Art or science?

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man Project management has become a lot more formal over recent years. Frameworks, such as PRINCE2, PMBok and MSP, have now been widely adopted by many organisations for the delivery of projects and programmes.

In fact, project management is now viewed as a core skill and a respected career path in its own right by many organisations, to facilitate the delivery of IT-enabled business change projects. So why do so many projects still fail to deliver the benefits that the business originally envisaged?

According to Gartner, some 75 per cent of projects fail to deliver benefit against the original targets and less than 25 per cent will deliver hard, monetary benefits that exceed the cost of the implementation.

Additionally, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) estimates that 30 - 40 per cent of systems to support business change deliver no benefits whatsoever. A driving reason for this is that people treat project management as purely a science and don't recognise the art of project management sufficiently.

The science of project management is the mechanics of project management, which you typically get taught when you attend a training course. For example, business case development, project planning, risk management, communication planning and the management of quality and project controls. These are all valid components to help deliver successful projects, although they are invariably all about producing documentation.

However, the art of project management is the subtle elements of project management, which you don't usually get taught on a training course. For example, leadership, planning for the unexpected, managing stakeholder expectations, saying no when required, wider business awareness, demonstrating progress early, listening to users and generating a sense of urgency for a project.

A true project management artist also knows which elements of the science to use and when, rather than following the manual by rote. It goes without saying that it is important to have a solid grounding in the science of project management. However, truly successful IT-enabled business projects come about when project managers demonstrate artistry in the delivery of the projects.

So what are the key things for project managers to excel at if they want to be true masters of their art? These key artistic skills are described below:


Moving from managing to leading projects is fundamental to delivering business change. Project managers need to demonstrate passion, energy and action if business change projects are to be successful - 'Consistent, focused and relentless action is everything' says David Taylor in Naked Leader. It is important to Model the Way, Inspire the Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable others to Act and Encourage the Heart (

Managing uncertainty 
The outcomes required from business change projects are often unclear when they start, especially if they are actually programmes of change. This uncertainty must be effectively managed along with preparing for the unexpected.

Stuff happens on projects and equipping projects to manage risks when they crystallise, especially if you've not planned for it, is essential. Remember - Black Swans do exist according to Nassim Taleb. Just because you've not seen one doesn't mean they don't.

Managing stakeholder expectations 
Stakeholder analysis is now a common activity in projects and programmes alike, but actively managing stakeholders and their expectations is another matter entirely.

People's natural tendencies are often to avoid managing the difficult people, especially when hard messages have to be delivered. Handling key stakeholder expectations and getting the influencers in your tent is critical.

Business awareness 
We all think our project is the most important in the organisation. However, businesses are typically working on multiple projects at any one time to improve business performance.

Developing wider business awareness is vital, in order to co-ordinate change across projects or workstreams within a programme. Hitting the same group of people with too much change is a recipe for failure.

Demonstrating progress 
Everybody wants to deliver benefits to the business from IT projects as quickly as possible, but often this is not possible. However, structuring projects and programmes to demonstrate tangible progress as quickly as possible is critical to build confidence and engender trust. Once senior stakeholders trust the project manager and his team then delivery becomes both faster and easier.

Getting communications right is a fundamental part of delivering successful business change projects. It's also an area which is often under resourced and badly timed. Delivering the right information, to the right people, at the right time is key to success. However, projects often forget to listen to the recipients of their outputs.

As Ernest Hemingway said 'when people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen'. Project managers need to make sure that their project teams make time to listen to what their customers want. Only then will you know that you are delivering the benefits that customers need.
'Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes', said Oscar Wilde. Learning from experiences and sharing those with our peers is the holy grail of project-based organisations. 

As the old saying goes - 'there is no substitute for experience', so why are we not more accepting of advice? If you want to create an organisation that is strong in the art as well as the science of project management then you need to engender a culture which makes learning from experience a de facto mode of working.

Really good project and programme managers, who possess both the skills of a project management scientist and an artist, are hard to find. However, you can maximise the utilisation of them, when you do find them, by using a few simple rules:

Encourage project managers to take true ownership of projects and demonstrate real leadership, even if this means delivering tough and often unwelcome messages. Listen to project managers when they do have difficult messages to deliver to you.

Provide the project manager with good quality support, such as PMO, administrators, team leaders, and push the administration of the science elements to a PMO type function within your organisation.

Enable project managers to share experience and provide practical advice to each other, especially at the early stage of a project or programme. Projects or programmes that start well tend to finish well too.

As IT project management continues to mature as a profession, it is essential that we focus on the artistic elements of good project delivery. These require a greater level of soft skills, which are not easy to teach or assess via the classroom. However, they can make the difference between successful projects and unsuccessful ones. It's a bit like teaching - people will remember a good project manager, like they remember a good teacher from their school days.

Delivering successful IT-enabled business change will continue to be a significant growth area for the IT industry for many years to come, but a greater focus on people skills is required to deliver this successfully. Too much focus has shifted to the science of project management at the expense of the art and this balance needs to be redressed. It is after all people who make projects, not documentation.

About the author:

Iain Parker works for Medley Business Solutions Ltd, an independent management, business systems and IT consultancy, based in Guildford Surrey.

December 2007