Henry Ford would tell you, Methodologies (PMI, Agile, PRINCE2, etc.), like History, are Bunk

RealityDr. Martin Luther King used to end speechs by quoting a prayer from an old slave preacher.  It’s an apt description of approaches to projects today: “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

On July 15 2008, PMI presented the finding of their four year, $3M study looking to see if project management added value. You can see their presentation here: PMI Presentation.  What did they find?  Dr. Janice Thomas and Mr Mark Mullaly found what most of us know; PM is messy, painful and immature, but what are the alternatives?

PMI, Agile and PRINCE2 all try and provide methodologies or frameworks to increase the chances of project success.  This is difficult as projects often pull people from different departments together to work on a project. While that is what the project requires to be successful, what does that mean for the people pulled from the different departments? Is the project of primary importance to them or is what’s happening in their department of primary importance?

Business in Silos
When the modern corporation was formed, different departments were organized around specific functions. Accounting, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Operations and even IT all had separate requirements, required different skills and had different, recognizable purposes. These departments offered structure, communications channels and common ground which was the basis for working.

Large projects rarely fit in any of those silos.  People are drawn from across the organization, often temporarily, to work on that one project. Where is the common ground or structure?  Where does their loyalty lay?  Can any externally supplied methodology or framework replace corporate power, communication and funding structures?

What is Project Management?
According to the PMBOK guide, “Project Management is accomplished through the application and integration of the project management processes of initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling and closing.”

Whether constructing a building, making dinner or developing software; there are processes that will help one be more successful. At its core, that is project management.

Different Industries are Different
Is the process for constructing a building the same as the process for making dinner? Is it even similar to the process for developing software? No, the processes must be different. Are the skill sets required to succeed at each step similar? No, safety concerns in construction are obviously different from cleanliness concerns in cooking or compiler concerns in software.

Can the Processes in One Make you Better in Another?
The roots of project management probably come from construction. The Romans realized foundations were needed before building walls and roofs. Specialized skills and the coordination between them are as appearant in the Roman Coliseum as in a modern sky scrappers.

At a very generic level, the ideas of critical paths, deadlines and dependencies may cross industries, but do the specialized skills to be successful in each area align? No. Safety concerns in construction are paramount. Cranes falling in Houston are catastrophic to that project, but not a concern to someone running a restaurant. Cleanliness hopefully is an overriding concern to the restaurant owner, but unfortunately isn’t so critical to software developers.

Are the Methodologies Bunk?

History is bunk.  What difference does it make how many times the ancient Greeks flew their kites? — Henry Ford (Source: NYT, October 28 1921, p. 1)
The methodologies can be a starting point, but too often its easier to focus on the methodological steps rather than thinking long and hard about what is happening on the project and the future.

  • What is the business environment your company is working in?
  • How is that environment changing?
  • What is happening inside the business?
  • What is the state of the project?
  • Where does it need to go?
  • What needs to happen to get it there?

Maybe they are not bunk, but rather like training wheels.
About the Author


AndrewMeyerAndrew Meyer studied systems and industrial engineering before spending fifteen years implementing global IT and Business Process Re-Engineering projects. Frustrated with seeing communication issues hurt projects, he returned to get his MBA from the University of Southern California and focused on project communications and risk management. To apply this to real-world problems, Andrew founded the Capability Alignment Professionals (http://www.CompanyAlign.com), which is dedicated to aligning incentives and improving communications. For more of his writing, check out his blog Inquiries Into Alignment (http://alignmentinquiries.blogspot.com/)

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2 thoughts on “Henry Ford would tell you, Methodologies (PMI, Agile, PRINCE2, etc.), like History, are Bunk”

  1. Doug,

    thanks, you’re very right. I’ve thought about the movie analogy and our thinking is similar. To me, making a movie is similar. One difference being that a movie is an entire project without a business around it. Everything comes together for the movie.

    In a business, people are pulled from other parts of the business. The project is temporary, the parts of the business are permanent. Whether this works well or badly goes a long way toward determining if the project will succeed or not.

    Thanks for the comment and the little thought vacation.

  2. Andrew,

    I really like how you touched on the history of Business in Silos. Indeed, since the industrial revolution, widgets have often been made using an assembly line mentality. Yet projects are by nature cross-functional and require specialized trades to get the work done. This is not unlike the movie industry where the “talent” comes together for a “season” to produce a film, then disbands until the next gig comes along. History may be bunk, but movies – and project management when done right – are very cool. Doug

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