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September 29, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 9


The volume of complex project work is exploding around the world, and organizations are looking for new ways to accelerate professional development to meet their needs, according to Human Systems founder Dr. Terry Cooke-Davies.

Terry Cooke-Davies is one of the leading thinkers in the field of project management. He first discovered project management as a small business owner in the late 1960s, and he went on to earn a Ph.D. in the field. He is the founder and Executive Chairman of Human Systems, a UK-based project management consultancy, and he hold academic appointments as a Professor of Project Management at ESC Lille School of Management, and a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University.

ATA: You have been in the project management field for 40 years. What do you see as the trends shaping the discipline today?

Terry Cooke-Davies: I think there are at least three. One is that more and more businesses are discovering that work is done in a project form, so there is a massive demand for people who understand basic disciplines around project management. I see that fueling, for example, the very large growth in the number of PMPs (PMI’s Project Management Professional certification), the massive sale of standards, and so on.

The second trend I see is that that’s actually not enough — that organizations that have any kind of complexity in their programs and projects need something that is quite different from that standardized, credentialed world. I think that because that has been neglected, they’re now striving for ways to catch up on the years that they’ve lost. In a sense, project management was born in a world of systems. The management system and the product being developed in programs like Atlas and Polaris were intimately connected, and the project manager understood systems thinking, and developed the management system that was necessary to manage the project. In the meantime, systems engineering and systems studies in the sciences have moved on a lot, whereas project management hasn’t moved on at the same pace. I think it’s time to reconnect the disciplines of systems with projects so that we can get a more sophisticated understanding of what’s involved in managing these very complex programs and projects.

The third trend is that there’s massive growth in project management research and education around the world. There are a large number of universities offering master’s degrees (in project management). I see the academic discipline of project management struggling to find a theoretical basis to it, with an awful lot of research that is little more than opinion surveys, but with quite a lot of people also doing really serious work to understand the basis of project management theory. I think where the academy fits in is that it’s really showing the way to take the more grown-up and joined-up view of what managing projects is all about.

ATA: What do you see as the connection between general management theories and project management theory?

TCD: That’s a tough one. I think that theories of management don’t sufficiently recognize the difference between work done as projects and work done as transactions and operations. Management theory has grown up around certain well-known disciplines like strategic management, marketing management, financial management, operations management, and organizational development. Somehow project management fits in as a sub-branch of operations management, where actually project management is half of the whole lot — it’s about doing strategic management, marketing management, financial management, and so on, in a project environment, as opposed to doing it all in an ongoing transactional business environment.

ATA: Why do you think that a number of project-based organizations around the world are moving toward creating in-house project academies?

TCD: They don’t have enough competent, qualified, senior people to deliver the necessary complex programs and projects that they need if they’re going to deliver their strategy. There just aren’t enough around. I think people are looking for ways for accelerating professional development and integrating that development.

ATA: Your organization is in the process of conducting a benchmarking study of project academies from around the world. What are some of the elements that robust project academies have in common?

TCD: What’s emerging is a clear recognition that classroom courses are a necessary but relatively minor part of the whole suite of activities. The better academies are recognizing the need to integrate what’s done in the academy with learning from experience, and the need to involve management. It has to be a strategic initiative supported by senior management. It can’t be something that’s delegated to a function like HR to manage on behalf of the company. I think there’s a real connection between the organization’s strategy and the goals of the project academy. There’s also a real recognition that the alumni of the project academy are the project management community — it’s a link between the management profession within the organization and the academy. There’s a general recognition of the importance of assessing results, without any general agreement yet as to how you do it, beyond the relatively trivial Kirkpatrick levels 1, 2, and 3. Most people are happy using level 1. The more sophisticated ones, like yours, are realizing that a lot more needs to be done.

ATA: You’ve talked about the “McDonaldization of project management.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?

TCD: I worry that there are an awful lot of people in the marketplace who have gained their accreditation and understand their (Project Management Institute’s) PMBOK guide inside out, and who think that doing a project is a set of processes that you follow from one to the other, in the same way that a McDonald’s chef produces a hamburger. The nature of every project is such that it’s more like a chef in a cordon bleu restaurant than somebody working in McDonald’s, and it does require both a love of cooking and a knowledge of the ingredients. There’s more to it. I think it’s a response to the demand for professional people and project work, and as such it’s done really well, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

ATA: You have spoken before about the difference between habit and innovative thinking in project work.

TCD: I’d like to do a lot more research in this area. Some work done by Michael Kirton in the 1970s and 1980s that’s still going on today showed that a very high proportion of the population was much better at what he called adaptive thinking than what he called innovative thinking. It seems to me that most management of business as usual is run on the basis of adaptive thinking. You take what you were doing last year and you change it so next year’s plan is going to be better, faster, or cheaper than last year’s was, but the basis is last year’s plan. In a project, however, you’re trying to invent a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before, which calls for genuine innovation in planning and the imaginative skills that go with that. If Michael Kirton is right, then that (innovative thinking) is something that a relatively small percentage of the population is naturally gifted at. Everybody can be made better, but it’s not something that comes naturally to human beings. I think that has its origins in human evolution, where the evolutionary behavior of human tribes has been: set out on a mission, and they make it up as they go along. The adaptiveness of human beings is one of our most remarkable survival characteristics.

You do get the five percent of the population or so who are genuine innovators — look at how the built environment around us has changed. But the majority of people are living in the built environment rather than dreaming about how the built environment could change. Project management needs people who have that visionary planning capability.

Some work done by Professor Gerhard Roth at the Brain Research Institute at the University of Bremen has modeled the neurological functioning of the brain. It’s all about “brain economics.” The purpose of the brain is to keep us alive, and therefore it conserves energy for when it’s really needed. Our bodies don’t produce enough energy to drive our brains at full power. As it is, our brains use about 25% of all the energy produced in the body, and it’s only about 2% of body mass, and it’s operating about only 10% of its normal functioning capability. We just don’t produce enough energy to keep the brain producing flat-out all the time. So the most sensible tradeoff for the brain to make is to do as much work as it can by conditioned reflex and by habit, because that’s the low-energy usage that lets you reserve your energy for when you need to do something really strenuous.

In terms of a theoretical basis for project management, I think that topics like neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have real contributions to make to our understanding of why we’re good at certain things in project management and bad at so many others.

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