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

Abstract : The discipline of project management (PM) adheres to the dominant 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 approach applied in the seminal projects that are credited with establishing the foundation of the discipline in the 1940s and 50s. 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 explanation for this contradiction has its roots in the 1960s, when the so-called McNamara revolution at the Department of Defense (DoD) gave a control orientation to the PM discipline. This shift was cemented by the codes and practices of the DoD and NASA, contemporary scientific writing, and the foundation of the Project Management Institute, a professional organization that translated the standard into the educational norm for a generation of project managers. The project management discipline was thus 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. This article describes the historical events at the origin of PM's reorientation, and argues that the discipline should be broadened in order to create greater value for organizations whose portfolios include novel and uncertain projects.
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Submitted on : Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 11:29:15 AM
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  • HAL Id : hal-00557549, version 1




Sylvain Lenfle, Christoph Loch. Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty. California Management Review, University of California Press, 2010, Vol. 53 (N° 1, Fall), pp. 32-55. ⟨hal-00557549⟩



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