Where The Bodies of Knowledge Are Buried - PART 1 / by John Schlichter


Leading thinkers in the realm of project management gathered somewhat secretively in Virginia Beach in the year 2000 at a meeting hosted by NASA as part of an implicit attempt to broker agreement among the developers of the major project management standards across industry. The question was "What constitutes the definitive project management body of knowledge?" Secretive may be too strong a word because it was not a covert meeting per se, but it was named the "Operational Level Committee" precisely to make it sound uninteresting and to avoid attracting attention.

More accurately, the "OLC" was the name innocuously given to the group a year earlier at the PMI Annual Symposium in Long Beach, California to reserve a room where plans to recruit a critical mass of intellectual influence peddlers was hatched. The anti-advertising worked, and half a dozen people sat uninterupted by interlopers in an unremarkable room making a remarkable list of invitees.

In Virginia at a much nicer facility, about thirty of those invitees showed up, including David I. Cleland, J. Davidson Frame, Max Wideman, Rodney Turner, Lew IrelandOlaf Pannenbäcker, Peter W. G. Morris, Christophe Bredillet, and me. I think Hans Knöpfel, Gilles Caupin, and Lynn Crawford may have been there as well, but my memory fails me, and there are many whose names I am forgetting. Described by one attendee as "the new blood," I was nearly half the age of anyone in this august assembly. I was breathing that rarefied air because I had been recruited to its milieu two years earlier by persons interested in having me develop the philosophical first principles of project management. As it happens I did not develop those principles. (We didn't get further than an initial principle that "A project does not necessarily need a project manager." An idea ahead of its time? #agile #holarchy #heterarchy).

Instead I agreed to investigate the possibility of creating a maturity model for project management that would be a PMI standard, and that endeavor took off quickly. I recommended to the 1998 PMI Standards Committee that we should create a maturity model for project-based organizations but that its purpose should not be simply to improve the management of projects in organizations. I asserted that its purpose should be to help organizations improve their ability to implement an organization's strategies through projects (which is quite a different thing), and I coined the term "Organizational Project Management" (OPM) to denote organizational strategy implementation through projects.

This was a significant departure from PMI's direction to date. PMI's Executive Director asked me to create and lead a team to produce such a model (which I named "OPM3"), marking PMI's first step toward a "strategy implementation through projects" paradigm. Marketing that paradigm is PMI's dominant logic today, and countless consultants, academics, and authors have followed suit. Things were moving full steam ahead by the time I arrived at the OLC.

At the outset of the meeting in Virginia Beach, the point was made that the "body of project management knowledge" exists in many places, not least in the minds of practitioners like those gathered in the room and across the world. The best we can do is craft guides, summaries, or abstractions of the inherently dispersed and evolving body of knowledge. An exercise was undertaken wherein the attendees wrote the concepts of project management down on sticky notes, one concept per sticky, filling up a large wall, signifying our attempt at canvassing the project management body of knowledge.

I suggested we make a copy of all the sticky notes and break into two groups of people so each group could organize the concepts on its own, and then we could compare results. Somebody near me immediately said "Organize this? That will never work." I said "Why not? Aristotle did basically the same thing with genus, species, and differentia." There was a collective shrug, and we set about organizing concepts.

The project management body of knowledge exists in the minds of practitioners across the world.
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The décollage stretching across the wall could have been interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Terry Cooke-Davies had showed up, and I suggested to him that it would be quite interesting to put the concepts from the stickie's into textual analysis software to reveal affinity groups. The next day he was genuinely angry with me for proposing that idea because it inspired him to stay up all night doing data entry despite the fact he'd enrolled nobody to help.

I was asked to present the results of the group that I had worked with. I explained our bottom-up approach of organizing the concepts in a way that allowed a structure to emerge without a preconceived design. Then Cleland presented on behalf of the other group and deadpanned "Our group created a structure top-down, which is very good because it was not bottom-up, which is vey bad." He looked at us impassively with just a hint of amusement.

Brokering a shared view of knowledge is a negotiation.

Needless to say, each group had produced something quite different from the other, and neither mirrored what the textual analysis software suggested. At the risk of emphasizing the obvious, that was the original quandary: knowledge is, phenomenologically speaking, intentional. Or said another way, knowledge is a matter of perspective. Brokering a shared view of knowledge is a negotiation, and it is not always pretty. To paraphrase, "Standards are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." Flying thirty experts to a meeting hosted by NASA to decide what the project management universe looked like "once and for all," and thinking it would be any different from your typical sausage-making, was hubris.

 For part 2 of this story, click here.