Rethinking the project management framework

new epistemology, new insights


Alberto Melgrati, ISTUD—Istituto Studi Direzionali SpA—Milano, Italy

Mario Damiani, PMP, ISTUD—Istituto Studi Direzionali SpA—Milano, Italy

The international management community is currently showing great interest in the methods and practices of project management (Kloppenborg and Opfer 2000). In parallel, scholars and researchers are paying closer attention to the theoretical and methodological framework on which the discipline is based. The obligatory referents for all these studies are the traditional project management handbooks and project management bodies of knowledge produced by the main professional associations in the field, which for around half a century have “laid down the law”on the subject: most notably, the Project Management Institute (PMI®); International Project Management Association (IPMA); Association for Project Management (APM) (Morris 2000, 91). What form does this official literature take, and what is its theoretical and ideological substrate?

Numerous studies on the matter have highlighted the systemic and prescriptive matrix of project management theory. Its dominant metaphors (“system,”“whole”) have been borrowed from classical theory, and especially from general systems theory (Packendorff 1994, 322; Kerzner 2001, 58–81; De Maio et al 1994, 10–11; Rosenau 1992, 153–161). Order and rationality have dominated half a century of normative theory on projects: a project is an “island of order” in the disorderly flux of organizational life (Dubinskas 1994, 363; Lampel 2001, 434); it is a “rationalistic dream” (Lundin 1995, 315) instrumental to demiurges of which little is given to us to know. The relationships between this system and the outside world are established by the delivery of the traditional formula “cost-time-quality” to the client, or by constant reference to the better known functionalist models of Lawrence and Lorsch (1967), and Burns and Stalker (1961) (Youker 1975; Morris 1998; Hobday 2001, 876); for the rest, there predominates an “inward-facing perspective,” a self-referential universe in which 1) the substantial purpose is one-dimensional and given, 2) human destiny is fully controllable, and 3) the relations between subsystems are know or knowable at any rate beforehand (Eksted et al 1999, 56).

This project management ideology has a number of historical architraves. The first is its traditional anchoring in system engineering methods and relative tools: Gantt charts, critical path method, program evaluation and review technique, resource leveling heuristics, and so on (Morris 1998). Given the difficulty to make evident a never-clarified set of competencies, and with category legitimation still ongoing, project management is sometimes entirely identified with this “Boîte à outils” as the only repository of know-how both visible and extraneous to other forms of managerial knowledge (Ulri and Ulri 2000, 21).1 Another persistent reference is the focus on planning processes, broken down and analyzed with extensive recourse to rational decision-making and to the open systems model, as evidenced by the structuring of the field undertaken by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – 2000 Edition (Project Management Institute 2000, 33): very rigorously, thought always precedes action, planning always precedes execution, and decisions are always grounded on a solid body of analysis (Eksted et al 1999, 40; Packendorff 1995, 322). A final cornerstone of project management ideology is its strictly linear and monolithic conception of project time (Lundin-Söderholm 1995, 440) exemplified by its constant reliance on the concept of “project life cycle,” besides the scheduling techniques and reticular analysis mentioned above.

The theoretical-epistemological foundations of project management ideology are extremely solid. Nonetheless there is no lack of criticisms of this theoretical corpus, and they can be used to focus on certain fundamental contradictions that have been frequently pointed out in its structural scheme.

Rhetoric versus Empirical Evidence

Recent studies of mainly neo-institutionalist stamp have highlighted a number of counter-intuitive aspects to the main management fashions of the past decade: benchmarking, lean management, business process re-engineering, total quality management, and so on. These studies share a suspicion that—despite deploying a generic politically correct lexicon of innovation and change—these methods in practice recycle old but still valid recipes from the scientific management of yesteryear. Thus “comparison with the best-in-world” may take the form of Taylor’s scientific experiment (Walgenbach and Hegerel 2001, 128), or the promised “obliteration” of the past may conceal a literal reformulation of Adam Smith’s industrial paradigm (Grint et al 1996, 53). The “tour de force” is almost entirely rhetorical (Kieser 1997; Zbaracki 1998), while the organizational structure and the top management that propose it are unaffected by the changes evoked; indeed, they are often reinforced both physically and institutionally, which gainsays the method’s claims that it can achieve radical transformations (Grint 1998) and, on the contrary, strengthens some forms of “normative” control over the middle management (Kunda 1992, 11–13). Project management does not yet seem to have been influenced by these criticisms. Nevertheless the suspicion is growing; in fact, the method is decidedly in vogue and has assumed the “universal”connotations to which fashions typically aspire (Walgenbach and Hegele 2001, 125). Even more typical is its promise of “dramatic improvements” along the three famous axes of time, cost, and quality (Zbaracki 1998, 602). Moreover and especially—another typical feature of the managerial fashions (Wilmott and Wray-Bliss 1996, 83; Walgenbach and Hegele 2001, 122)—it fails to generate empirical results (Packendorff 1995, 325).

Project Autonomy versus Organizational Chronarchy

Not only there is a lack of empirical results, but also “practitioners themselves … openly admit that they do not practice what they preach” (Eksted et al 1999, 57). The gap between theory and practice is sometimes obvious. For example, one of the main claims of the discipline is that it fosters debureaucratization, horizontality, interfunctionality, downward delegation, and extended teamwork. Instead, however, the strong theoretical and applied prescriptiveness of its methods seems in practice to generate close connivance and compliance with the bureaucratic culture of large firms, insulating their permanent structures against the destabilizing impact of projects (Leroy 1996, 114). Moreover, the theory’s traditional claim that it is able to reduce project complexity to the unidimensionality of Gantt charts and reticular models relates to another process implicit in the application of these techniques: the linearization, homogenization, and eternalization of time and of chronological codes (Eksted et al 1999, 41), on the basis of an iron temporal discipline which reflects the strengthening of the hierarchy and the bureaucracy (Hassard 1996, 583; Carlisle and Manning 2000, 157; Butler 1995, 936). A recent longitudinal study has highlighted the crucial importance of autonomy in the managing of time by project teams and the ineffectiveness of the traditional centralized systems used to account for time in a project work environment (Nadhakumar and Jones 2001, 194; 209–13). Despite this evidence, attention still focuses on a “clock time” which grows increasingly uniform and pervasive, and through the use of project management software increasingly powerful and—typically—assailed by criticism (White and Fortune 2001, 9), and on the statistical construction of temporal inventories in order to standardize estimation processes, for example in the software and construction sectors: typical symptoms of temporal homogenization and the centralization of bureaucratic control (Clark 1992, 152).

Island of Order versus Iron Cage

The “splendid isolation” of project theory from other organizational disciplines reflects the conceptual separation introduced between the project task and its context. The “rationalistic dream” pursued so vigorously by theorists and practitioners arises—to use Weber’s celebrated distinction (1922, I.II.IX)—from an overall decoupling of a functional rationality inherent in means, procedures, and modes from a substantial rationality relative to (unfathomable) purposes. Numerous researchers have stressed the difficulty of providing empirical evidence for this position. The contradiction is indeed self-evident, when one recalls one of the main reasons for the spread of project management in companies, namely environmental complexity and uncertainty (Project Management Institute 2000, 11; Kerzner 1992, 1) and exposure to external change (Morton 1983, 536). The decoupling of project from its context is considered pernicious per se, in that it prevents understanding of the causes of the majority of its occurrences (Weick 1990, 33). Kreiner has proposed in this regard the concept of “drifting environment,” emphasizing that the large amount of tacit knowledge implicit in projects, the ambiguity of numerous experiences and the complexity of the system of internal-external relations, constantly undermine the rationally planned mechanism and its presuppositions (Kreiner 1995, 337). Turner, in his celebrated analysis of complex projects that end in disaster, has emphasized the severe risks attendant on the closure and arbitrary self-referentiality of projects with respect to an enigmatic environment and an uncertain task, as well as the culpability of stakeholders who neglect important forms of tacit knowledge present in complex systems (Turner 1997, 18; 49–50; 63–66). In short, the Cartesian clarity of inner structures clashes with the increasing porosity of projects to complex contexts that they seek to deny (Ulri and Ulri 2000, 28). The risk, in short, is that the idealistic “island of order” may suddenly turn into a more realistic, very classic, “iron cage.”

Standardization versus Uniqueness

“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service” (Project Management Institute 2000, 4). To what extent, one may ask, is it possible to think of a unitary discipline and a standard body of knowledge if the output from a project is by definition “unique?” In its constant effort to institutionalize practices, project management is currently ranked alongside other professional disciplines like law, medicine, accounting, and so on (Project Management Institute 2000, 3). The effort to achieve professional legitimacy is currently undertaken by unifying project management lexicons and glossaries, standardizing project knowledge and skills, and providing a role certification by professional associations (Morris 2001). Such effort is confirmed and indeed encouraged by recent surveys (Kloppenborg et al 2000, 55). It should be pointed out this effort is made by societies and companies which sell projects (engineering, ICT, services, construction, and so on) and are therefore not the primary customers or sponsors. In all these cases, projects—more easily (?) separable from the client and from the context—are the basis of the core business and consequently comprise a large amount of output, processes, and routine activities. Lundin and Söderholm have rightly pointed out that most current project theorizing focuses precisely on these “repetitive tasks” (Lundin and Söderholm 1995, 452), an observation that can be taken in two ways:

•  Project management ideology does not cover all project phenomena.

•  Project management ideology is paradoxical, because it focuses on repetitive aspects and “marginalizes” the uniqueness and originality that should instead characterize the project.

Research Hypothesis

The hypothesis of the study, described in following sections, sprang from a desire to foster the evolution of the disciplinary standards of project management by removing some of the contradictions highlighted above. It was founded on the conviction that, although the theoretical project management framework, in its present form, is unanimously and internationally endorsed, it is not sufficient to explain or understand project events in their entirety; and that it has, moreover, a number of weaknesses which—without a radical rethinking of its epistemological bases—will be difficult to improve in the future.

The approach used for the study consequently comprised the following aspects:

•  Its epistemological orientation was subjective; it postulated that “a reality cannot be known since all knowledge is mediated by direct experience” (Hatch 1999, 48).

•  Hence it follows that—according to this approach—no social or organized event are subject to immutable laws or rules gradually uncovered by observation independent of/external to the event; rather, it acquires and constructs its meaning and logic internally, through the interaction and meaning-production of the actors that take part in it.

•  The phenomenon of principal interest was the project as an entity in itself; accordingly, the approach draws on recent theory on projects as temporary systems (Goodman and Goodman 1976; Lundin and Midler 1998; Eksted et al 1999). In consequence of the two previous points, a project was understood to be, not an organizational system objectively endowed with laws and principles, but a temporary social construct, arising from interaction among the specific interests, knowledges, and cultures of the actors participating in it.

The choice of this “socio-constructive” approach determined the research method used. In this regard, a qualitative survey was conducted according to the principles of the multiple case study and employing the participant observation method.

In the sections that follow, we shall describe the research setting and present the main findings of the study carried out using this approach. We shall then seek to correlate these findings with the current theoretical mainstays of project management, suggesting ways to revise or adjust the project management ideology in socio-constructive terms. The reference text for our analysis will be the PMI’s PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute 2000), and, more specifically, the theoretical premises set out in the three chapters that describe the “Project Management Framework” (Project Management Institute 2000, 3–38). This text will be treated as a “touchstone,” given its wide circulation (it is in fact by far the most widely used text on the discipline in the world) and its importance as a cognitive and epistemological frame for project management. Moreover, it is the base-text most widely used worldwide for the certification of professional skills in project management.

Research Setting

The research was conducted in one company, the Italian subsidiary of a multinational group operating in the food and drinks sector (henceforth, PAP). The distinctive features of this company are its great productive and operational flexibility and its almost unique ability, as part of the group, rapidly to produce and test product and process innovations. In order to enhance these distinctive features, PAP has recently undertaken a complex program to develop project management skills among a group of middle managers, in order to acquire increasing responsibilities for specific and temporary tasks. As part of this program, fifteen “pilot projects,” which started on different dates and lasted for around one and a half years, were monitored longitudinally by means of participant observation.

The “rules of the game” were minimal. Each project was launched by a sponsor role, almost always performed by the company’s management team (which consisted of the managing director and the department/business area managers). The setup was the one habitually used at the company: a project manager was appointed for each pilot project, and the management suggested the members of an interfunctional project team. Before the projects were selected, all participants attended a training session on the principles and main tools of project management.

Each project group had an external counselor, to give methodological support for the management process and help with the decisions that arose from time to time. No meeting agendas were fixed beforehand, only the requirements and constraints of the project sponsors were applied. Pilot projects were chosen according to two main criteria:

•  The urgency of a project’s output for various aspects of PAP’s business, as testified by the management team at informal meetings.

•  Conformity with the project definition provided by the PMBOK® Guide (“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service,” Project Management Institute 2000, 4).

Examples of projects are the following:

•  Innovation and internalization of the packaging of a lead product, including analysis of suppliers, implementation of a new bottling line and the development of new skills.

•  Implementation of a new information system in order to redefine sales order processing and achieve closer integration with corporate information systems.

•  Analysis of nonquality costs on production lines and implementation of a system to monitor such costs throughout the plant.

•  Launch of a new product line.

•  Feasibility analysis of a general revision of layout and movement systems.

•  Increased integration of suppliers through a web-based system.

•  Needs/wastage analysis of a raw material and proposals for revising/recasting the problem from both the technological point of view and that of supplies.

•  Implementation of a new pallet labeling system.

•  Implementation of a new laboratory monitoring system.

•  Process redefinition relative to all the company’s brand change processes.

Throughout the duration of each project, the team, the project manager, and the sponsor was observed—and sometimes interviewed—by an ISTUD researcher during the state-of-progress meetings. As a consequence of the approach used, the work practices of the project teams were analyzed and described not on the basis of their greater or lesser conformity with category standards or project management policies that might apply in the organization, but rather by respecting the intrinsic features of individual projects as much as possible, and by recording their ongoing development, without imposing the use of specific tools or methods.


This section describes some of the main findings arising from the field observation of the fifteen pilot projects undertaken by PAP. Particular attention was paid during the observation to behaviors or events that displayed two essential characteristics:

•  Recursiveness: the feature observed was shared by several projects.

•  Relevance to the research topic: the feature confirmed or questioned the concepts expressed in the theoretical premises of the PMI’s PMBOK® Guide set out in the three chapters of the “Project Management Framework” (Project Management Institute 2000, 3–38).

Now described are the five main areas for reflection which emerged from analysis of the cases.

Project or Nonproject?

The first general finding concerns the concept itself of “project,” and how it was interpreted in ways that were at odds with the standard definition provided by the PMBOK® Guide.The interpretative problem began to emerge when— as a consequence of launching the pilot projects—numerous other initiatives came to be viewed as “projects”: for instance, the installation of a PDM software, revision of the traceability of production processes, installation of a bridge, and so on. The distinction between what “is” a project and what is not grew ambiguous. At first, any initiative that minimally departed from routine was informally considered to be a project. However, this criterion proved unsatisfactory because of the enormous number of cases both large and small. Thereafter, many of those involved began to question the effective indicators of the “existence” of the project. The suggestions were mainly of formal nature (appointment of a project management, existence of a project charter, communication of the initiative to the management team, and so on), but they were not enough to define a shared behavior.

On the other hand, the fifteen pilot projects themselves created not a few ambiguities. Three of them were concluded very rapidly, and displayed no “uniqueness” with respect to other organizational phenomena, or they closed down because of unforeseeable circumstances. In three other cases, the deadlines were constantly postponed until they disappeared from formal documents, thereby creating a more or less invisible routine in the company’s various departments. In yet other cases, despite the conformity of project events with the definitions given, the team’s methods and behavior were entirely “normal,” both because of the influence of the functional referents and because of their operating style, so that in some cases they even raised doubts about the real substance of the discipline: “There’s also a lot of rhetoric in these methods. In the end, it’s just one more way to do the same thing.”

Amid these doubts as to the real substance of the phenomenon and those on the effective originality of its organization, therefore, the overall framing of the PAP projects was constantly an open question. However, there are no indicators that enable verification the influence—positive or negative—of these difficulties on the real business performance of the company, which during the period analyzed constantly increased its production volumes and sales.

Project Outcomes …

Also from the point of view of project outcomes, the cases analyses yielded numerous and sometimes paradoxical scenarios. A recurrent feature was a contrasting perception of a project’s output among the stakeholders. For example, during the execution stage of one pilot project, the sponsor, the technical director of PAP, reminded the team of the result that they had been required to produce: a correlation index between the requirement and consumption of a given raw material. Unfortunately, also present at the meeting was the managing director of PAP, who intervened to point out that the project was part of a much broader scenario, and that the team was asked to examine the feasibility of opening a new production site! In two other cases, feasibility projects yielded certain process/product features as the results expected, which obviously concerned the entire execution and delivery process but were not within the project team’s remit. In a fourth project, the definition of project outcomes was altered at least five times, achieving its definitive version only two months before the end of the project. In at least three other cases, when the definitive outputs were presented on conclusion of the project, substantial changes had been made to the initial hypotheses. It is to be noted that, in all cases, the tangible outcomes of the projects were described and documented. However:

•  The details almost always emerged gradually, also as a result of the “exploration” conducted by a team as it immersed itself in the “problem”: only in one case, the project outcomes were defined on a single occasion.

•  Very often, both the team and the project sponsor used ambiguous language replete with expressions like “optimization,” “greater flexibility,” “overall efficiency improvement,” and so on, behind which the operational result could be largely interpretable by different project participants; this was a behavior very similar to that described by Jackall with reference to decision-making in innovative or risky settings (Jackall 1988, 77–79).

… and Project Success

The ambiguity of the concrete results of the projects was paradoxically reflected in the success (and ultimately the meaning) of the projects themselves. In this case too, there were only very rare cases in which a project’s success was univocally interpreted. Indeed, these were some cases that verged on the paradoxical. Two antithetical examples follow.

•  Project 1.This project—innovation and internalization of the packaging process of one of the group’s lead products (here called “Scubidù”)—was set up on the initiative of PAP Corporate and therefore concerned the entire company. A pilot project had already been begun in England and was due to finish shortly. The general objectives were challenging: as regards costs (amongst other things, a 60 percent reduction in serigraphy costs, with an envisaged payback period of six to eight months), time schedules (activation of the new process within six months at an outside contractor’s plant, within a further five months at PAP), and technical aspects (achieving perceived qualitative identity between the old serigraphed package and the new technology one). The sponsor of the project was the head of the business area responsible for Scubidù. It was his task to liaise between the local project and the corporate client. The project manager was a member of the logistics department who handled all the engineering, development, and procurement activities.“The hope is that the heads of the project will raise challenges for the sponsor, acting autonomously to propose solutions,” proclaimed the sponsor. The project was completed on schedule, with costs and contents largely as envisaged. A great success, therefore. But the team was highly critical and disappointed; in particular the project manager, who complained about excessive interference by the sponsor (“It sometimes seems that he only comes to meetings for our sake, because he then decides anyway”) and left the company after some months. Three months after the end of the project, PAP sold Scubidù in its entirety, despite the predicted payback indexes.

•  Project 2. A team comprising resources from various departments—production, logistics, purchases, finance—was set up to study proposals to alter the layout of a factory in order to optimize some critical palletizing and conveying processes. The management team initially set rather vague and generic criteria for success, given that it had an exploratory mandate. Moreover, the project accumulated a delay of three months on the scheduled nine, and, as it proceeded, the management team repeatedly revised the initial assumptions, sometimes distorting them. However, the final presentation was euphoric. On the one hand, the members of the team had been able to study production processes from a global point of view, rediscovering the company for which they worked. Other team members saw the project as enabling them to address interfunctional problems with other areas, and as finally releasing them from the monolithic dominance of their departments. Amongst other things, the project had trialed a new procurement system with PAP’s suppliers and a new method for the analysis of production flows—developments which were not planned but which were in-house successes. The sponsor and the management team were equally satisfied with the organizational response and the support provided by the project, in effect conditioning and determining important future decisions.

Here as elsewhere, a socio-constructive approach immediately highlights how perceptions of the success of a project are varying, and—especially—how the sense of success depends on the influence of individual stakeholders. As recently affirmed, “a stakeholder approach implies that the criteria for project success are themselves contestable” (Bonke and Winch 2000, 207). This is confirmed by some, more or less recent, field research studies (Goodman and Goodman 1972, 104; De Fillippi and Arthur 1998, 133). A tentative model to explain the so-called project success criteria in socio-constructivist terms, including the measures of the team performance and personal success of team members, has been proposed by Hoegl and Gemuenden (2001, 438).

Prevalence of the Definition over Planning

A feature shared by the fifteen pilot projects was the distinctive relationship apparent between the set-up phase and the planning phase. In this regard, the findings of the empirical analysis are of great significance because they show how the importance assigned to these processes was reversed with respect to the disciplinary standards set by PMI. In other words, in all cases (apart from two projects which, as said, were concluded very rapidly), the project teams invested much more time and energy in increasing definition of the project than in planning its activities.

On the one hand, this reversal reflects the scant and sporadic use of planning tools by the project groups. This is all the more significant if one bears in mind that all the groups had received specific training in this regard. Form another point of view, when planning tools were indeed used, they were so in ways that seem counter-intuitive. For example, work breakdown structures were employed in only two cases (and in one of them, they were only used after the implementation stage). Again, a Gantt chart and the project management software were used by four projects, and in at least three of them, they were used in a manner that reflects the outcomes of actions rather than preceding them. This aspect is crucial because it seemingly contradicts the standard models of rational decision-making. It reveals a pattern where—given the conditions of uncertainty and uniqueness that surround projects—the role of planning is no longer that of anticipating/structuring future activities but that of rationalizing and constructing the meaning of ones undertaken in the immediate past. This interpretation, for that matter, closely matches theoretical notions (planning as symbolic action, the concept of emergent strategy, and so on) put forward in other disciplinary areas of management science (see e.g., Weick 1987; Mintzberg 1990).

Planning versus Strategy

Opposite to the scant use made of planning tools and processes, is the emphasis placed by the groups about the definition and redefinition of the project mandates. It should be immediately pointed out that this emphasis was a direct consequence of the structural features of the projects, namely their uniqueness and uncertainty. On at least two occasions, indeed, the project consisted almost entirely in constant mediation by the project team between the mandate formally defined by the client and the continually proposed or imposed modifications or additions to it (by the sponsor, the team, the managing director, or other managers). In some cases, the constant recalibration of the project scope extended to actors in other companies belonging to the group.

Amid this constant redefinition, the project teams on the one hand constantly questioned the reasons for the project tasks; on the other they were almost always able to propose their own definitions of viable processes and concrete deliverables, actively participating in the commitment and progressive “discovery” of the task. On the other hand, this pronounced shift in the project groups’ role and implicit characteristics reflects the empirical impossibility, in these cases, of considering projects as “tools,” as predefined “objectives” only waiting to be implemented by an agent.

Conclusion—Implications for Future Project Management Theorizing

First indispensable premise: this study has taken its principal research phenomenon to be projects as organized systems. It has therefore eschewed assessment of their actual impact on the business of the permanent organization, and in particular on the business of PAP, which was the company studied. In this regard, in line with the approach used, we can only report what was said on several occasions by the company itself (as personified by the managing director, top management or members of the project teams) about the contribution of project management and its results:

•  In general, projects were considered to be a driver of organizational flexibility.

•  Projects enabled closer cooperation among functions, although the functions often resisted or prevaricated projects, sometimes very successfully.

•  Many participants saw projects as an opportunity for visibility and organizational learning; on the other hand, they also saw projects as a commitment to be avoided like the plague, because they were often additional to (rather than substituting) ongoing activities.

•  It was widely believed that the company was “unable” to manage projects efficiently: the project teams frequently claimed that projects “are not managed well” by PAP’s top management, either because it was incapable or unwilling to do so: Moreover, in several cases, top managers in their turn said the same abut the managing director. 2

In any event, the parameters used to assess the efficacy of projects and project management for the company and its business were always indirect and—especially—qualitative. We have already pointed out that PAP achieved excellent results during the period considered, according to the business performance indicators adopted by top management. However, neither we nor the company were able to establish a correlation between this success and the evolution of project management at PAP.

Second, equally indispensable premise: this study has analyzed an extremely limited situation. The cases described (a single company examined in the light of fifteen pilot projects) were highly specific and probably yielded empirical results that cannot be easily systemized and extended to other contexts. We are well aware of this shortcoming. However, We shall try to formulate some generalizations of concepts arising from the inquiry, fully acknowledging their limitations, which are primarily due to the research approach used. These generalizations are based on examination of the fifteen PAP pilot projects (project temporariness, uniqueness of the project effort, criteria to define success and the results, planning, and project strategy). They are put forward as a first and summary systematization of proposals for possible revision of the PMI’s “Project Management Framework” in socio-constructive terms. We hope that they will be of some use for the forthcoming revision of the PMBOK® Guide scheduled for 2004.

Project Definition

The case analyzed highlighted a number of difficulties and ambiguities as regards project definition; these ambiguities have been analyzed from the theoretical point of view (Engwall 1998, 25). The basic definition proposed by the PMI is objective and fixes a set of fundamental coordinates (temporary endeavor, unique product/service) which on the one hand give very clear definition to the originality of the concept and its “otherness” with respect to other organizational concepts, but on the other do not seem easily applicable in practice because they lack univocality. This semantic ambiguity can be dealt with once and for all only if projects are put back in the hands of those who manage them; in other words, only if uniqueness and temporariness are considered not as abstract and self-evident concepts but rather as ones which—case by case—the project team experiences and verifies as such.

Paraphrasing the “Project Management Framework” (Project Management Institute 2000, 4), We propose that the definition of “project” can become “a temporary endeavor undertaken by a stakeholders concern in order to create a product or service which they perceive as unique.” In this formulation, the actual project acquires concrete form if and only if a group of stakeholders (client, sponsors, project team, and so on) come up against a “complex ill-structured problem [or opportunity]” (Turner 1997, 42; 50) which only with difficulty and partially can be modeled on previous operational or managerial routines and experiences.

Project Temporariness and Project Life Cycle

Another implication of a socio-constructive approach for the theory of project management specifically concerns the concept of temporariness. In the “Project Management Framework,” this concept too is objective, and it is explicitly tied to the so-called “project life cycle”:“The project life cycle serves to define the beginning and the end of a project” (Project Management Institute 2000, 12). It should also be noted that the project life cycle—as defined by the PMBOK® Guide—represents a restricted phase or series of phases of the product life cycle (Project Management Institute 2000, 12), and it is standardized or standardizable by vertical sectors (software, construction, pharmaceuticals, defense, and so on [Project Management Institute 2000, figures 2-1–2-5]). Hence it follows that the concept of project temporariness is tied mainly to the type of output achieved, not to the type of responsibility for it. Indeed, this responsibility—as happened in the cases analyzed and as is also apparent in the “Project Management Framework”—can be segmented between the beginning and the effective end of the project (Project Management Institute 2000, 3.2; figure 3-3), which implies that multiple “subprojects” and multiple project managers may alternate between the beginning and end of a particular project life cycle. Two risks ensue from this:

•  On the one hand, the overall “vision” of the project no longer pertains to the project manager but passes to the organization, which alone is effectively in charge of the project, from its beginning to its end.

•  On the other, the focus on a specific phase of the life cycle often gives rise to a monodisciplinary focus, and ultimately to a functional task. In other words, the risk is that the project manager may become a “powerless function coordinator” who, from the organizational point of view, likens the project work to a slightly more complicated and irksome routine. Instead, the project as an original organizational concept is dissipated in the rhetoric of bosses and consultants, who in this guise may entice the next candidates into the role of scapegoat.

Given this state of affairs, we propose that project temporariness should be considered, not an extrinsic feature (i.e., a part of the life of the products/services handled by permanent organizations) but rather and intrinsic one of the responsibility of those who have launched the project or run it. “The beginning and the end of a project” thus coincide not so much with some or other phase of the product life cycle as with the beginning and the end of the responsibility of a stakeholder concern with respect to an expected outcome (product/service). Note that a definition of life cycle linked more closely with the social context that manages it—and more detached from the production cycles of the vertical sectors—has already been proposed (Lundin and Söderholm 1995, 444–449).

If the temporariness of projects is interpreted in this sense, two theoretical consequences follow:

•  The unified responsibility for a product/service perceived as unique is, as a direct consequence, multidisciplinary and integrated responsibility. This is the great organizational innovation always preached by the project management ideology! In fact, since it is necessary to manage—in toto, from the beginning to the end—a set of activities whose outcome is “unique” (i.e., cannot be framed by previous competences), project responsibility must consequently be multi-disciplinary and collegial.

•  Moreover, since it is necessary to manage a complex endeavor from the beginning to the end, project time becomes, for the project team, not a linear chronological scale of absolute value to be “filled” moment by moment from t0 to tf,but rather the entire coordinated set of efforts, inventions, compromises, discoveries, and tactics necessary to fulfill the initial impulse. This matches the observations made during the case studies, whereby a project that “finished late” was not necessarily worse than one that finished “on time.” The judgement of a project’s temporariness was closely dependent on the judgement of its consistency with the motivations that engendered and sustained it.

Process Groups and Project Knowledge Areas: Focus on Concrete Systems

Besides the “project life cycle,” the PMBOK® Guide breaks project management activity down into five groups of main processes (initiating, planning, executing, controlling, closing) and into thirty-nine individual project processes. Each of these processes has its predefined inputs, and each of these inputs has equally predefined outputs. Fully thirty-six of these processes concern the planning, executing, and controlling phases, while only one concerns the definition (initiating) phase (Project Management Institute 2000, 38).

The empirical reality investigated reversed this relation: the groups spent much more time on defining and redefining (and on closing) their projects than on planning and controlling them. They had constantly to understand and reunderstand the scope of the project, to negotiate and renegotiate the definition of their mandate, to reconcile conflicting views (sometimes imposing them and sometimes accepting them). It was these activities that in practice seemed to be most specific to the project work. Compared to them, planning procedures seemed constantly to be of secondary importance, and in any case not necessarily standardizable.

We are convinced that this relationship between the overwhelming formal rationality of a project (planning, executing, controlling) and its infinitesimal substantial rationality (initiating, qualifying, defining, closing) should be revised, diminishing the impact of the former and giving greater emphasis to the latter through the legitimation of analytical tools that are not only rational but also political, institutional, strategic, cultural, and so on.

This can happen simply by shifting the research attention from planning-executing to initiating-qualifying processes (see e.g., Halman and Burger 2001). Or, once again, modifying the epistemological approach to projects: that is to say, by transforming the deterministic map of processes and knowledge areas (according to the input-activity-output model) into a concrete system,where the interactions between processes and the rules of the game are gradually defined by the players, and not once and for all by the manual. A good conceptualization of this concrete system seems to be that proposed by the political science strand of organization analysis (Crozier and Friedberg 1995, 115).3


Projects are born from a desire for change. They are in some sense the “armed wing” of change to an environment (prod-ucts/services, persons, customers, technology, competitors) in which a minor or major break in continuity is wanted (Leroy 1996, 119): a new package for a bottle changes the product’s margins and the bargaining power of the company with respect to its client; a new quality system changes internal routines; a new legal requirement compels revision of storage processes; a new Olympic event or a new nuclear power station disrupt a context which labors to accept the new “thing,” the unprecedented “event,” even though it greatly desired it.

This change, this uniqueness of effort, this innovation require a particular managerial role which the official theory cannot reduce to that of a planner-executor, of a white-collar worker intent on documenting and scheduling as not even in the Fordist factory. To prevent this happening, the epistemological level must be changed so that a project is not viewed as an objective and inevitably rational system, but rather as a concrete system where what matters are the impulses of those who have decided that they want change, where for example improvisation prevails over planning (Ciborra 1999, 87–91), and where the essence of the method and the profession lies the capacity to coordinate a substantial rationality constantly jeopardized by bureaucratic formalism and by the claims to omnipotence and atemporality of permanent organizations.

We close with a quotation from M. Crozier which perhaps sums up the type of project manager role that we hope will emerge in the future on consulting the pages of the “Project Management Framework”:

In his systemic vision of the world, the planner has no enemies, he is able to order everything rationally and unfailingly achieves his objectives by choosing good and large-scale means. But these means, especially when they are human, cannot be so easily bent to his purposes and in the end—fortunately—they jam the beautiful rational order. By contrast, the strategist knows that he must take account of the fact that the others may react to his actions. He therefore selects his objectives according to the means, resources and constraints available to him. He then pragmatically seeks to relax the constraints by cooperating in the best way possible with his resources. Put otherwise, whilst the commander sees nothing except his plan, the strategist relies on the reality of the terrain. (Crozier 1995, 19)


1. This process, moreover, has literal similarities with the one by which, at the beginnings of organization theory, mechanical engineers imposed themselves as a managerial category through the diffusion and legitimation of standards and procedures in the large corporations of the early twentieth century (Shenhav 1995).

2. In fact, the groups expressed themselves in two ways: 1) during the workshops they insisted that priority should be given to a method, as the universal solver of the problems of individuals and the company; 2) during actual work on the projects, they said that the company required better management at the top: better sponsors for the project team, a better managing director for the managers. The managing director made it clear that all PAP’s strategies depended on the company’s headquarters in England, and more in general that they were “constricted” by an extremely turbulent and schizophrenic market, full of cunning competitors lying in wait around every corner. On unpacking these nested interpretations, one may say that, in order for the company to manage projects efficiently, it required a market which was stable, placid and monopolistic.

3. There is a large body of literature on the political skills of the project manager (see e.g., Caramazza 1990; Pinto 1996). We would stress, however, that the “political ingredient” is not interpreted here as a corollary or accompaniment to the skills of a good project manager but as the foundation for the theory and tools of the Project Management Framework (where at present it has only a very marginal role).


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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002



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