What is a good project manager? Reconceptualizing the “do” : an Aristotelian perspective

Bredillet, Christophe, Hatcher, Caroline A., Tywoniak, Stephane, & Dwivedula, Ravikiran (2013) What is a good project manager? Reconceptualizing the “do” : an Aristotelian perspective. In Innovative Approaches in Project Management Research, BI Novergian Business School, Oslo, Norway.

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In Social Science (Organization Studies, Economics, Management Science, Strategy, International Relations, Political Science…) the quest for addressing the question “what is a good practitioner?” has been around for centuries, with the underlying assumptions that good practitioners should lead organizations to higher levels of performance. Hence to ask “what is a good “captain”?” is not a new question, we should add! (e.g. Tsoukas & Cummings, 1997, p. 670; Söderlund, 2004, p. 190).

This interrogation leads to consider problems such as the relations between dichotomies Theory and Practice, rigor and relevance of research, ways of knowing and knowledge forms. On the one hand we face the “Enlightenment” assumptions underlying modern positivist Social science, grounded in “unity-of-science dream of transforming and reducing all kinds of knowledge to one basic form and level” and cause-effects relationships (Eikeland, 2012, p. 20), and on the other, the postmodern interpretivist proposal, and its “tendency to make all kinds of knowing equivalent” (Eikeland, 2012, p. 20). In the project management space, this aims at addressing one of the fundamental problems in the field: projects still do not deliver their expected benefits and promises and therefore the socio-economical good (Hodgson & Cicmil, 2007; Bredillet, 2010, Lalonde et al., 2012). The Cartesian tradition supporting projects research and practice for the last 60 years (Bredillet, 2010, p. 4) has led to the lack of relevance to practice of the current conceptual base of project management, despite the sum of research, development of standards, best & good practices and the related development of project management bodies of knowledge (Packendorff, 1995, p. 319-323; Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006, p. 2–6, Hodgson & Cicmil, 2007, p. 436–7; Winter et al., 2006, p. 638). Referring to both Hodgson (2002) and Giddens (1993), we could say that “those who expect a “social-scientific Newton” to revolutionize this young field “are not only waiting for a train that will not arrive, but are in the wrong station altogether” (Hodgson, 2002, p. 809; Giddens, 1993, p. 18). While, in the postmodern stream mainly rooted in the “practice turn” (e.g. Hällgren & Lindahl, 2012), the shift from methodological individualism to social viscosity and the advocated pluralism lead to reinforce the “functional stupidity” (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1194) this postmodern stream aims at overcoming.

We suggest here that addressing the question “what is a good PM?” requires a philosophy of practice perspective to complement the “usual” philosophy of science perspective. The questioning of the modern Cartesian tradition mirrors a similar one made within Social science (Say, 1964; Koontz, 1961, 1980; Menger, 1985; Warry, 1992; Rothbard, 1997a; Tsoukas & Cummings, 1997; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Boisot & McKelvey, 2010), calling for new thinking. In order to get outside the rationalist ‘box’, Toulmin (1990, p. 11), along with Tsoukas & Cummings (1997, p. 655), suggests a possible path, summarizing the thoughts of many authors:

“It can cling to the discredited research program of the purely theoretical (i.e. “modern”) philosophy, which will end up by driving it out of business: it can look for new and less exclusively theoretical ways of working, and develop the methods needed for a more practical (“post-modern”) agenda; or it can return to its pre-17th century traditions, and try to recover the lost (“pre-modern”) topics that were side-tracked by Descartes, but can be usefully taken up for the future” (Toulmin, 1990, p. 11).

Thus, paradoxically and interestingly, in their quest for the so-called post-modernism, many authors build on “pre-modern” philosophies such as the Aristotelian one (e.g. MacIntyre, 1985, 2007; Tsoukas & Cummings, 1997; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Blomquist et al., 2010; Lalonde et al., 2012). It is perhaps because the post-modern stream emphasizes a dialogic process restricted to reliance on voice and textual representation, it limits the meaning of communicative praxis, and weaking the practice because it turns away attention from more fundamental issues associated with problem-definition and knowledge-for-use in action (Tedlock, 1983, p. 332–4; Schrag, 1986, p. 30, 46–7; Warry, 1992, p. 157). Eikeland suggests that the Aristotelian “gnoseology allows for reconsidering and reintegrating ways of knowing: traditional, practical, tacit, emotional, experiential, intuitive, etc., marginalised and considered insufficient by modernist [and post-modernist] thinking” (Eikeland, 2012, p. 20—21).

By contrast with the modernist one-dimensional thinking and relativist and pluralistic post-modernism, we suggest, in a turn to an Aristotelian pre-modern lens, to re-conceptualise (“re” involving here a “re”-turn to pre-modern thinking) the “do” and to shift the perspective from what a good PM is (philosophy of science lens) to what a good PM does (philosophy of practice lens) (Aristotle, 1926a). As Tsoukas & Cummings put it:

“In the Aristotelian tradition to call something good is to make a factual statement. To ask, for example, ’what is a good captain’?’ is not to come up with a list of attributes that good captains share (as modem contingency theorists would have it), but to point out the things that those who are recognized as good captains do.” (Tsoukas & Cummings, 1997, p. 670)

Thus, this conversation offers a dialogue and deliberation about a central question: What does a good project manager do? The conversation is organized around a critic of the underlying assumptions supporting the modern, post-modern and pre-modern relations to ways of knowing, forms of knowledge and “practice”.

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ID Code: 61686
Item Type: Conference Paper
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Aristotle, project management, modern, praxis, practice turn, temporary organization, post modern
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > COMMERCE MANAGEMENT TOURISM AND SERVICES (150000) > BUSINESS AND MANAGEMENT (150300)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Current > Schools > School of Civil Engineering & Built Environment
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Science & Engineering Faculty
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2013 [please consult the author]
Deposited On: 05 Aug 2013 22:31
Last Modified: 07 Aug 2013 04:25

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