Power and Narrative in Project Management: Lessons Learned in Recognising the Importance of Phronesis
Rogers, Michael David
A component part of modern project management practice is the ‘lessons learned’ activity that is designed to transfer experience and best practice from one project to another, thus improving the practice of project management. The departure point for this thesis is: If we are learning lessons from our experiences in project management, then why are we not better at managing projects? It is widely cited in most project management literature that 50–70% of all projects fail for one reason or another, a figure that has steadfastly refused to improve over many years. My contention is that the current rational approach to understanding lessons learned in project management, one entrenched in the if–then causality of first-order systems thinking where the nature of movement is a ‘corrective repetition of the past in order to realise an optimal future state’ (Stacey 2011: 301), does not reflect the actual everyday experience of organisational life. I see this as an experience of changing priorities, competing initiatives, unrealistic timescales, evaporation of resources, non-rational decisions based on power relations between actors in the organisations we find ourselves in; and every other manner of challenge that presents itself in modern large commercial organisations. I propose a move away from what I see as the current reductionist view of lessons learned, with its emphasis on objective observation, to one of involved subjective understanding. This is an understanding rooted in the particular experience of the individual acting into the social, an act that necessarily changes both the individual and the social. My contention is that a narrative approach to sense making as first-order abstractions in the activity of lessons learned within project management is what is required if we are to better learn from our experiences. This narrative approach that I have termed ‘thick simplification’ supports learning by enabling the reader of the lessons learned account to situate the ‘lesson learned’ within their own experience through treating the lessons learned as a potential future understanding .This requires a different view of what is going on between people in organisations – one that challenges the current reliance on detached process and recognises the importance of embedded phronesis, the Aristotelian virtue of practical judgement. It is an approach that necessarily ‘focuses attention directly on patterns of human relating, and asks what kind of power relations, ideology and communication they reflect’ (Stacey 2007: 266).