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Project Management: Is it art or science?

When you are in charge of a project, do you think of yourself more as an artist or as a scientist? Is leading a project to its success a form of art or is it a science to apply defined processes? If it is science, why do so many projects fail? And if it is art, why don’t the Project Management Institutes’s PMBOK or any ANSI or ISO norm include the word art? Does the beauty in fact lie in the skills, methods and techniques applied?

Do you agree with one of the following assumptions?

  1. Project Management is art and science.
  2. Project Management is more art than science.
  3. Project Management is more science than art.
  4. Project Management is neither art nor science.
Art, science or something completely different?

Art, science or something completely different?

Project Management is art and science

A project is a novel, nonrecurring endeavour. You probably apply a defined method, a process model or your Best Practices to plan, execute and manage your projects. Since the project is novel you have to make assumptions when planning the individual steps. And you prescind, that is you try to simplify and structure the project. You merge individual operations and schedule dates and milestones to bring them in line with expected results. You also define responsibilities. In short, you try to consider the important, foreseeable and likely project components. But what about the components that cannot be foreseen?

What happens if a team member falls ill or a risk occurs? Do you just open a book and look for a scientific solution, a formula or a tutorial? Of course you will ty to solve the problem with some kind of far-sightedness. Maybe you have to motivate the team to work a bit harder. Maybe you rely on your gut feeling and let your intuition guide you. Or you trust your team’s experience to find a creative solution. As you can see, project management is more than just a methodical approach. It is trust, confidence and experience. Project management is art and science.

Project Management is more art than science

Of course you can pile up all knowledge in the world about planning and structuring projects. You can attend project management seminars, study methods and acquire certificates. But knowing that a painting is basically colour on canvas won’t help you create a masterpiece. For that you will need more than a good understanding of colours and forms, materials and techniques. The same applies to project management: Even the best planning efforts, stuctured approaches, resources and adequate tools cannot guarantee that your project will be a success.

In addition, many companies don’t even have a complete overview of projects currentlybeing realized. The word science seems a bit inappropriate here. What is lacking here are softskills, the ability to communicate in the team and with the stakeholders. You need creativity and diplomatic skills. Without a team that is motivated you will surely miss your project goal. These softskills are far more essential than a purely technical basis of your project. Project management is more art than science.

Project Management is more science than art

A project is a nonrecurring endeavour with defined boundary conditions such as start and end dates, resources and goals. Project execution is based on principles, dependencies, demands and defined results. It is neither about being creative nor is it about softskills. Of course you will need softskills during the course of a project, but without a defined approach, the right tools and hardskills the softskills won’t matter at all. Without demands meetings will lead to nothing and have no real focus. A methodical, some may call it scientific, approach is essential for project success.

You review projects based on business ratios, you monitor progress with the help of your requirements’ states. You are able to handle changes. And you always adhere to the defined boundary conditions. Project Management is more science than art.

Project Management is neither art nor science

Where is the science in project management? It is a proven scientific fact that working in teams has serious downsides in some cases. Some people put less effort into their work when working in a team. As a result, the overall performance is weaker. Also the estimation of efforts produces higher values as actually needed. If project management was science shouldn’t failing, over-budget and delayed projects be an exception rather than the norm?

Softskills can be learned. Countless institutes, organizations and books focus on communication, NLP and leadership. Typical situations are scrutinized, behavioural patterns are analyzed and techniques are studied. Of course, softskills are important, but why should they be regarded as art? Whether something can be called art has to be decided by the audience, in this case the client. How many clients call the planning, execution and management of projects art?

A client will probably be very pleased with a project realized in time, on budget, especially if the result are new features and functions. But if he wouldn’t call it art why should the project manager? Project Management is neither art nor science.

What do you think?

Which of these assumptions do you agree with the most? Is project management art or science? Maybe it is more like craft, the ability to achieve something great with the tools at hand. Your decision is probably influenced by your indiviudal experiences, your training and your project environment.

In my opinion, project management is not art. And it is not science. Successful project management is much more. It is magic.

Michael Schenkel believes in useful tools, that support users in their work and that provide a common working environment for all types of roles in a project. He became a member of the microTOOL family more than fifteen years ago and took over the position of head of marketing for about half a decade. In October 2017, he moved on to a new adventure and we wish him all the best on this new path.

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