What Can You Do With A General (Theory of Project Management)?

For those wondering about the origin of the title, it’s (the first part) from an old Bing Crosby song by Irving Berlin.  Blogging has been slow due to travel and some minor travel-related wear and tear.  As Indiana Jones said in the original: “It’s not the years, my dear, it’s the mileage.”

Also related to my slow blogging is in writing longer pieces for AITS.org.  Referring to my last article was the welcome return from a short hiatus by Dave Gordon at The Practicing IT Project Manager blog in general, but his comment on my article “lays the groundwork for a generalized theory of managing software development and acquisition…”  I’m just finishing up the second half of that article now, but Dave identified something that I had probably been working on for quite a while through this observation, though subconsciously: a general theory of project management.

There is no doubt that information plays a large role in PM and one is almost tempted to specify software development and acquisition as a separate area of study.  But I’m not so sure that it merits special handling.  Information theory applies to just about everything in the universe.  As W.T. Grandy from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Wyoming says in this paper: “In a very real sense the differential equations of physics are simply algorithms for processing the information contained in initial conditions…”  Yet, even a basic definition of information eludes us, and have evolved over time.  Some cosmologists and engineers believe that the universe itself is computational.

Such big ideas are well and fine, but for those of us who must make decisions at our own level of reality we need something more specific.  Our decisions, therefore, could be improved by the development of a general theory of project management.  An interesting proposal along these lines can be found by George Ray for Swiss Management Centre University.  In this case, he posits that the organizing principles of social psychology could be used as the basis for the development of such a theory.  I suspect that a general theory will need to include a multidisciplinary approach to include the mathematical basis derived from the study of complex adaptive systems, the physics that underlies R&D, and social psychology.

5 thoughts on “What Can You Do With A General (Theory of Project Management)?

  1. Annemarie Oien and I are writing parallel papers for Measurement News on “the theory of project management” and “agile pm as a control system.” I’ll show you the paper at EVMW. Adaptive control systems have much in common with management of emergent systems.


  2. Nick, whenever someone mentions management and generals in the same sentence, I’m reminded of the old Pentagon acronym, BOGSAT – “Bunch of Generals, Sitting Around a Table.” Typical usage is when someone expresses shock at an announcement that seems entirely independent of objective reality: “Oh, that was decided by a BOGSAT.” There are leaders, and then there are managers.

    That aside, I think domain is everything when actually applying the principles, tools, and practice of project management. You can’t build a bridge in the same way you design an airplane, shepherd a pharmaceutical product through approval, or develop software, and you can’t manage those activities the same way, either. Further, I’ve found that leadership and management principles are culture-dependent, as any English-speaker who has done business in both Asia and Latin America will attest. So, while there are certainly underlying econometric principles to project management, I think the domain and culture Venn diagrams won’t have a great deal of overlap. But I’ll follow with interest, as my track record on being right all the time is hardly the envy of the profession.


  3. Hi Nick,

    A general theory of Project Management will have a handful of concepts at its heart. Have you considered Fernando Flores “Conversations for Action” as a starting point? See here https://goo.gl/KcKUOJ for an application to management of risk.



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