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Marc Moskowitz 1 article
Residence: US Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida Area
Author | Technology | Operations | Transformation | Innovation | Executive Leadership
PMP, CSM, CPO
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  • Author of the #QuestionSeries on LinkedIn (Project Management, Leadership, Transformation, and Career Growth)
  • Technology and Operations Executive
  • Became a PMP before Project Management was cool
  • Passionate St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Fan
  • I subscribe to two basic management theories: Keep it Simple and Your Employees Come First



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Project Management: Art or Science?

December 20, 2018: Question Series #7

It's the age old question in our field and it's extremely hard to answer it specifically. Is the Project Management discipline an Art or a Science? It's a deceivingly simple question, but I'm certain you could talk to your colleagues for hours, arguing back and forth on it. Each side would likely bring to the table good thoughts, facts, and stories, but in the end, no one would really have a true winning answer. Try it out among your peers and see what ensues.

For this #QuestionSeries purpose, I'm going to present to you my thoughts on both sides of the equation and then give you my verdict. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic as well. It's always a fun discussion. Here we go!

Project Management is a Science: Oh Project Plan, Oh Project plan, you are the master. Every good project manager knows you must have a project plan to succeed right? The more lines and details the better. Hundreds and hundreds of hours spent filling in every last detail and keeping it up to date! Earned Value, the one calculation everyone must master to become certified, is the ultimate math and science problem (though few us of PMs actually use it successfully, if at all). How about velocity in the Agile world now. We must calculate and become the master of that to be successful right? Don't let your Agile coach know that you aren't paying attention to it or mention you think it's a flawed number!

There are of course many more numbers and calculations that go into project management that can be used successfully when done right. You also know the types of project managers that are all about the science. They might even drive you crazy with their one-thousand line plus project plans and their constant nagging for information. They also might have beautiful status reports with lots of charts and numbers each week, but they do all of this while never leaving their cube. If you're working in these specific industries you might have an entire organization full of scientific project managers: defense/aerospace, manufacturing, construction, and the government. There typically isn't much room for "art" in these spaces.

As I am, you might be wondering if these industries that are all about the science, why do so many of them see projects go longer than expected, spend more money than expected and sometimes flat out fail? Interesting isn't it. I guess science ins't 100% of the answer after all. Recapping below are my points for arguing that project management is a science:

  • Project Plans: A must have to be successful; the more details the better to ensure everyone is doing each task as planned
  • Earned Value: According to PMI and others, it's a must have in running large, complex projects to track hours/effort and dollars burned; it's heavily tested on certification exams
  • Critical Path Calculations: Always knowing what tasks are key and what happens if they are delayed is a key part of any science based project management
  • Velocity: Even in the Agile/Scrum space Velocity calculations are the key to ensuring success
  • Report Outs: The more information / calculations / burn down charts you have the better; after all, don't executives only care about the numbers?
  • PMs are mad scientists: If it's not a science based discipline, couldn't anyone be a project manager even if they aren't certified or trained?

Project Management is an Art Form: For all of the mad scientist project managers out there, I'm sure you've met a few that believe the earth is flat (in this case, don't believe you need science to run a successful project)! It is true, there are many project managers who are all about the softer side of the discipline and relegate project plans, calculations, and science to the dust bins. Do they have a point? I have personally seen some of the best project management run like an art form.

For those project managers running a project like an art form, leadership, communication, stakeholder management, and intuition are the keys. They really seem to know just about everyone within the organization and wind up getting the most important people to cooperate much faster/better than the average project manager. Further, they are masters at winging project report outs with little hard data and convincing executive stakeholders everything is OK. You've seen them, beautiful PowerPoint decks that make the scientist in you shiver. It's only when they are asked for specifics, do these type of Project Managers stumble a bit. They have trouble defending the project when things come off the track. Finally, a Project Manager that is using the artist approach must have amazing intuition when making decisions and moving their people around. They just can't afford many mistakes. As with the science side, there are certain industries that cater this this kind of project management. They include the marketing industry, some smaller software/technology shops, retail, and non-profits.

As we saw with the pure science based approached, if the Artist PMs were on the right side of the discipline , why do things go wrong on their projects as well? It's not all blue rivers and blooming flowers in their picture perfect projects. Artist run projects tend to miss a lot of details and when in trouble, tend to get deeper into trouble because it's harder for them to show what went wrong and how they are going to get things back on track. It takes a lot of science to defend mistakes and project confidence to your stakeholders that you can get things back on track. To recap my Project Management is an art theory, here are the key points to remember:

  • Leadership: Projects that use more art than science must have excellent leadership from the Project Management perspective. They truly have to be a 5 out of 5
  • Communications: Without the detailed project plans that the scientists use, communicating what is expected and who is working on what must happen perfectly. It's extremely hard to do, but again, I've seen it done successfully before
  • Stakeholder Management: To get away with project management as an art form, the project manager must, must must, be in alignment with their stakeholders and know that this approach will be acceptable. The minute they lose this buy in, they'll be wishing they had selected the scientific approach as it would provide many details for defense
  • Excellent Intuition: The softer side of project management is knowing when to make things happen with decisions, people, and stakeholders. This is something that can't be taught and some people have it, while others don't. It would be very tough to be an artist project manager without this ability.

My Verdict: Now that you know what makes up an artist vs. a scientist, it's time for me to impart my wisdom and experience on you. What do I think? This is what I know:

  • I've seen both extremes work and both extremes fail. However, when a project is run to one extreme or the other, the failures are usually more spectacular
  • In my experience, most Project Managers are in the 70/30 range in terms of how they split the approach between art and science or science and art. This is a workable range, but as I'll mention below, I think the best project managers will be closer to 50/50.
  • Most Project Managers should strive to be somewhere in the middle with a slight tilt to their best skill-set. If you are fluent with the science, the calculations, and managing detailed project plans makes you comfortable, go with the science based approach. If you would rather spend time motivating staff, schmoozing stakeholders and working the organization, lean on the artist side of things. The key is to keep things at most 60/40 in one direction and use others to fill in the gaps in your approach.
  • In my opinion, the best project managers are a balance of art and science, as both aspects are needed to truly have an excellent chance for success. With the complexity of projects these days, it's extremely hard to get away with one approach over the other. There are too many instances where you need the leadership/schmoozing of the artist and a few days later where you're detailed project plan will help the team execute flawlessly.

As for my personal style, I believe I'm in the 60/40 range in favor of the artist. I believe my approach has shifted over the years, as I've gained more "artist" type skills/experience. I do however believe, creating an excellent project plan and having key metrics on hand for stakeholders, are key components to delivering a successful project. Of course the Picasso in me also knows that most projects now demand outstanding leadership and stakeholder management to even have a chance at success. I also believe that forming the right team is ninety percent of any project battle and that is purely an art form!

What kind of project manager are you? Please comment below and click both the like and share buttons so we can see where more Project Managers fit in.


Published at pmmagazine.net with the consent of Marc Moskowitz
Source of the article: {Linkedin} on [2018-12-20]