Why Project Management is more art than science

Written By Patrick Connally

A technology, project management and consulting expert. When I'm not blogging and working, you can catch me searching for the joy in the simple things in life. I love connecting with people, so share your ideas, feedback and criticism...#SpreadLove

Why Project Management is more Art than Science


Project Management is big business.  Why? Because projects are big business.  Especially technology projects.  Most organizations define projects to solve business problems – modernize technology platforms, reduce costs, provide capabilities to deliver new products or services or other business-driven needs.

But, despite the critical nature, numerous organizations still struggle with successfully delivering projects.  For simplicity, we’ll consider ‘successful’ via three (3) criteria:

  1. Projects delivered meeting all objectives, goals and measures initially defined;
  2. Projects completed within the defined timeframe (and not a minute later); and
  3. Projects completed within the defined and approved budget.

That sounds simple, right? Get it done, how you said you’d do it, when you said you’d do it, and for the exact amount (or less) than you agreed.  The statistics around successful project delivery say differently.

Research and Background

Let’s examine the statistics around project delivery from the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Pulse of the Profession: 8th Global Project Management Study:

  • More projects are actually failing and creating significant monetary loss for their organizations”;
  • Poor project performance PMI wasted $122 million of every $1 billion spent on projects – a 12 percent increase from 2015; and
  • Projects are more than twice as likely to be successful when ‘proven’ project management practices are utilized.

Additional research identified:

  • Of 5,400 IT projects included in the survey, 45 percent were over budget, 7 percent over time, and 56 percent delivering less value than predicted (Bloch, Blumberg, & Laartz, 2012); and
  • Decreases in project success and completion rates from a prior study (Barlow, Woolley, Rutherford, & Conradie, 2013).

Why are the statistics so alarming, and why are projects facing such difficulty, or failing at such high rates?  I believe it’s because we’ve spent too much time focusing on the science, and not the art, of project management.

What is the Science?

The science of Project Management are the methodologies, tools, lingo and even the mindset of all of the Project Management Professionals (PMP), Program Management Professionals (PgMP), Project Management Institute Agile Certified Practitioners (PMI-ACP), Certified Scrum Master (CSM), PRINCE2 or other certifications.

Each of these certifications offer formality, frameworks, and potentially tools to drive the project management forward.

What is the art of project management?

The art, quite simply, are all the other things not driven by the science.  These are the soul of what impedes, and drives, effective projects.  There are three (3) key elements:


At its core, effective project management is an exercise in communication.  Plans are established, stakeholders are identified, and progress is communicated.  According to research on project success and failure, gaps in communication was noted as one of five reasons projects fail (Abbasi, Wajid, Iqbal, & Zafar, 2014).

Projects are fluid, and things will change.  Scope may adjust, risk and issues will be identified, and inevitably, stakeholders, and their needs, may change.  Maintaining effective communication among (potentially) large, and complex stakeholder groups can’t be broken down to a science – it’s an art.  Each audience needs to have information presented differently (email, in-person), and, it’s important to note that each project change is likely to impact multiple stakeholders and negotiation may be required to balance stakeholder needs and prevent delays.  Anytime you’re dealing with people, there’s likely no one, definitive, way to communicate.

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture can make or break projects!  Research on the effectiveness of global project delivery cited organizational culture as one of three factors with strong potential to impact projects (Alami, 2016).

Cultural Impact on Project Success

Every department, and organization is unique – the behaviors, attitudes and expectations of its constituents are not 100 percent equivalent to any other.  An experienced Project Manager can deliver 10 technology transformations, implementing the same technology, but every plan, and execution of that plan, will vary.   

Certain organizations have toxic cultures – resistant to change, making it difficult to effectively deliver projects.  Stakeholders willing to accept change, and work with the project to understand its goals, objectives and delivery timeframes promote project success and help make adoption ore acceptable (at junior levels).  “Organisations must pave the way within their cultures to truly embrace the profound changes that all strategic endeavors bring,” (4th Global Portfolio and Programme Management Survey).  In organizations where change is fought, it complicates stakeholder engagement, and can have tangible impact on scope and cost.

Technical Delivery

The 3rd dimension leans toward science, but is truly an art.  There is a wide variance in technical competence, as well as composition of delivery teams (in-house, contractors, hybrid, on-shore, off-shore).  This variability has direct impact on delivery team effectiveness, and their interaction with the project management organization.


No project is a paradise.  The plans and challenges associated with delivery are widespread and complex.  Effectively navigating these challenges requires a tactical knowledge of solid project management practices.  A working knowledge of organizational dynamics, and the ability to navigate the cultural complexities are equally important to delivering successful projects as knowledge, and use of project methodology frameworks.  This knowledge, or lack of, can stand between project planning and project closure.  Knowing when to apply the science, versus the art can be the difference between success and failure.


4th Global Portfolio and Programme Management Survey (Rep.). (2014, September). Retrieved

January 7, 2017, from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP website:



Abbasi, N., Wajid, I., Iqbal, Z., & Zafar, F. (2014). Project Failure Case Studies and Suggestion.

International Journal of Computer Applications, 86(6), 34-39. doi:10.5120/14992-2696

Alami, A. (2016). Global Project Management Challenges. PM World Journal, 5(1). Retrieved

January 7, 2017, from http://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/pmwj42-


Barlow, G., Woolley, P., Rutherford, L., & Conradie, C. (2013, July). Project Management

Survey Report 2013 (Rep.). Retrieved January 7, 2017, from KPMG Advisory website:



Bloch, M., Blumberg, S., & Laartz, J. (2012, October). Delivering large-scale IT projects on

time, on budget, and on value (Rep.). Retrieved January 7, 2017, from McKinsey &

Company website: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-


PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: 8th Global Project Management Study (Rep.). (2016). Retrieved

from http://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-


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