Is Project Management a Dark Art or a Profession?

Paul Naybour

Updated 18th December 2018
Much of the talk in the world of project management is the emergence of professional standards and work at the Association for Project Management (APM) on the development the proposed Chartered Standard for project professionals is progressing well. However in the drive to professionalise ethics and standards, it is best to remember the dark side still exists. The curses of the dark arts are many and numerous, the six of most deadly are:

1) The Curse of Optimism

Underestimating the cost of the project in order to get it started.
In order to secure that bid or approval of the business case this curse leads sponsors and clients to believe that the low cost quoted at the early stage is realistic. This curse requires no action on the part of the project team, just an ability to ignore the risks and hope for the best. The more senior you are within a management structure the more susceptible you are to this curse and the desire to cut costs to win the funding approval or the contact is irresistible to many.  Everyone knows that once the funding is approved or the contract is in place it is very unlikely the project will be cancelled.

Defence against this dark art

Maintain realistic expectations for the project cost and confess the real cost of the project as soon as possible, because it is much better to get the bad news out early and then get on with delivering the project. The London 2012 Olympics was a classic example of how to re-set budget expectations early and then deliver under cost.

2) The Light of Mobilisation

Saving money on mobilisation resources will reduce the overall cost.
In order to save money it’s best to reduce the resources committed to project mobilisation. Saving money on the number of people engaged on the early stages of the project will increase efficiency and reduce the overall project cost. However, this curse will almost certainly come back to bite you as the project begins to slip and the results of mistakes made early in the project emerge.

Defence against this dark art

Manage the project mobilisation like a mini project, the aim is to get the resources working in an effective way, as quickly as possible. Time lost at mobilisation can never the recovered.

3) The Islands of Isolation

Ignore the users in the early phases of the project, once we have worked out the project strategy then we will tell them what they will be getting
Let’s not talk to the users (and other stakeholders) early in the project, they might tell us our plans are not what they expect. By ignoring the users we can get on with the real work, without any distraction, and then present them with the solution once we have sorted out all the detail. Once we have a clear strategy then we will be able to answer all their questions with confidence.

Defence against this dark art

Get your user community involved early in resolving any project ambiguity. Collaborative problem-solving will always result in a better solution and ensure that the solution is accepted by all.

4) The Illusion of Control

The more detailed the planning; the better the project will run. We all know proper planning prevents poor performance.
The future can be controlled if we plan every aspect of the project in detail. The more detailed the plans, the more control we have. If necessary we will make assumptions about the future and manage risks to ensure that the project remains compliant with the plan.

Defence against this dark art

No matter how much detail is planned a project still needs to remain flexible to respond to current events. Detailed planning needs to recognise the inherent uncertainties in the project environment. Only plan in detail what can be realistically predicted. Don’t spend time on long term detailed planning that will be wasted as the situation changes during the life of the project.

5) The Resistance to Change

No changes will take place on this project
Changes will not happen if they are ignored and decisions on whether to make changes are delayed. With some luck they will go away.

Defence against this dark art

Changes need to be dealt with in a timely and effective manner otherwise the cost and delays in the project will escalate. Understand that some changes will always be required.

6) The Allure of the Lowest Price

Accepting the lowest price will save you money
When reviewing a competitive tender the lowest price bid will result in the most cost effective project. In increasingly competitive markets contractors are frequently willing to offer a low price in order to secure a contract. However, once the contract is awarded, the emergence of changes could significantly increase the cost and there is no way of predicting these in advance.

Defence against this dark art

Accept a bid that realistically reflects the cost of the project; make sure you understand the realistic cost before inviting tenders. Be suspicions of any cost below this realistic cost.
For lessons in the dark arts of project management then seek out the most cynical project manager you can find and sign up for a life time apprenticeship. To learn the defences against the dark arts get in touch with Parallel Project Training for details of our professional project management courses.

3 thoughts on “Is Project Management a Dark Art or a Profession?”

  1. Great post Paul! There is a saying… “the good guy never wins…” I wonder if the good project manager who resists the dark arts ever wins???!

  2. Fabulous post. So true.
    This message needs to be cascaded virally amongst the project management communities.
    Ethical professionals should ignore the contents of this post at their peril.

  3. Avatar for Ramzi Darghouth
    Ramzi Darghouth

    Really great article!
    If these are the dark arts then I could be surrounded by death eaters!
    I will definitely be posting this somewhere I can see every day.

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