Project Management: Art or Science… What Your Opinion?

To answer your question about Project Management being an art or a science the answer is both and if polling various people you’d get a 20-40% opinion its science and an 80-60% opinion it is an art.  For the ‘science’ part of the job it’s controlling scope, managing schedules and budget, providing proper documentation, managing current or initiating new processes during the course of the project  to meet the end objectives, documenting changes and risks, and providing current metrics and forecasting outcomes (time/$).  For the ‘art’ it is proper communication to the right levels, training, coaching, monitoring, mentoring, knowing when to intercede and when to stay out, being the ‘human glue’, arbitrate, negotiate, facilitate, seeing the systemic problem and fixing, and anticipating changes – let’s not also forget recognizing and rewarding accomplishment.  At the end of the day it’s incumbent on the project manager to do everything in their power to ensure predictable positive consequences occur for the project.  It takes mental and emotional intelligence along with characteristics to be a role model for the team. 

For example, anyone who plays or follows the card game of Poker knows the mantra of a professional Poker player of, ‘Poker is a hard way to make an easy living…’  In other words it’s easy to learn the mechanics of the game of Texas Hold’em.  There a deck of 52 cards with four suites of 2’s to Aces and you get two down, the next four up, and the last card down.  You bet or fold on each card and the highest had wins the pot.  What the ‘art’ here knowing and watching for the ‘tells’ and ‘betting patterns’ of the players, what to amount to bet to draw a player(s) to your winning hand, and when to bluff when you got nothing. You can read all the books and learn all the probabilities but the moment of truth comes when your betting your money and either win or lose and beginner’s or dumb luck will only last so long.   I quote from the 1967 movie, ’Cool Hand Luke’ where Paul Neumann’s’ character bluffs a winning hand a poker and retorts,’ yeah well sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand...’ earning his prison nickname.   And yes I watched it on TV as I was too young to go to the theater when it was released.

That being said – formal training and practice is essential and valuable to know but, then how does the PM convince a concerned customer or stakeholder that the project by current indicators is a risk but actions are in place that will put it back on track.  How does a PM know when to ask the right probing questions and phrase it in such a manner not to put someone on the defense – unless intentional.   How does a PM know what is ‘necessary and sufficient’ to do what it takes to get the job done.  That is the ‘art’ and like Poker takes years of experience to really be good at it.   There’s an old saying that to master something, you need to do it at least 300 times.  Depending on the scope a PM during their career may only do tenth of that in number of project and programs.   So it’s those PM’s that get advice and observe and learn from mistakes made by others that over time develop the art of PM success.   Oh and for those of you waiting to read words to the effect of does the PM also need to be a technical expert for the type of project they are managing... well that’s another blog

What do you think – I’m interested in hearing opinions….   JGH