Is one size fits all for project management? (3/6 PM challenges)

This is the third, of six, articles on project management challenges. Article 1 discussed is project management simple and article 2 focused on is project management bureaucratic.

In today’s article we discuss a challenge that we observe in working with individuals and organizations in our region and we also observe from numerous online discussions. We think that, because of over simplification of project management, some practitioners believe that one standard works everywhere, in different industries, different functions, and different size projects and that one approach is all we need.

An example is perhaps the best way to explain this.

Project management is the same across domains

A colleague, who was the manager of projects in a utility distribution company, shared this story with us.

A so-called project management consultant came to sell this client his services. The consultant had experience limited to a single domain, Information Technology (IT). In the course of discussing the consultant’s project management service offerings and  how they apply in helping to manage their projects in the utility industry, the client asked the consultant “how can someone with IT expertise offer us help on how to manage major engineering and construction projects?” The consultant said, “There is no difference – project management in IT is the same as in Construction”! The consultant did not get the job.

While it is true that there are common project management principles across industry sectors, businesses, and types of projects, stating they apply universally is a fatal error as the IT consultant discovered. The differences are large in term of the amount of capital investment, project size, logistical requirements, complexity, safety, and number of people involved. Not understanding these differences hampers practitioners’ ability to offer effective solutions and deliver successful projects.

Common debate

In line with the above, there is a common debate in project management online communities on whether a project manager can cross industries. This is a complicated and hotly debated matter; we leave it out of this work since it deserves its own post.

One standard

Another issue is mostly driven by the popularity of the PMP certification and the PMBOK® Guide. Some, who learn project management through the eyes of PMI and PMBOK, often treat this guide as THE BODY OF KNOWLEDGE and a holy book although PMI itself insist on including “A Guide …” in the name since it is not the body of knowledge.

Two or three months back, we wrote a few articles on the PMBOK Guide and we refer the reader to them. The main theme is that the PMBOK Guide is not enough to manage project effectively, especially across all domains … the PMBOK Guide cannot be a one size fits all.

Also refer to the next challenge – next post where we address a similar challenge.

What do we need for project management

In this article, and the related articles in this series, we are focusing on the challenges. Once we cover the six challenges we will discuss five opportunities for project management. However, in order to push the whole answer to later – let us just say the following:

There are many principles, processes, and project management topics that are applicable across projects’ domains. These are highly valuable for projects in engineering, media, healthcare, and other domains. However, there are many principles and practices that are unique to an industry or group of industries. Such as the special situations of capital investment projects, or technology projects, or media …

In simple terms:

Do you agree with what present here? What did we miss? Why do not you agree with? Let us here from you.


6 thoughts on “Is one size fits all for project management? (3/6 PM challenges)

  1. Robert K. Wysocki, PhD


    Practicing a “one size fits all” approach to project management is the first step towards abject failure. Projects are unique and their effective management is also unique. The choice and adaptation of the best fit project management approach is a function of several internal and external variables (not constants). And even after having made the choice and implemented the adaptations the internal and external environments will change during project execution. This means the best fit choice is a dynamic not a static decision. All of this is fully documented in my book “Adaptive Project Framework: Managing Complexity in the Face of Uncertainty” (ISBN 978-0-321-52561-1).

    In the final analysis my definition of project management has always been that it is “organized common sense.”


    1. Mounir Ajam Post author

      Hi Bob

      In principal we agree but not 100%. In general, there are organizations that do similar types of projects and those organizations can benefit from a standardized approach — notice I use the term approach rather that set in stones instructions. Therefore, there should be general guidelines and standardized approach that would be beneficial but that cannot be restrictive. The project manager and team will still have abilities and empowerment to deviate where there are reasons and justifications.

      In complex projects – where a solution is not clear – we need more dynamic approach which could be extreme, agile, or “emertxe” as you describe in your book – which is excellent by the way.

      1. Bob Wysocki


        Even a standardized approach for a specific project can have variations that are driven by the uniqueness of every project. With that proviso we agree 100%.

        Thanks for the comment on my book.


  2. Pingback: 6 PM challenges – No 4: is project management industry specific? | Redefining Project Management

  3. Warren Thompson

    In support of your argument that project management is not the same across all domains, there are a couple things that should also be considered.

    The right fit

    I believe that the consultant should be aware of the appropriate methodology to be used on each type of project. A lot of PMs somehow fail to realize that the PMBOK is not a methodology but a framework which may or may not go hand in hand with the required methodology. The flexibility of the PM relies on this understanding.

    “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
    ― Socrates

    The other consideration is determining the availability of SMEs. A good PM would realize that he would need this especially for a domain that he is new to. His knowledge would be limited due to lack of experience and therefore his reliance on an SME will be great at first. This of course would work best in a projectized environment where the PM would have full access to the SME.

    With the right methodology, proper access to good SMEs and the capacity to learn, managing projects across domains becomes more amenable.


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