Characteristics and Consequences of the Prevailing Paradigm

The question arises: What are the characteristics of the prevailing paradigm that make it so difficult to manage and lead projects consistently to a successful conclusion? There are five key characteristics.


A salient characteristic of the prevailing paradigm is the overemphasis on precision before starting a project. In my experience, I have noticed that many project managers spend extensive time with other stakeholders to ensure that everything is "perfect." Not surprisingly, some people become extremely frustrated with the perfectionist approach because from an appearance perspective "nothing is getting done." Some project managers never go beyond the planning stage. They seek correctness in the plan without really knowing the criteria for determining what defines the perfection. Yet they constantly refine the plan, hoping that every detail is covered.

The reality is, of course, that a plan is a snapshot in time. Like all snapshots, it is incomplete. It is only a model and, like all models, only approximates what is or what is to be.

So why is there such a proclivity towards this sense of perfectionism under the prevailing paradigm? I believe it has its roots in early scientific thinking from a couple of centuries ago: The idea that mankind can master domination over the world through increased knowledge and understanding. With more knowledge and understanding will come predictability about the existing world and a subsequent confidence in our ability to predict, even manage, the future. The problem arises that too much abstraction takes over, becoming more important than actual implementation. The bookshelves of project managers are often filled with abstract plans and the subsequent results are not hard to understand. A plan developed without the involvement of the people who will implement it will not having meaning to them. [22]


Another characteristic of the prevailing paradigm is the desire to explode everything on a project into discrete components . In other words, a person takes an object as a whole and explodes it into minute details to improve knowledge and understanding and then reassembles it. This action is predicated on the notion that the human mind has a limited capacity to comprehend complex phenomena.

This approach is quite common in project management. Take a top-down perspective, identify all the major components, and explode each one into minute parts . Developing the work breakdown structure involves taking this approach and often works quite well. However, what frequently happens is that the desire to explode further and further into the constituent components results in a seemingly endless endeavor. Sometimes drilling down the work breakdown structure becomes so deep that splitting the atom seems to occur. Coupled with the desire for perfection, this approach towards building a work breakdown structure becomes endless.

Some great costs are often attributed to this analytical approach. The construction of the object, in our case the project, is built by artificial yet fixed boundaries, making it almost impossible for people to adapt to a dynamic environment. What I have witnessed is that the explosion becomes treated as something so sacred that many people cling to it even when it no longer makes sense. The work breakdown structure, for example, is adhered to with such rigidity that it becomes unrealistic to follow because of the difficulty or, more importantly, the reluctance to change.

Another great cost during the explosion, for example, is the loss of the relationships (often subtle in nature) among the components. The very result of an exploding work breakdown structure causes the loss of many relationships and often the imposition of artificial ones among those components when constructing a network diagram. The network diagram often becomes a poor reconstruction of the relationship among the elements because, by its very nature, it is an incomplete model.

There are, I believe, several reasons for the desire to emphasize analysis and again it is rooted in our scientific past. In the Turning Point , Fritjof Capra agrees by observing that there is a strong tendency to break phenomena into basic building blocks and try to understand their interactions. He calls this behavior reductionism and says that it has been a dominant characteristic of scientific thinking. [23] Our organizations have mimicked this reductionism from the top down to the project level. [24]

Breaking everything into constituent components is seen as a way to improve understandability about something and then rebuild it in a way to identify the relationships. It is all based on Cartesian thinking, which is very analytical, whereby everything must be broken into pieces and then rearranged in a logical order. The problem is often that some of the key relationships are not identified or are done so incorrectly, particularly for nonlinear systems, like a project. The result is a loss of synergy.

Perhaps more disturbing is that it leads towards a reductionist perspective. Every attempt is made to define the project in a simplistic, fundamental way. Often, the attention is paid to the arbitrarily identified components themselves and not the relationships. In other words, emphasis is placed on the properties of the components and not, or to a lesser degree, on the relationships among the components. Everything is then perceived as some machine governed by mathematical laws. This perception also permeates our thinking about people and we look at them as machines. There is, however, a fundamental difference between machines and organisms. The behavior of machines is determined by structure; not so for organisms, which are determined by process. The former are inflexible , based on precision. The latter are flexible, adaptable to changing circumstances.

Project management is replete with examples of the above insights. Often great emphasis is made to identify the components of a project and then try to artificially reconstruct the relationships based on a construct like time. Throughout the life cycle of a project, every effort is made to juggle the elements of the iron triangle of cost, schedule, and quality in a manner that is often not captured in the project plan. In a project, a constant war goes on to impose some analytical abstraction onto the project. This only augments complexity, not simplifies it, even though the goal of this effort is to seek predictability and objectivity. Still this analytical approach does not put us at ease, but only contributes more to our angst because the focus is on parts rather than the entire system comprising of the former. This approach is very Cartesian and has strong implications of determinism behind it, similar to that of a clock. It leads to viewing the world, or a project, as consisting of parts arranged in a way that encourages thinking in terms of causality .


The prevailing paradigm emphasizes the logical side of project management based on a cause and effect perspective. The very act of planning and managing a project is an exercise of logic. Energies are expended to develop a well- constructed , sequentially oriented plan that fits neatly together. The assumption is that the project will flow according to the sequence and success will arise. For example, the team does A, then B, maybe C and D together in a cause and effect link throughout the course of a project.

The reality, of course, is just the opposite . The project often does not flow according to plan for many reasons. Perhaps the plan is incomplete or inaccurate, a testament to the foibles of planning. The real reason is that the plan is treated like some timeless image for a project that everything follows . It is, however, only a linear snapshot of what ought to happen at a given point in time. Such linear thinking requires that we view objects as distinct states. [25] The consequence of this perception is that the plan often becomes an anachronism or an encapsulated abstraction that lacks relevance.

Despite the plan, the result may be the same based on the fallacious assumption that the plan contributed to successful results from a logic perspective. The conclusion may, in fact, be based on a false premise . Hence, a plan may be misconstrued as being valid when in reality other factors that are not necessarily quantifiable may be contributing to its success.

Pure logic in and of itself can result in an unyielding, almost dictatorial perception of the world around us. The world becomes a battleground between what should be and what is, particularly if the logic is linear and absolutist in orientation. A tendency exists to force a solution, a characteristic of sequential thinking. This requires identifying and performing one action at a time, creating an inflexible response.

The other consequence is that anomalies become treated as problems rather than opportunities to progress. More often than not, deviations from the plan must be corrected. While not all changes are good, a tendency exists to either ignore or discount anomalies, deviations to plans, as something intolerable. This perspective leads to inflexibility that, in turn , leads to an irrelevant plan. The assumption behind the perspective, of course, is that order and control must prevail; otherwise , chaos takes over the project. Hence, any deviation from the plan is an aversion.

The importance of logic has much of its roots in the work of Descartes. He placed the mind as the focus of everything. "I think therefore I am" led to man being perceived as a rational creature. Newton, of course, took logic to the heights of acceptance through the use of mathematical abstractions for understanding and predicting reality. Knowledge and understanding, coupled with logic, will enable domination over the environment. [26]


One of the more fascinating aspects of the prevailing paradigm is the notion that a plan must be precise to be meaningful. The assumption is that everything on a project is definable and there is only one right way to approach it. It is not uncommon for project managers and everyone else, therefore, to want to develop and implement the "most efficient and effective" approach based on complete, accurate, clear, and relevant content.

This attempt to build the most efficient and effective system is often an exercise in predictability in the hope of discovering how things really work. Human beings have a tendency to build complex maps of the universe in an effort to achieve predictability and gain the ability to manipulate variables to gain desired results.

The reality, of course, is that a plan is a model, an approximation of a system, called a project. There will never be enough data and information and what little are available are often incomplete and inaccurate. Yet, for example, planning sessions often become debates over what is the right path . There may not be just one right plan, but multiple right plans.

I believe this desire for precision is based on the need for predictability exhibited through the scientist's need for predictability. It manifests itself in activities and topics not often deemed scientific, e.g., motivation theory and organizational design. [27] The assumption is that through sufficient inquiry one can uncover the "truth" or "right way." Discover the right answer and the "truth will set you free" becomes the overriding belief. This desire for precision is largely exhibited through Newtonian mathematical constructs to predict physical behavior. [28]

The consequences for project outcomes are immense. They become actual reflections of estimation, even inaccuracy. Yet every effort is made to preserve the plan and evaluate any changes under rigorous change management policies and procedures. This very act of evaluation is testimony that the plan is often inaccurate.

The desire for precision assumes that a project and its environment are static; that is, both are unchanging. Yet projects and their environments are constantly changing. Under such circumstances, about the best a project manager can do is to choose a path that will improve the likelihood of achieving success.

However, developing plans and executing them is often more of an exercise in approximation than precision. There are never enough data and information to be precise, I believe, and there is really no way to be truly objective. Quantification is not the answer either because what is selected to measure is as much an expression of values as the variables themselves.

The desire for objectivity assumes that the measurers can extricate themselves from their environment. Realistically, no one can do that. They are mired in the bog of their environment.

When you really think about the contemporary environment for projects, it does not lend itself to precision simply because there is too little time, too much data, and plenty of complexity.


Under the prevailing paradigm, a view prevails that projects must be managed systematically. That is, project managers need to approach a project in a methodical, step-by-step manner. By being systematic, all that is required is to simply follow a framework or methodology, and success is assured. Not surprisingly, many organizations purchase and try to deploy a framework or methodology with the expectation that projects will complete on time, within budget, and satisfy customers.

Behaving systematically satisfies a human need to feel in control by being methodical and complete. Frameworks and methodologies often give this false sense of control by providing a means to be methodical and complete.

Despite vendor claims, the record of project success is dismal at best and methodologies and frameworks have yet to show a strong record of success themselves. My experience has been that methodologies and frameworks can be useful, but they do not guarantee success as often as portrayed and, in fact, can be counterproductive. Most encourage a mechanical, almost paint-by- numbers approach and assume that a project will succeed. Rather, the framework or methodology ends up creating a bureaucratic infrastructure for projects and actually impedes work. Managing a project then becomes a matter of compliance and an exercise in administrative trivia. Sadly, many companies invest millions to form organizations, such as a project management office that specializes in methodologies, just to support projects to be systematic in their approach.


There are immense consequences attributed to the prevailing paradigm with managing and leading a project.

More Is Better

Project managers apply the tools, techniques, and principles en masse. Instead of applying the right tool, technique, or principle in the right amount at the right moment, everything is applied in an almost shotgun manner. This situation is particularly the case when project managers lack the experience in discerning the difference between doing the "right thing" as opposed to doing the "thing right." Eventually, it leads to the bureaucratization of projects.

A Project Is Merely an Exercise of Mechanics

Project management appears to be nothing more than following a series of steps. If a project manager follows a sequence, such as one suggested by a framework or methodology, good results follow. Often, however, this fails because the steps explain what and how to apply project management, but they fail to address the motivational side of project management. In other words, the people factor, which does not lend itself to a mechanical step-by-step approach, is ignored.

This attempt to take a mechanical approach perhaps lies with our perception of the world as being something like a machine, whereby everything moves according to some overall regular pace. A machine, of course, is made up of parts. Each part has a specific, defined role that must work with another part in a timed manner. The wrong part and the wrong pace and everything breaks down. Through analysis, however, the bad part can be isolated and removed. This machine analogy has permeated project management. [29]

A Desperate Attempt to Find a Secret Weapon to Save Projects

This one is tied closely to the last point. Management in general and project managers in particular are constantly looking for some tool, technique, or methodology to help turn a project around. Time and money are often spent in this pursuit only to find the investment never turned the project around because the fundamental problem was not having that secret weapon. Frequently, the new tool, technique, or methodology is then considered inadequate as the pursuit for a newer and better one begins. The real issue rests somewhere else.

An Overemphasis on Command and Control

The prevailing paradigm, by placing an emphasis on standardization and mechanization, encourages project managers to assume a "take charge" approach. That often means constant oversight of the minutest details of a project, including over what people do and how they do it. This results in a dramatic decline in ownership and commitment on the part of other stakeholders and, quite often, accountability flows back to the project manager. This behavior reflects the perception of our organizations, that projects are machines. Of course, projects are not machines, but project managers often treat them as such.

A Black and White View of Managing a Project

This characteristic is based on the notion that a right way and wrong way exists for projects. Subscribing to a black and white perspective, often based on some methodology or body of knowledge, leads to polarization among stakeholders and eventual negative conflict. Project managers then surround themselves with a core group of "think alikes" that can negatively influence decisions as well as jeopardize morale on project teams . It can lead to destructive competition among stakeholders. It can also mean having an unrealistic view of the world.

A Microscopic View of a Project

There is a saying that no man is an island; the same applies to projects. Under the prevailing paradigm, however, many project managers treat their projects as isolated enclaves operating in a separate world. They begin to filter data and information, hearing what they want, not needing to hear what occurs in the external environment. They often manage people in a way that fails to consider the impact of the bigger picture, which includes the external environment, on the performance of their projects.

Conservative View of the World

The prevailing view of command and control that often accompanies the existing paradigm translates into a reactive rather than responsive approach towards managing projects. Risks and variances, for example, are seen as threats rather than opportunities on which to capitalize. Project management then becomes reactive rather than responsive . New ideas and new approaches are seen as threatening because the prevailing paradigm has a low tolerance for error and indeterminacy. Consequently, project managers find themselves policing their projects.

This perception is the result of emphasizing the need for a system, like a project, to maintain stability to preserve its overall structure. Increasingly, however, it is recognized that systems may fall into disequilibrium only to move into a different state to recreate themselves and adapt to their environments.

Only Quantification Matters

Often, project managers focus only on the numbers, such as ratios and indices. This is based on the assumption that only what can be measured matters. An added benefit arises, too, that equations, being succinct and applicable widely, can be used to deal with a wide range of phenomena. This perspective, however, is shortsighted. Numbers are only a gauge, a means to an end, not the ends themselves. A good Cost Performance Index, for example, may indicate efficiency but not necessarily effectiveness. Stakeholders, including the team, may still be dissatisfied with the results. This emphasis on quantification may override qualitative considerations, resulting in an unrealistic appraisal of projects. Numbers are really indicators and not the end in itself as is so often the case under the prevailing paradigm. Yet, as Margaret Wheatley observes, such quantification becomes the focus of attention, playing a central role in mathematical calculations for making decisions on structure and organizational design. [30]

To some extent, thank Newton for this overreliance on number crunching on one specific piece of life ” time. All of these calculations became the center of attention, not data, from a Newtonian perspective. Time became the principal recipient of calculations, construed as independent from all phenomena. [31] As we all know, the calculation of time plays a key role in project management and continues to be viewed as some independent abstract entity that can be expressed numerically . [32]

This desire for numbers is applied to everything, including the social science arena. This desire has permeated the social sciences in an attempt to ascertain behavior numerically. This very desire for numbers has also led to a misreading of reality. Quite often, the numbers become the measure of everything on a project. To a certain extent, this reliance on numbers is a religious crusade of intolerance towards nonquantifiable factors.

Unrealistic View of the World

By viewing the plan as a perfect model, what often happens is a war on reality. The need for order and control almost necessitates treating the plan as "the true path" to success. Inflexibility takes over and the plan becomes a world of its own. As the environment changes, so should the plan. Yet this frequently does not happen. An unrealistic schedule, for example, becomes something that is imposed on the team. Under such circumstances, either team members become frustrated and ignore the plan or they give up and "just follow orders." Either way, project managers find themselves making difficult choices that can demoralize a team.

From a project leadership perspective, it seems that the prevailing paradigm should be discarded completely. There have been too many big failures and the shortcoming are immense. In truth, there have been few successes. What is needed is a shift in the paradigm to reflect a more balanced approach towards project management.

Indeed, the crux of the problem ” the management aspects of a project. What is needed is a more complete, balanced view of the field ” the leadership aspects of a project. Too much emphasis has been placed on the mechanics and less on the so-called softer side of project management. Kam Jugdev, Janice Thomas, and Connie Delisle acknowledge this trend toward a paradigm shift. They say that the iron triangle of cost, time, and scope and the view that a project is a temporary endeavor is yielding to a much broader, holistic perspective about project management. This perspective includes addressing needs and meeting expectations in a way that requires both hard and soft skills. [33]

[22] Jeannette Cabanis, Passion beats planning, limiting scope is stupid, women rule..., PM Network , p. 67.

[23] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point , Bantam Books, Toronto, 1988, p. 47.

[24] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science , Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1994, p. 6.

[25] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science , Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1994, p. 21.

[26] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science , Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1994, p. 63.

[27] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science , Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1994, p. 140.

[28] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 27.

[29] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 163.

[30] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science , Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1994, p. 27.

[31] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 78.

[32] James Bailey, After Thought , Basic Books, New York, 1996, p. 46.

[33] Kam Jugdev, Janice Thomas, and Connie Delisle, Rethinking project management: old truths and new insights, Project Management , 7(1), 36 “43, 2001.

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