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Project Management: Art Or Science

Posted on | November 1, 2009 | 13 Comments

Is project management art or science?

Project managers are certainly both artists and scientists though not in the context in which we know these words. Project managers apply a science using art.

Science comes into play when the PM acquires and embraces all the theory he/she has learned through experience, training, certification, etc. PMs use frameworks such as PMBoK or PRINCE based on time-tested methods that have been proven to be effective through years of implementation.

Some science points:

• Different methodologies and frameworks available (PMBoK, PRINCE, etc.)

• Standard processes and knowledge areas

• Uniformly accepted best practices and techniques

• Same language is spoken

• A set of standard metrics that measure several project areas

• Plenty of standard work templates

Art comes into play when the PM applies what is important and relevant of that science. The frameworks, for example, don’t tell you how to do it. They just tell you what can be done (not necessarily a bad thing). You have to learn the “how” on your own or from others’ experiences. Art is the piece that may ultimately make the difference between project success or project failure.

Some art points:

• Applying the right process for the right project (one size does not fit all)

• Making things happen

• Making good and sound decisions

• Ensuring you have all specifications and requirements that apply to the scope of the project and only the scope

• Focusing properly on the priorities, mission, goals, features, and tasks in a project

• Knowing what to do when things go wrong

• Getting a project to a successful end on time and within budget

• Leading the project team through execution

• Running effective meetings

• Dealing with the politics and bureaucracy of an organization to advance the project

In no way having almost twice as many bullets for art than for science implies that art is more important, in fact they are equally important. However, most concentrate and are aware of the science and I want to demonstrate that there is an art to it too.

I may leave you half full by not diving into each one of the above points in this article due to the brevity of time and the fact that each one of them is a topic for a stand alone article in itself.

Many of us, I think, know where to get, and get, the science part. Most never make it as an artist. Don’t you think so…? Well, I do.

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13 Responses to “Project Management: Art Or Science”

  1. Anonymous
    November 2nd, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    "Project managers apply a science using art."
    Excellent observation!

    And "Most never make it as an artist."

    I think your article also addresses the often asked question of what makes a good project manager and the on going debate over methodologies.

    PMs have to take the practices that are best for their project and artfully apply them.

    Without the artist, you essentially have two things, a Mack truck approach and the square peg round hole approach. Neither of which will lead to a successful project.

  2. Jay Conne
    November 2nd, 2009 @ 10:17 pm


    I like your integration and differentiation on this.

    It's interesting to note that the great classical painters were masters of the science and technology of their tools and materials – like making their paints and probably brushes. As a film photographer and darkroom technician (artist?) I studied under masters in both realms.

    So yes – Agile PM is both discipline (science?) and judgment (art?).


  3. Don Brown
    November 2nd, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

    Yes, both!

  4. Matthew Horvat
    November 3rd, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    Thanks for the energy with the post. You have voiced an opinion that I think most of us share. Well done indeed, however I disagree. While I would like to believe that you are right, what I see is a lack of scientists on the job. By that I mean people don't use disjunctive reasoning. We evaluate a situation from our own perspective by weighing evidence and with a my-side bias. We don't think probabilistically and have an ill-formed approach to experimental design.

    I would say we are better, on average, as artists because then at least, there isn't a rigor expected as there would be as a scientist.

  5. David
    November 3rd, 2009 @ 4:00 am

    A very interesting and thoughtful piece of writing. There would appear thogh to be one area you have forgotten – a project manager cannot know everything, and therefore must be capable of gathering a team of enough depth and knowledge to ensure that a successful conclusion to a project can be achieved

  6. Andy Blake
    November 3rd, 2009 @ 5:27 am

    I liked the article and it did get me thinking! I have always seen PM as being based on Hard and Soft components, the Hard side is the scientific formulaic aspect and the Soft pertains to the Human aspects (more akin to your Art side).

    It's going to be a degree easier to learn the Hard-side aspects than to master the Soft-side aspects, experience has a role in both but I'd expect that negotiation, influencing, reasoning, etc, are much more difficult to learn in a classroom than EVM or Cost-based analysis,etc.

    I disagree with a number of the points that you mention under art, such as:

    * Right process for right project
    Mainly science, analyse the project and analyse processes using objective reasoning. Yes – some art aspects involved but more science.

    * Good and sound decisions
    Mainly science, there is a whole body of knowledge for decision making by scientific analysis. Even if you don't write it down you make the trade-offs and outcome probablilities in your head and can argue based on hard evidience and not only on feeling (art). Sometimes feeling does come into it yes, but it's a lesser part.

    * All specs and reqs
    Mainly science – Stakeholder analysis and requirements analysis with a minor art aspect of feeling whether everything is in place.

    * What to do when things go wrong
    Is this not contingency planning? Or analysing LL from previous projects? Is that an art? Its science, based on risk analysis. If it's an "unknown unknown" then your response at the point the risk materialises may be more creative and art-based but again, that should be a minor element of the whole.

    * Get to end on-time and budget
    Again – this is the bulk of the PM methodology which is definitely more science than art.

    * Running effective meetings
    9/10 meetings would be much more effective if the chairmen and indeed attendees adhered to the well-versed rules of agendas issued in advance, one-person speaking at a time, attending on-time, action lists with owners and dates, wrap-up at the end,etc. There is art involved with dealing with the personalities involved but again, that should be a lesser part than effectiveness of following rules of effective meetings..

    This was what I felt when I read through your points. PM seems much more science based than you suggest but the art element cannot be ignored.

  7. Ajay
    November 3rd, 2009 @ 6:17 am

    Agree on your observation and yes the challenge is in terms of striking a balance between art and science.

    In my perspective science is the art of common sense and based on the required context/situation knowing what science to use, when to use and how much is the balancing act.

    A further question perhaps to your note is can artist be developed or are they born with an assumption that all aspiring artist learn the science in a formal way.

    Incidentally I run a workshop with this title "Balancing the Art and Science of Managing Projects".

  8. Anonymous
    November 3rd, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    I enjoyed the comments but would like to add that the most dysfunctional project managers that I have worked with did not apply the Science and in some instances although they had their PMP had forgotten all that they had learned and applied a negligeble per centage of the methodologies. Most times they fail unless they manage to just get by through sheer charisma and manipulation….

  9. Joel Bancroft-Connors, PMP
    November 3rd, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

    As a former fine arts major, I agree with what Jay Conne said, there is a lot of 'science' underneath art. In a lot of ways being an artist is knowning all the rules and then precisely how to bend or break the rules to come up with that master piece. Some of the most ground breaking or remembered artists broke all the rules in their art, but they did so only after learning the rules.
    So while I agree that the answer could be agrued "Yes", I'm more in the camp of artist as you need to learn the science to be an artist.

  10. Samad Aidane
    November 5th, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    This is a great discussion and thanks to all who have shared.

    I happen to disagree with what was listed under science points as they are really not truly scientific in nature. I happen to believe that project management is all art. If we did not have to deal with humans, all our projects would come on time, on budget, and on scope.

    Let’s look at each item in the science list:

    1. Different methodologies and frameworks available (PMBoK, PRINCE, etc.): I don’t really see anything scientific about these methodologies. These are a collection of best practices that have proven to work in various projects. Each project is different. Knowing which practices to use in which situations requires balancing a number of factors. Judgment and leadership play a huge role in successfully applying these practices. However, there is no scientific method to use to make the right decision and lead the team and organization to apply these methodologies.

    2. Standard processes and knowledge areas: Not sure how these are scientific. Again, the application of these processes is not a purely scientific endeavor. The project manager and team will select and tailor each process to the situation.

    3. Uniformly accepted best practices and techniques: again, same as Standard processes and knowledge areas.

    4.Same language is spoken: Sure. Sometimes. But certainly not always at the start of projects. But again there is nothing scientific here.

    5.A set of standard metrics that measure several project areas: most of the metrics used in project management give the illusion of being scientific. However, none reflect the most important factor in the equation: the human factor. Effective PMs do not normally use or need these formulas to assess the real state of the project. These metrics are mostly used for reporting to PMOs and other governance processes.

    6.Plenty of standard work templates: Using a standard or a template that as part of applying a best practice does not make this a purely scientific exercise. You still need to apply judgment to select what to use, how, and when. If the environment is not mature in using project management, you still need negotiation skills will be needed to convince your stakeholders to use them.

  11. Anonymous
    November 9th, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    I enjoy reading the discussions and believe that the debate will continue for a very long time to come.

    Personally I would like to word the theme of PM the other way around:

    "Project managers perform the arts of management with the guidance of science."

    PM as a profession can be analogous to many other professions, where "science"
    pertains to the conceptual understanding and articulation of the craft, while the skills to apply the science remain mostly "arts". Indeed many do not make
    it as an artist.

    Peter Drucker questioned Management could ever become science, yet he favored
    the teaching of management.

    Conceptual training helps new PMs to "merge into the traffic" with a shorter ramp. But a shorter ramp cannot replace actual driving skills to reduce crashes and reach the destinations at ease.

    I particularly enjoyed the comments from Metthew and Samad, although their wording might appear conflicting. I take it that we have a general lack of
    conceptual capabilities in our profession. As important as actual skills to navigate the business jungles are, the capability to conceptualize when and how to do what will defenitly help many of us to become better professionals.

    – Jack Sun

  12. FK
    November 20th, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    The statement below from one of the posts summed up my feelings about our profession as Project Managers:

    "Project managers perform the arts of management with the guidance of science."

    There is a statement that Project Management normally failed because of lack of Management support. After 18 years in this profession, I had observed that it did not mattered what and how much you knew about project management but how you align with your management team, especially your PMO. That is really art and not science but your underlying scientific knowledge of Project Management is very important.

    And to be sure, I observed also that most long survivals around me are good artists, so I am quickly honing my artistic skills.

  13. Thosny
    December 28th, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    Great article Jorge. I have a blog that touches on the same subject.

    To the respondent who states that project management is not a science, I would have to wholeheartedly disagree.

    By definition, science is "knowledge gained through study or practice; a mastery of a particular discipline or area."

    I'll go out on a limb here, but not all science has to develop in a test tube or petri dish! The project management principles prescribed within PMBOK and other methods; developed over decades of practice and study, certainly vindicate the categorization that these are, in fact, a science.

    My feeling is that "project artistry" first comes by way of recognizing the dynamics of the environment the project manager must operate their project within; and devising a strategy to invoke the highest level of quality within the projected contraints of scope, schedule and cost.

    Secondly, the project manager should artistically unearth and evaluate the dynamics or variables which are not always seen with the naked eye!

    1. Organizational maturity (methods, procedurals, practices, structures, policies, knowledge, background, etc.)
    2. Capabilities (technical, resources, etc.)
    3. Influences (risks, issues, regulatory, fiduciary, etc.)
    … to name a few.

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