by Ian Saunders, Antony Aitken, Ray Charlton and David Flatman

Project management – and its limitations

Project management is essential and not enough!

Are you or have you been involved in a change initiative that seems to be drifting out of control – with little sense of urgency or focus?

Are you or have you been involved in a project that seems to be going off the rails – over budget, missing targets?

Most of us have experienced at least the second example at some stage. If you are about to initiate or be involved in change, you might like to reflect on this experience, noting down what helped and hindered you in those situations.

Project management

Sometimes, change initiatives are implemented in relatively unstructured ways. This may be a conscious decision: perhaps avoiding ‘yet another initiative’, or being low key and adaptive is seen as a way of gaining acceptance. On the other hand, the unstructured approach might be unconscious and due to a lack of awareness of the need for planning and coordination.

If the change is complex, or involves multiple locations, or is taking place over a long time scale, problems can arise in the absence of a sound project management process. It can be difficult to maintain the necessary degree of momentum and focus. Important dependencies can be neglected or missed.

A good planning process will usually reveal issues and tasks that need to be dealt with that could easily be missed with an ad hoc approach.


Experience shows that a frequent and key weakness is lack of clarity and commitment to the purpose of the change. The most common failings here are

  • Not having a clear purpose linked to the fundamentals of business strategy
  • Purpose being taken for granted or worded loosely (what, for example, does ‘leadership development’ actually mean?)
  • Purpose not being really owned by the participants
  • Thinking that an impressive purpose statement is the same as having a purpose!

A basic project action planning process asks all the following questions:

  • What is the purpose – how does it contribute?
  • What are the success criteria?
  • What activities need to be performed?
  • What resources do we need?
  • Roles – who will do what?
  • What is the sequence of events?
  • Risks – what might prevent us achieving the goals?
  • Who needs to accept the plan?
  • How are we going to work together?
  • How are we going to manage feedback and review?

An example of a proven project management methodology is described in Goal Directed Project Management (see Want to know more?). See also the topic on Project Management.

The limits of project management

In most projects, a project management methodology is essential – particularly where there is a unique task, aimed at achieving a specific result. However, experience shows that it is never enough, that there is always another dimension that needs ‘managing’.

Can you manage change?

You will not achieve change only by ‘managing’ it. Managing implies that you have the process of change ‘under control’, and this is very, very seldom the case.

If change is rarely under control, and yet effective change does happen, how can this be?

Effective change happens when people recognise that change is not a process which can be rigidly planned and those plans adhered to – it is emergent. See Emergent change.