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Theory vs. practice: The project management view

Pedro de Melo

Pedro de Melo

OGMA Industria Aeronáutica de Portugal


As with all things in life, it’s important to strike a balance between theory and practice, and the field of project management is no exception.

In such an area where human interaction and the interpretation of vast amounts of data and interdependencies are key, practice is central to the development of proficiency, and will result in improvements. Of course there are areas where learning by doing gives exceptional results. But practicing without minimum notions of the subject is like driving without knowing the rules of the road: you can get to places but will suffer a fair amount of accidents along the way!

When done properly, people don’t notice it. When it comes to managing projects, the same applies.

Theory is important as long as it’s not seen as a prescription for success. The frustration for many project management practitioners is to think that, given a certain framework of processes and procedures, the application of them can only lead to guaranteed success. This is where reality kicks in.

Theory serves mostly to guide the way we look at things, by giving a context to think about and solve problems. Remember that project management is mostly an art, not an exact science. As much as you try, there are no equations that can describe and predict events accurately.

With the wide amount of information available these days, such as references, papers, etc. it is tempting to collect as much interesting information as necessary to better prepare for the tasks in hand. This can be very dangerous, as no matter how much theory you can gather, it will never replace hands-on experience.

And because the world is full of information, it leads people to believe that complexity is a must. This is another mistake when it comes to practicing project management. All the frameworks, methods and tools are only as good as you make them fit for their purpose. Small projects don’t have the same “operational needs” as large-scale projects. However the principles are the same, and an experienced project manager will recognise this and adapt.

Perhaps the most dividing question is about project management’s effectiveness. Too often we see large multi-billion programmes with schedule delays, technical problems and cost overruns. So where is the benefit of all the intensive dedication of the project managers?

Visibility might be one of the possible answers. Remember the Y2K bug, when the world was going to end, all machines were going to go back in time, with the world plummeting into total chaos? That didn’t happen in the end. So a lot of people questioned why all the effort and what all the fuss was about. Some others however argue that it was risk management at its best. When done properly, people don’t notice it. And unfortunately when it comes to managing projects, the same applies.



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