexify their understandings of the problems being tackled. To conclude, the subject of the dissertation is the person's experience of managing, rather than research on a highlighted management topic.

Interestingly, in fields such as teaching and nursing, practitioners engage in this kind of activity as a matter of course in that they focus directly on the practices of teaching and nursing as part of their own professional development. The educational aim of the practice dissertation is no different in project management: it is simply one of helping people to become more reflective and more effective practitioners in the art and craft of managing projects. Moreover, our experiences to date suggest there is significant potential in this new dissertation and further research is being carried out to develop it further.

Introducing Critical Sensemaking

Our second example begins in early 2000 with the decision by a leading distance MBA provider to develop a specialized Executive MBA in Project Management. The new program was envisioned to build from the first year of the existing Executive MBA program and then add one year of specialized course work in project management followed by three electives and a final applied research project. The current Executive MBA program (ranked in the top 75 MBA programs in the world by the Financial Times in 2003) is delivered in a paced asynchronous environment and this program would follow this approach.

Distance education has made great strides over this decade in gaining acceptance as an alternative delivery option within graduate education. Numerous studies over the last decade have shown that, regardless of discipline, there is no significant difference in the learning outcomes of distance versus classroom students in graduate programs (Haga & Heitkamp, 2000; Levine, 2001; Mulligan & Geary, 1999; O‘Hanlon, 2001; Ponzurick, France & Logar, 2000; Weigel, 2000; Worley, 2000). Others have shown that there are no significant differences in student satisfaction (Arbaugh 2000c; Phillips & Peters, 1999; Baldwin, Bedell, & Johnson, 1997) or participation rates (Arbaugh, 2000a, 2000b) between the two settings. However, the intellectual quality of online graduate programs is still questioned in many educational arenas. In particular, many educators still do not credit that interpersonal relationships between students and faculty can be developed effectively through technology (see for example, Kretovics & McCambridge, 2002.

Critical management pedagogy puts heavy weight on the necessity to change the pedagogical approach from information pushing to critical interchange and from teacher or student centered to decentered, and on the interchange and sharing of experience and view points. Many of you may wonder if this revision of the management “classroom” is possible using technology that requires that the information to be presented be prepared months in advance and made available in a largely text-based format, and where students and teachers may never meet in any but a text-based fashion. The example presented here shows just how well online delivery is suited to developing critically reflective practitioners.

Surveying the existing MBA or Masters programs in project management as background to curriculum development revealed that most programs were very similar and followed closely the structure of the PMBOK Guide defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI, 1996, 2000). Most Masters programs in project management provided eight knowledge-based courses and an integrative project, course, or assignment resulting in the capacity to take an examination to receive professional certification. In essence this Masters-level education in project management was pitched at the same level as the certificate and commercial training in project management and covered largely the same material oriented around issues of “best practice.” The decision was made to differentiate the new program from these by focusing on developing “master” project managers capable of critiquing and revising “best practice.” The goal was to develop a program that encouraged the incoming student/practitioners to recognize and question the taken-for-granted assumptions that were considered doctrine in the area of project management.

The first curriculum decision was to break down the traditional boundaries between project management practices and design a four-course core that dealt with the eight topics of project management in an integrated fashion across the life cycle of the project. Instead of dealing with the topics of risk management and human resource management in isolation, these courses examine the interplay of managing these areas at various specific time frames in the project's life cycle. This approach allowed us to deal more rigorously with issues of paradox inherent in controlling the project while trying to maintain team spirit and drive during execution for example, or the trade-offs inherent in planning for risk management and the need to get started on something to show progress and maintain momentum at the start of the project and the interaction and change necessary over the course of the project. The second major decision was to share a “library” of four texts that would be referred to across all the courses. The texts were consciously chosen to provide different viewpoints on project management. The explicit contrasting of these different texts was meant to broaden the student's conception of what project management is and trigger sensemaking around how and why these different perspectives exist.

The courses are divided into eight lessons. Each week includes a list of readings from the required texts, additional recent academic and practitioner articles on the topic, and class notes drawing out the key issues and directing the student's reading activities. The weekly assignment entailed using the readings and theories to explain the student's experience with the topic under discussion and raise questions for discussion. Each student completed this assignment and then engaged in critique and exploration with other members of the class and the faculty member to flesh out the issue. Students are encouraged to participate regularly (if they don't pass participation, they fail the course) and to be respectful but frank and critical of ideas, situations, and theories. The faculty member acts as a coach/participant modeling questioning and critical reflection by seeding questions particularly around underlying assumptions, and avoiding being forced into the “expert” role as much as possible. Students are assessed as much for raising good questions and issues as for sharing theoretical or experiential insights. Each weekly “discussion” ends with a lessons learned discussion that provided synthesis and closure to the week's discussion at the same time that it raised additional issues for reflection.

Challenging boundaries between subject areas to deal with whole project process and presenting multiple perspectives through texts and readings serves to encourage the development of the “complicated understanding” of managing projects that serves as a base for critical reflection. Decentering the power roles in the classroom is facilitated by the technological separation of lecture from discussion participant. Students and coaches explicitly recognize that they are to learn together. All these processes problematize the traditional recipe like understanding of project management and encourage students to explore how and why theories work in various contexts that complexifies their understanding of their own experience and others. Further, the asynchronous online delivery provided for deep and thoughtful reflections on the issues under discussion. The explicit adoption of a sensemaking approach moved the discussion from that of formulaic management “best practices” to a messy and complicated discussion of managing.


For people teaching and working on project management professional development programs and other management programs, this paper has sought to raise some fundamental questions about the practice of managing projects and how as educators, we might conceptualize our role on professional development programs. In essence, since the people studying on these programs are all immersed in managing projects—as we know they are—then why as educators are we not more concerned with the process of managing? Perhaps our role as project management educators should be revised from a purveyor of project management knowledge to a facilitator and developer of critically aware and reflective practitioners who can determine which pieces of the knowledge created by management scholars are appropriate and actionable for their context. If this is the case, then we need to explore new (and not so new) approaches to teaching and dissertation design. This paper has presented two examples from project management programs that take seriously this new direction.

Alvesson, M., & Willmott, H. (1992). Critical theory and management studies: An introduction. In M. Alvesson & H. Willmott (Eds.), Critical management studies, pp. 1-20. London: Sage.

Arbaugh, J. B. (2000a). Virtual classroom versus physical classroom: An exploratory study of class discussion patterns and student learning in an asynchronous Internet based MBA course. Journal of Management Education, 24, 213-233.

Arbaugh, J. B. (2000b). An exploratory study of the effects of gender on student learning and class participation in an Internet based MBA course. Management Learning, 31, 503-519.

Baldwin, T. T., Bedell, M. D., & Johnson, J. L. (1997). The social fabric of a team based MBA program: Network effects on Student satisfaction and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 40, 1369-1397.

Bright, B. (1996). Reflecting on ‘reflective practice.’ Studies in the Education of Adults, 28 (2), 162-184.

Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (1998). Facilitating reflective learning in higher education. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education, Open University Press.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Harvard Business School Press.

Casey, D. (1993). Managing learning in organizations. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Checkland, P. (1989). Soft systems methodology. In J. Rosenhead (Ed.), Rational Analysis for a Problematic World (pp. 71-100). New York: Wiley.

Checkland, P. (1999). Soft systems methodology: A 30 year retrospective. New York: Wiley.

Cheit, E. F. (1985). Business schools and their critics. California Management Review 27 (3), 43-62.

Claxton, G. (1997). Hare brain, tortoise mind. London: Fourth Estate.

Duncan, W. (1993). The process of project management. Project Management Journal, 24, 3, 5.

Dehler, G. E. (1998). “Relevance” in management research: A critical reappraisal. Management Learning, 29(1), 69-89.

Dehler, G. E., Welsh, M. A., & Lewis, M. W. (2001). Critical pedagogy in the ‘new paradigm.’ Management Learning, 32 (4), 493-511.

Eccles, R., & Nohria, N. (1992). Beyond the hype: Rediscovering the essence of management. Harvard Business School Press.

Eraut, M. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. London: Falmer Press.

Fayol, H. (1949). General and industrial management. London: Pitman.

Feldman, M. (2000). Organizational routines as a source of continuous change. Organization Science, 11 (6), 611-629.

Fish, D., & Coles, C. (1998). Seeing anew: Understanding professional practice as artistry. In D. Fish & C. Coles (Eds.), Developing professional judgement in health care (pp. 28-53), Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Garratt, B. (2000). The learning organization. London: HarperCollins.

Giroux, H. A. (1981). Ideology, culture, and the process of schooling. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Giroux, H. A. (1997) Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling. Boulder, AO: Westview Press.

Haga, M., & Heitkamp, T. (2000). Bringing social work education to the prairie. Journal of Social Work Education, 36, 309-324.

Kretovics, M. and McCambridge, J. (2002) Measuring MBA student learning: Does distance make a difference? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 3(2), unpaginated. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/content/v3.2/kretovics.html May 11, 2004.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Levine, A. (2001). The remaking of the American university. Innovative Higher Education, 25, 253-267.

Mangham, I. (1990). Managing as a performing art. British Journal of Management, 1, 105-115.

Mangham, I., & Pye, A. (1991). The doing of managing. Oxford: Blackwell.

Moon, J. (1999). Reflection in learning and professional development. London: Kogan Page.

Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization. London: Sage.

Morgan, G. (1997). Images of organization (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Mulligan, R., & Geary, S. (1999). Requiring writing, ensuring distance learning outcomes. International Journal of Instructional Media, 26, 387-396.

Mutch, A. (2002). Applying the ideas of Bernstein in the context of in-company management education. Management Learning, 33(2), 181-197.

O‘Hanlon, N. (2001). Development, delivery, sand outcomes assessment of a distance course for new college studies. Library Trends, 59, 8-27.

Orlikowski, W. J. (1996). Improvising organizational transformation over time: A situated change perspective. Information Systems Research, 7, 63-92.

Phillips, M. R., & Peters, M. J. (1999). Targeting rural students with distance learning courses: A comparative study of determinant attributes and satisfaction levels. Journal of Education for Business, 74, 351-356.

Ponzurick, T., France, K. R., & Logar, C. (2000). Delivering graduate marketing education: An analysis of face to face versus distance education. Journal of Marketing Education, 22 (3), 180-187.

Prigogine, I. (1989). The philosophy of instability. Futures, 21, 396-400.

Reed, M., & Anthony, P. (1992). Professionalizing management and managing professionalization: British Management in the 1980s. Journal of Management Studies, 29(5), 591- 613.

Reynolds, M. (1998). Reflection and critical reflection in management learning. Management Learning, 29 (2), pp. 183-200.

Reynolds, M. (1999). Grasping the nettle: Possibilities and pitfalls of a critical management pedagogy. British Journal of Management, 9, 171-184.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflecting practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sparrius, A. (1994). You can't manage what you don't understand. Project Management Journal, 25(1), 25-34.

Stacey, R. (1996). Complexity and creativity in organizations. San Francisco: BerrettKoehler.

Sztompka, P. (1993). The sociology of social change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, J. (2000). Making sense of project management. Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Alberta.

Tsoukas, H., & Chia, R. (2002). On organizational becoming: Rethinking organizational change. Organization Science, 13(5), 567-585.

Vaill, P. (1989). Managing as a performing art. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vickers, G. (1965). The art of judgment: A study of policy making. London: Chapman and Hall.

Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weick, K. (1998). Improvisation as a mindset for organizational analysis. Organization Science, 9, 543-555.

Weigel, V. (2000). E-learning and the tradeoff between richness and reach in higher education. Change, 32(5), 10-15.

Winter, M. (2002). Management, managing and managing projects: Towards an extended soft systems methodology. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Department of Management Science, Lancaster University.

Winter, M., & Gale, A. (2003). Developing a new kind of dissertation for a flexible professional development programme [Curriculum Innovation Proposal]. Manchester Centre for Civil and Construction Engineering, UMIST, UK.

Winter, M., & Checkland, P. (2004). Management and managing: Making sense of managing in organizations. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Worley, R. B. (2000). The medium is not the message. Business Communication Quarterly, 63(3), 93-106.

  1. “Managing can be thought of as the process of organizing organization, it is the creation and maintenance of the practical meaning of organizational life.”

    Burgoyne, J. (1994). Managing by learning. Management Learning, 25 (1), 35-55.

  2. “There is nothing sophisticated in my mind about managing: managing is getting things to happen, that's all. The other day I offered to help a group of youngsters whose car would not start: ‘Do you want a hand?' I asked. They said, ‘No thanks—we can manage.’ When they said they could manage, they meant they could fix it, get it started—nothing more esoteric than that. I think it is a pity to make managing sound too complicated.”

    Casey, D. (1993). Managing Learning in Organizations. Open University Press.

  3. “Consider the scope of the idea of ‘managing’ anything. The project manager in an engineering company responsible for developing a new product, the doctor running an ear, nose and throat clinic, the single parent with a child of school age, the secretary of a trade union branch, the leader of a guerilla band, all these are ‘managers’ in the broad sense of the term. To ‘manage’ anything in everyday life is to try to cope with a flux of interacting events and ideas which unrolls through time. The ‘manager’ tries to ‘improve’ situations which are seen as problematical—or at least as less than perfect—and the job is never done (ask the single parent!) because as the situation evolves new aspects calling for attention emerge, and yesterday's ‘solutions’ may now be seen as today's ‘problems’.”

    Checkland, P., & Scholes, J. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. New York: Wiley.

  4. “At its simplest, managing is literally a ‘hands-on’ activity—the installation and maintenance of human systems to ensure control and performance from the operational, day-to-day work learning cycle.”

    Garratt, B. (2000). The Learning Organization. HarperCollins.

Author Contact Information

Dr Mark Winter
Lecturer in Project Management
Centre for Research into the Management of Projects
Project Management Division
Manchester Centre for Civil and Construction Engineering
United Kingdom
0161 200 5796
[email protected]

Dr Janice Thomas
Program Director, MBA in Project Management
Centre for Innovative Management
Athabasca University
[email protected]



Related Content