Project Management Is a Broad Human Practice – Not Merely a Profession
By Michael Greer
In a recent article on PM Hut titled Defending the Project Management Profession Bruce McGraw writes: “… having recently seen ads for fast, cheap and simple project management training and tools, I felt the need to state firmly my position on this matter… [that] project management is a profession and project managers are professionals.” OK. Fair enough. Then Bruce goes on to provide ample evidence that PM is indeed a profession.
But I feel compelled to add: “Yes… AND… project management is much more than a mere profession: It’s a broad practice undertaken by many, many of our fellow humans. And, as a broadly undertaken practice, there is a compelling need for ‘fast, cheap, and simple PM training and tools.’” That’s because the majority of PM practitioners are people who are just jumping in and getting the job done, without giving a second thought to the PM profession, PM professionals or their vocabulary and “shoulds.” And any tools or training that these people find helpful (including fast, cheap, or simple ones) are by definition valuable.
A Bit on the Evolution of Professions & Professionals
We humans are problem-solvers. We do all sorts of things to improve our circumstances and remove obstacles to our success. Some of these things we do are so fascinating to us that we begin to share our problem-solving techniques with each other, comparing notes, developing methodologies, and archiving our strategies. Eventually, in some domains, there are a few individuals who become so captivated by working with a particular kind of problem that they decide to make it a full-time pursuit. And inevitably, though the problem they are solving has its roots in common, shared human experiences, these “full-timers” begin to regard themselves as a class apart from the rest of us. They begin to regard themselves as professionals. And they label the thing they do as a “profession.”
The trouble with professionals, however, is that it’s easy for them to lose touch with two simple facts:
- The rest of humanity continues to solve problems in the professional’s domain on a daily basis. (Every day they “practice” achieving practical, necessary results so they can get on with their lives.)
The rest of humanity uses (and demands) the simplest, most common-sense techniques that get the job done. They simply do what works. And though non-professionals may not have developed sophisticated (or arcane?) terminology to describe their techniques, the techniques nonetheless work. They get results.
In short, most domains of human activity begin as broad, human practices… a set of actions that work to get results. Eventually, in some domains, a sort of “high priest” class evolves who study the domain deeply, analyze it beyond what ordinary folks would choose to do, and anoint themselves as “professionals” who are uniquely qualified to practice in this domain. Meanwhile, ordinary people go on about their lives, getting things done and picking and choosing the professionally-recommended “best practices” that make sense to them.
Let’s Get Real: Some Typical Human Practices & Their “Professional” Corollaries
Here are some examples to illustrate the dynamic described above. All of the activities listed below are common human practices; all of them are things that we all do to somehow enrich our lives or solve problems. Yet all generate their own “professional” class of practitioners.
- Cooking: Everybody prepares food for themselves. At the same time, professionally-certified chefs are schooled in food chemistry, heating/cooking strategies, the art of combining flavors, etc.
Treatment of Injury or Disease: Everybody treats their own injuries or diseases. (They stop the bleeding. They apply medications, etc.). And most of us will inevitably provide first-aid treatment for someone else. At the same time, a fascinated few delve deeply into medical research and learn to treat medical problems as medical professionals.
Plumbing: Everybody at one time or another hooks up a garden hose or struggles to keep their toilet working. Some people perform minor plumbing repairs around the house. And some do-it-yourselfers go so far as to build or modify their own plumbing systems. At the same time, highly-trained plumbers study plumbing and the design of water/drainage techniques so that they can build and repair complex plumbing systems. They become professional plumbers.
Writing: Everybody writes letters and reports. Some folks study writing techniques and learn to use sophisticated writing tools and processes. Some folks become professional writers.
Teaching: Every parent teaches basic concepts to their children. And every parent coaches on an ad-hoc basis. Yet some people choose to spend all day, every day, teaching or coaching. These folks become professional educators, trainers, or coaches.
Leadership: Every parent has, at one time or another, acted as a leader for her children. Parents articulate a goal or vision, motivate, cajole, inspect progress, and lead the way to achieving the goal. At the same time, students of management and would-be executives can spend years studying leadership as a part of their senior management training so they can lead in a “professional” way.
Prayer: Everybody who wants to do so can (and does) talk to their God. Despite the universality of this practice, a class of individuals who have spent their lives studying theology and spirituality (priests, rabbis, ayatollahs, ministers, monks, and the like) stand ready to help us figure out new ways to relate to our various dieties.
Project Management: Kids who are completing complex class assignments are informally managing projects. Leaders in civic organizations who complete local fund raising efforts must informally manage these as projects. Small business owners routinely practice project management. Though they would rather practice their industry specialty than study PM, they realize that they must perform “just enough” PM to get things done and remain competitive. Indeed, managers in all sorts of large organizations in all sorts of industries manage project after project every day in order to complete their assignments. All of these people do what they have to do to get the job done. Still, at the same time, many different PM professional associations and their members stand ready to help “professionalize” the practice of project management and provide people who can help deal with complex PM problems.
So (once again… for emphasis!) — Project management is much more than a mere profession: It’s a broad practice undertaken by many, many of our fellow humans. And, as a broadly undertaken practice, there is a compelling need for ‘fast, cheap, and simple PM training and tools’” precisely because the majority of PM practitioners are people who are just jumping in and getting the job done, without giving a second thought to the PM profession, PM professionals or their vocabulary and “shoulds.” So any tool or training that these people find helpful (including fast, cheap, or simple ones) are by definition valuable.
Michael Greer is a Project Management author and trainer whose mission is to help new project managers become more effective. Through his books, workshops, and public speaking appearances, he seeks to demystify the field of project management (PM) and make it accessible to newcomers. His website can be found at http://michaelgreer.com. You can follow Michael via twitter.