PROJECT MANAGEMENT: Between Theory and Practice

By: Abdul Hanan Abd Mokti PMP, Senior Consultant, Sageconsulting 22 March 2017

We are all very familiar with the age-old argument – between theory and practice.

Practice without theory is like driving without obeying traffic rules. You can get the car moving but you are bound to have knocks and bumps along the way, not to mention traffic compounds. Theory without practice is like memorising the traffic rule book. You know all the rules and driving techniques but you will never get the opportunity to hit the road.

The same tenet applies to project management (PM). Proponents of project management theories have argued that project management frameworks, methods and tools are indispensable in increasing the probability of project success. On the other hand, projects have been carried out and managed successfully since ancient times without a PM guide in place (I’m sure there was no project charter hieroglyphs when the guys with square beard decided to build the pyramids).

The answer lies in keeping a fine balance between the two. Now that’s the tricky bit.

It is easier said than done. However, the following tips could be useful:

  • Theories are there as guide, not a guarantee for success. Embrace the Make sure you truly understand the spirit before diving head first into the techniques. Be selective with the tools. Use theories to help you look at things in better perspectives, but how you apply the solution is entirely up to you.
  • Project management is an art not a science. If you approach project management from a purely scientific or mathematical perspective, you’re bound to get disillusioned. In a project, there are simply too many parameters that affect each other in ways that you cannot imagine, let alone quantify. Project management framework and methods are there to provide a semblance of order and structure to an organic animal, but the final decisions are always human.
  • Balance between necessity and capacity. Not all project management tools and techniques are suitable or necessary for all projects. With experience, you’ll learn to size up a project (in terms of size, value, complexity, visibility, risk etc.) and adapt accordingly. For instance a project with few stakeholders does not need a sophisticated communication matrix.
  • Don’t be a single-tool zealot. We often see (and pity) people who are so obsessed with a single tool that they apply the same tool to all situations (even solving world hunger). A hammer is excellent for driving in nails, but if you are a hammer-only guy, you’ll end up fixing everything by whacking them on the head
  • Keep things simple. People often hide behind complexities to make up for the lack of essence. With increased availability of data and speed of data transfer it is all too easy to get trapped in the information glut. Information is useful only if

one knows how to leverage on them, otherwise they are just ‘noise’. Similarly, sophisticated techniques are only effective if they allow one to make better decisions. If the cost of applying a technique outweighs the marginal benefit of applying it, then it makes no sense to do so.

At the end of the day, project management framework, methods and tools have been written on the premise that:

  • The project (value, time, resource) is large enough to justify their full implementation;
  • Everyone involved in a project is conversant with, and agreeable to, project management framework, methods and vocabulary; and
  • Everything flows nicely from one step to the next.

However, in reality these may not be applicable to all projects. Therefore the depth and breadth of application of project management practices may have to be determined based on what is at stake; and this is where experience and a bit of wisdom come in handy.