On the Dark Side of Project Management Terminology

August 25, 2011 by  Filed under: Management 

Some of the words we often use in the emerging and dynamic field of project management are related to death; yes death as in no longer alive. Why? We are not totally sure but maybe because when there is life there has to be death; unless of course some of us could be immortals. Actually some projects do seem to be immortal and since they do not seem to finish…

Let us start with life. One of the most common terms ‘some’ use in project management when they refer to the ‘whole project’ is the phrase ‘Project Life Cycle’. Some argue that instead of ‘cycle’ we should use ‘span’ since the project, from start to finish, span (spread over) a period of time that could be weeks, months or years. Now which is the correct term Project Life Cycle or Project Life Span? Let us leave this to a future post and get back to life and death.

Regardless which term we use – we already established that in either phrase the word “life” exists so project has a life.

Now since projects are important, and they are lives then why would one use death terms to refer to projects? We do not only talk about death but we talk about violence – ouch!

Let us start with the death spiral and hopefully it will not visit your project, or should it?

First, the project life (cycle/span) is a period of time spanning the project from start to closure and typically breakdown the project into smaller segments (we call them phases or stages). Typically at the end of some of the stages there are review points, control points, stage gates – meaning a point in time to approve the prior works and decide if we are to proceed or not. Since there is a decision on continuing or not – if not then we cancel the project; sorry we KILL the project; Eyck “kill the project”.

Second, if the project survived the early work and we have an approved plan, then the team move ahead into “execution” and we execute the project (work). This does not make sense, does it? It sounds like approval was the governor ordering to proceed with execution instead of sparing the life of the innocent project. So if we do not kill it early we execute it after planning.

Third, we discuss a common term that usually takes place in planning but we are discussing after execution since it makes more sense, or maybe not. Anyway – what we have here is the name of a technique we use in planning to develop the work breakdown structure (WBS) and activity list. Basically in project management we like to break down the project scope into smaller and smaller pieces down to what we call ‘work packages’. Then we breakdown the work packages into smaller pieces that we call activities. This break down techniques some call decomposition. In other words, we decompose the scope into work packages and the work packages into activities. The confusing part is that we do this before the execution so how the project decomposes before it is executed? We need to find a higher authority to answer this.

The fourth term for today is “post-mortem” and we use this term for the project review and analysis that we do after the project is complete in order to find out what went wrong (and sometime well). So obviously after the execution we need to find out the cause of death but we already know this don’t we? The project is dead because we killed it, executed it, and decomposed it.

Just a few days ago, a friend showed me a message talking about pre-mortem. What is that? Is this for the team to decide how to kill the project or save it? Actually on a serious note, it was the first time I heard this term but basically it refer (in death language) to project risk management.

Why such words and why we cannot use normal living words to refer to projects? The sad part is that many global standards and project management literature use these words.

– Why cannot we use approval / decision points or go/no go or stage gates or… instead of kill points?

– Why cannot we use project implementation instead of execution?

– Why do we have to decompose rather than break down or subdivide or…

– Why-oh why post and pre mortem instead of post project reviews and risk management?

Projects are already complex and chance of success is low – do we have to make them worst by using terminology with negative connotation?

Your thoughts!

Mounir Ajam

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