Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty

by Sylvain Lenfle, Christoph Loch

Fall 2010

Volume 53
Issue 1

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The current discipline of project management is based on the model of the project life cycle or phased stage-gate approach to executing projects. This implies a clear definition of mission and system are given at the outset (to reduce uncertainty), and subsequent execution in phases with decision gates. It contrasts with the approach applied in the seminal projects that are credited with establishing the foundation of the discipline in the 1940s and 1950s. Those projects started out with missions that were beyond the currently possible; any solutions had to emerge over time. They succeeded by a combination of parallel trials (from which the best would then be selected) and trial-and-error iteration (allowing for the modification of solutions pursued over a period of time). Although the success of these approaches was well documented and explained by scientific study in the 1950s, today they seem to fly in the face of accepted professional standards, making managers uncomfortable when they are encountered. The project management discipline has been relegated to an "order taker niche" - the engineering execution of moderately novel projects with a clear mission. As a result, it has been prevented from taking center stage in the crucial strategic change initiatives facing many organizations today. The discipline of project management should be broadened in order to create greater value for organizations whose portfolios include novel and uncertain projects.

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