Is Project Management a Fad?

An emerging theme that I have encountered in conversations of late is the perception that project management is becoming the latest management fad. Interestingly, my reaction has ranged from “Is it?” to “Already?” to “Why did it take this long?” For someone who has been on the inside of promoting and developing project management as a corporate competency, it is easy to develop the impression that this is the way things have always been done. Objectively stepping back, however, project management as a formal discipline is a much newer concept for many organizations.

While the principles of formal project management have been around for decades in more ‘traditional' industries such as engineering and construction, project management as a means of leading information technology, process management and organizational change projects began to be introduced in the early 1990s. It is only since the late 1990s that from an organizational and senior management perspective, it has begun to take root in many companies.

It is this level of organizational awareness that seems to represent the tipping point that separates a tool, technique or approach from being the passionate focus of a small group of knowledgeable practitioners to a widespread but less understood fad. Looking at many of the management trends that have come before — total quality management, re-engineering, Six Sigma, customer relationship management — they have all followed a very similar path. Like televisions shows ‘jumping the shark'(a term coined to define a TV series at the point of decline — immortalized when the Fonz jumped a shark in ‘Happy Day's), what was valuable and unique ultimately become bland and without content.

At their outset, each of these approaches represented a viable and theoretically useful means of accomplishing some outcome, whether improving processes, optimizing quality practices or increasing the knowledge of overall customer requirements. Rooted in proven, valid and fairly complex practices, they were able to generate significant gains for the companies that invested in understanding, adopting and adapting them to their specific needs. As they were realized, recognition of these successes by other organizations and promotion of the value of the approaches by other consultants led to additional attempts to replicate the original achievements. The first wave of practitioners with a deep level of understanding of how the techniques were customized effectively were followed by a host of ‘me too' consultants who saw an emerging opportunity to market their services. Even more companies attempted to mimic the achievement of the early adopters, but success proved more and more elusive until ultimately the fad was discredited as being meaningless hype.

So was it the practices that failed, or was it the practices becoming fads that led to their demise? To a large extent, the problem is both. Any practice, properly applied, is context specific. Just as every company does not have the same organizational structure, accounting system or HR policies as every other one, neither will the same approach to re-engineering, quality or project management work interchangeable from one organization to another. The early successes were based in large part because a considerable effort was expended in trying to figure out what worked, and what didn't, in the specific context of one organization. Organizations attempting to replicate this success took the techniques that worked for the one and tried to duplicate them in the others, regardless of the appropriateness of context. By definition, some would work and others would not — but the further you moved away from the context on which they were based, the less relevant they were.

The nature of fads, however, certainly hastened the descent of these practices into the dustbin of irrelevance. They are appealing by their nature because they have the promise of being a ‘silver bullet'. No matter how often we intellectually recognize there are no silver bullets–just hard work–emotionally, we still cling to the hope that one day we might find one. Once a technique becomes a fad, marketing and hype take over. The motive to adopt an approach becomes less and less about the specific results, and more about emulating what others have done to get their results. What gets adopted is the surface appearance of practices, without the underlying rationale, discipline or context necessary to make them work. What companies are left with is an empty shell. This is a little like buying a sports car with no engine; it looks pretty, but it doesn't go very far.

That project management is starting to be view by some as a fad is therefore more than a little disturbing. Clearly, marketing is taking over — the number of conferences and books on the subject are now growing exponentially. While executive teams are recognizing the need to manage projects better, there is often a subconscious — and occasionally overt — expectation that this shouldn't come at the expense of having to be formal and disciplined about anything. When style takes precedence over substance, the demise of a fad cannot be too far behind.

The lesson for project management — and for any discipline — lies in going back to what worked in the beginning. For the organizations that experienced early success, what drove that success was not simply the practices that they landed on. Far more important was the process of experimentation and discovering what did and didn't work for them, that led to the identification of the tools and techniques they kept. We need to embrace the learning and experimentation that leads to understanding of value and context, not simply borrowing and benchmarking from others without giving thought to how what is being borrowed can — or should — be applied. Project management needs to be adopted because it works for us, not our competition or the company down the road. More importantly, we need to take the time to truly understand how to make it work for us. There are no silver bullets here. But there just might be a silver lining.

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  1. I think a big part of the problem is that once something becomes mainstream it becomes an end unto itself. In IT I'd bet that early project managers had a lot of real IT experience, recognized ways that projects could be managed better and convinced management they could contribute as project managers. Now, people with very little IT experience, interest or aptitude are becoming project managers. They get a certification and are plopped into a project management role. They don't have an adequate understanding of what they're managing so they end up creating a lot of unnecessary paperwork and obfuscating everything they get involved with.

  2. I couldn't agree more. One of my best friends is a project manager and he is crucial to the operation. I also agree that many business are missing out by not having their projects properly managed. It's funny how slowly the techniques in different fields are merging. As you say, it used to be an engineering component and now it's being applied to other industries.

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