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Making Projects Critical

In my blog today I’m going to do the slightly uncommon thing (for me at least) and share a book that I feel particularly deserves to be read widely.  The 2006 book titled ‘Making Projects Critical’ is edited by Damian Hodgson and Svetlana Cicmil, with chapter contributions from Peter Morris, Monica Lindgren & Johann Packendorff, and Janice Thomas, amongst others.  The book is in three parts starting with philosophical and conceptual arguments, and moving to studies with an empirical element, and finally to inter-organisational projects essays.


In Making Projects Critical, Hodgson and Cicmil bring together an extensive set of project management academics to look at project management through a critical lens drawing on a range of theoretical perspectives.  As a practitioner, reading the book may have the effect of knocking you off balance e.g. what you have come to know as true and you might find out its not!  Given this strong destabilizing effect, I commend the authors for including Peter Morris a mainstream project management author who in the final chapter brings the balance back to the text.  It can be easy to become convinced that the critical perspective is the right one, resulting in that we do little to actually improve practice.  Morris, unashamedly regards himself as managerial and brings balance by not losing what project management is all about. Its about being more successful.  Side note: nevertheless defining success is a tricky subject in its own right!


I’ve been practicing project management in various forms for many years, I obtained both Prince2 and PMI certifications very late and was largely forced to do so as the market place demanded it.  Over the years, like some of the authors in the book, I have become a little concerned how particularly those new to project management – naively think that by rigidly adopting project management, their projects will be automatically successful.  The number of people that I am referring to here is not only the project managers, but sponsors, and project team participants too.


From the moment I opened this book, I was captivated by the provoking stance looking into the actual reality of project i.e. are they real in the realist sense?; the privileged position of project management knowledge and the project manager; and the effects of the project management discourse, theory and practice on project outcomes and the people that participate.  This whole idea of bringing the Critical Management Studies to project management is wonderful and timely, for hopefully, a maturing field.


The PMI knowledge base called PMBOK is regarded as a collection of various tools and techniques that help the project manager be successful – its ‘kind of’ prescriptive – but I must say that the earlier versions (at least) always talked about picking the right mix of tools that make sense for your project.  When you add a Project Management Office (PMO) of the sort that solely exists as a kind of process and standards police (note there are plenty of great PMOs as learning communities of excellence) – I wonder have we gone to far?  A good friend of mine who has been around the block a few times and PMI Certified, suggested “For me – project management artifacts are often only window dressing, done at the end of the month”, and window dressing for the PMO police!  For him, at the heart of project success is about people and relationships.   Now, I’m not so sure I’d go as far as my friend – as the charter, scope statement, schedule, budget, risk profile, and management plan etc. are very good ways of helping reduce uncertainties and increase your chances of project ‘success’.  But, I’ll admit there is a balance – and again the tricky question – what is success?


As Sydow points out in one chapter, and others danced around the idea that there is an urgent need for more practitioner reflexivity – that is iterative learning, questioning, testing, and modifying theory and practice.  While the book is probably not targeted at practitioners due to an academic writing style, I would still recommend practitioners to take the plunge and take a fresh look at how one both practices, the effects of practice, and the effects of now very strong communities of practice like PMI, APM, OGC etc.  A book like this aides reflexivity.  Sometimes as practitioners we might be a bit naïve at times, and perhaps it is time to look to collaborate with academics for new ways of looking at old problems.  Let’s face it – projects still fail, and all too often quite publicly.


I would argue that the overwhelming majority of project management texts ‘out there’ are functionalist, prescriptive recipe books to help companies and project managers feel safe – so I welcome this fresh look project management.  I suggest that more practitioners and researchers question the underlying assumptions implicit in our practice and our discourse.


Making Projects Critical is provocative and a thought provoking text which I believe is a must read, and for me at least, it opens a wealth of research opportunities.

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