The Metaphysical Questions Every Project Practitioner Should Ask

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Lavagnon A. Ika, Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Christophe N. Bredillet, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Quebec, Canada

img   ABSTRACT

KEY WORDS

Project Metaphysics
Project Management Style
Ontology

This article contends that project practitioners become so familiar with the word “project” that they think about it more in terms of how they use it, than in terms of what it really is. This article seeks to contribute a subtler understanding of project management practice, and hopes to inspire project practitioners to understand how their metaphysical stance influences their project management style. In particular, a thing-based stance leads to a planned project management style, and a process-based stance leads to an emergent management style. Both styles can be combined.

img   THE PROBLEM

“A project can be seen as a product, a purpose, a goal…, a process, a change, a concept, a story, an organizing device, a problem-solving approach, a practice, a set of tasks, a cost, an anticipation… of the future, and/ or any combination of these.”

There is an assumption about the reality of projects. However, project practitioners, organizations, stakeholders, and society in general, have different views that come from their particular perspectives. A project can be seen as a product, a purpose, a goal (technical, individual, collective, existential), a process, a change, a concept, a story, an organizing device, a problem-solving approach, a practice, a set of tasks, a cost, an anticipation (temporal or spatial) of the future, and/ or any combination of these.

Most project practitioners think they know what a project is and what it is not, in the same way that they know what is in and out of the project's scope. Project management textbooks often pin this down right at the beginning, or discuss it when speculating about project characteristics. Thus, project practitioners are likely to read that a project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”, or “a time and cost constrained operation to realize a set of defined deliverables up to quality standards and requirements”, or “a unique set of processes consisting of coordinated and controlled activities with start and end dates, performed to achieve project objectives”. But such unquestioned definitions of the word project are not enough to avoid confusion and ambiguity in professional practice

img   THE METHOD

In this article the authors examined three metaphysical questions: Is there such a thing as the project being managed? What's most real in the project? What's a project anyway? Then the authors identified two mindsets in the understanding of projects and project management: 1) thing-based understanding; and 2) process-based understanding.

img   FINDINGS AND PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

“Project practitioners should play with the two metaphysical worldviews. For instance, embracing a process view during the project front end (where the future is invented), and shifting to a thing view during the project execution.”

For “thing-based understanding”, projects are fundamentally seen as a constellation of “things”: intrinsically enduring and concrete substances and entities that exist independently of other things. Projects thus represent a collection of unique processes in which “a process is a structure of activities that produces an identifiable output”. However, these are merely transformation processes in the sense that change means something that happens to things and that only happens at certain points. Here, planning is considered the essence of project management, which is all about the life-cycle management of the project. Thus, a planned project management style prevails.

For “process-based understanding of project and project management” projects are fundamentally a constellation of processes, not things. In this context, change is not merely something that happens to things, not a mere alteration in the properties of enduring things in the project, but rather a sequence of states, with much internal coherence to give us the impression of one continuous thing. A project is ultimately that which emerges, flows, develops, grows, and changes. Thus, the focus on how processes emerge, develop, grow, and terminate, or in other words, how they unfold over time. The objective of project management is no longer just about getting the job done but about making the best of the project's larger process: the context. Here, the process of “managing” takes control and the essence of project management shifts to understanding the context from both the project team and stakeholder points of view. Managing is all about constantly coping with a plurality of objectives, needs, expectations, rationales, uncertainties, complexities, urgencies, chaos, and emerging context. Thus, an emergent project management style dominates and chance, happenstance, and unintended consequences shape project success or failure.

Table 1 summarizes both mindsets. There is not a best position. Practitioners should follow whatever fits them best with their best project management practice. Furthermore, whatever their metaphysical position, project practitioners cannot avoid the other end of the spectrum. Indeed, subscribing to one metaphysical position does not impede the other to emerge anyway.

The article suggests that project practitioners should play with the two metaphysical worldviews. For instance, embracing a process view during the project front end (where the future is invented), and shifting to a thing view during the project execution.

Table 1. Contrasting perspectives for project and project management: Thing vs Process metaphysics

Aspects of Projects/ Project Management Thing Metaphysics Process Metaphysics
What a project is Projects are fundamentally things Projects are fundamentally processes
What project management is Planning Engaging context, including stakeholders
What the composition and/or characteristics of a project are Inputs, outputs, structures; scopes, models Concepts, names or labels; assumptions; expectations; flux of things; events; occasions of experience
Function of project management 'Management-as-planned' philosophy 'Managing and organizing' philosophy
Purpose of project management Getting things done Making the best of the evolving context
Project success (definition, criteria) Time, cost, specifications Symbolic and rhetorical assessments of a project by stakeholders
Success and failure causes 'Weak links,' poor planning, poor implementation, inadequate resources, etc. 'Missed opportunities,' chance, happenstance, unintended consequences
Style of project management Planned Emergent
How does one create and use the project plan Logic-scientific mode, variance models (plan, uncertainty reduction, optimization, first-order complexity) Narrative mode, qualitative accounts (initial conditions and emergence, understanding patterns, holistic understanding, second-order complexity)
Underlying paradigm Efficiency, rationality, objectivity, stability, transformation, reductionism, planning Uncertainty, complexity, politics, change, improvisation, creativity, managing
Style of thinking Analytical thinking Holistic thinking

img   FULL CITATION

Ika L, Bredillet C. The Metaphysical Questions Every Project Practitioner Should Ask. Project Management Journal, June/July 2016. Volume 47, Number 3.

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From Academia: Summaries of Research for the Reflective Practitioner | April 2016

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