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date: 25 July 2021

Introduction: Towards the Third Wave of Project Management

Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction defines the concept of the project and gives a brief overview of the history of the project. Project management’s growth since the growth since its formal articulation in the 1950s has been relentless and impressive, the Introduction states, and now presents many opportunities for interesting research. Finally the Introduction outlines the guiding principles of this book.

Keywords: project, project management, research, principles

Projects and project management

Projects have been with us since the coming of man (arguably even before but in different languages), certainly since the beginnings of organized hunting and farming. Mankind's earliest buildings, military campaigns, and religious festivals attest to our ability to conceive goals, develop plans for achieving them, and deliver the desired outcomes successfully. In the past we did this almost instinctively—like so many branches of management—without necessarily articulating or consciously reflecting on our way of doing so. Slowly, however, as Chapter 1 of this book outlines, tools emerged (the bar chart in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries for example), project organization structures became formalized (project coordinators in the 1920s and the matrix organization, first proposed in the 1930s), and ultimately, in the early to mid 1950s, a fully blown discipline—project management—was articulated and mandated by the US Air Force to integrate the engineering and production of its technically complex, urgent missile development programs.

In fact, projects, in one form or another, have played a central role in delivering the innovation that drives our society today; their management, even if not always fully (p. 2) acknowledged, has played a decisive role in ensuring the “collective creative endeavors that…produced the communications, information, transportation and defense systems that structure our world and shape the way we live our lives” (Hughes 1998: 4).

Project management's growth since its formal articulation in the 1950s has been relentless and impressive. There are now professional project management societies in more than seventy countries with a combined membership of over half a million people (see and and Chapter 4). Over a hundred higher education institutions around the world offer university degrees in project management. Yet despite this “professional” base and the emphasis on learning and knowledge, the intellectual underpinnings of the subject have generally been at best variable, and if we are to be frank, fairly thin. Much of this is perhaps due to the tools and techniques bias of the early years of the discipline—critical path network scheduling, work breakdown structures, earned value, configuration management, and so on (many of which were conceived and applied in an environment—defense/aerospace—that was heavily shielded from external disruption). Hence project management was for many years seen as a branch of a subset of general management (production and operations), one which reflects a highly technocratic and rationalistic perspective (Packendorff 1995). A discipline divorced from what Parsons called the institutional levels of enterprise management (Parsons 1960). Indeed, this is the tradition that still dominates many of the textbooks to this day and whose positivist, normative character arguably underlies the dominant professional model of the discipline—its “body of knowledge” (PMI 2008). As such, it frames, and in our view limits and diverts, much of the public debate about the core of project management (Cicmil and Hodgson 2006).

But against this narrow view, in the 1970s and 1980s, stimulated in large part by studies of the apparent poor track record of many projects and much project management (as it was then framed)—see for example Jugdev and Müller (2005)—scholars began to think more widely about projects, what characterized successful projects and what managing them “successfully” really entails (Morris and Hough 1987) and in doing so began developing a broader view of the theoretical underpinnings of the subject. A bigger, and in many ways a more ambitious paradigm began to emerge, covering not just planning and control but technological and commercial issues, organization and people, and external matters—what Morris termed “the management of projects” (Morris 1994).

Projects as organizations

The principal shift in moving to this new paradigm was the focus on the project: on what must be done to develop and deliver it successfully: the project in its context; the project as the entity that sponsors are investing in or stakeholders are reacting (p. 3) to; the project as it is shaped, developed, defined, and delivered. The project as the unit of analysis rather than project management processes (such as risk management, planning and scheduling, etc.) per se. This focus has been reinforced by subsequent studies of major projects, notably those of Miller and Lessard (2000) and Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter (2003), and has been reiterated under a variety of rubrics such as “rethinking project management” (Winter et al. 2006) and “reinventing project management” (Shenhar and Dvir 2007).

Projects in this view then are primarily organizational entities used to integrate activities and people across different organizational and disciplinary domains: organizational constructs (Lundin and Söderholm 1995) “inventing the future” in which the dynamics of management need to be addressed (Davies and Hobday 2005); “temporary organizations” requiring strategic processes, human and physical investments, and often political actions reflecting power struggles and, in some cases, public resistance.

This organizational and contextual perspective shapes the foundation for the kind of analysis that we believe is central to the domain today and which, accordingly, underlies this Handbook. This focus clearly positions project management within the realm of management and organization studies as a critical capability often needed across a range of organizations; a vital part in the practice of general management.

The rising role of theory

As the scope of the discipline has broadened, so the subject has risen progressively in its academic standing, as seen in its rising position in the literature (see Chapters 2 and 3) and in its adoption and treatment in the curricula of many business and engineering schools. Meanwhile, in parallel, project management research has risen in profile. Spurred by a number of reviews of the growing literature (see for example Packendorff 1995; Söderlund 2004a, 2004b; Pinto 2002), there has been pressure to better shape the theoretical basis of the subject and to make project management research more relevant to managers, sponsors, policy-makers, and others concerned with the management of projects, doing so without diminishing standards of academic rigor. Progress has been slow and patchy, however, though there are signs that this is now changing, both in the topics being investigated, in the way they are addressed, and in the manner in which they come together holistically as a coherent domain (Chapter 2).

Yet despite this, at this broad level of analysis and discourse there are still very few books explicitly concerned with the theoretical base of the domain, or the relevance of research. Addressing this gap is thus an explicit aim of this Handbook. Indeed, we (p. 4) hope this book will be an early contributor to a number of works that will address and gradually correct this lacuna. One book alone cannot do justice to the domain: it is too big and complex: this book does not answer, by a long way, all the research issues in the subject. But it does address many of the most important ones, and it suggests, both directly and through its omissions, potential avenues for future work.

Guiding principles of the book

The primary audience for this Handbook is thus intended to be the academic research community: faculty and doctoral students and those on master's degree programmes on project management and project-based organizations all over the world. It is also a book meant for practitioners wanting to know more about the kind of research agenda being pursued within project management. As such the book is intended to offer rigorous, research-oriented, and up-to-date academic views of the discipline. This subject we take to be that which is concerned with the management of projects as organizational entities in their own right, covering their context and front-end development and definition as well as their realization; and concerned with doing this effectively so that value is built and benefit realization is optimized, not just delivered efficiently “on time, in budget, to specification.”

The book thus aims to:

  • offer a theory-based treatment of projects and their management;

  • cover more than project management qua implementation or execution management but instead, as we've just said, takes as its locus projects, their place in business and society, and what is involved in developing and delivering them successfully;

  • address the conceptual and theoretical, as well as some of the practical, issues associated with such a broad and ambitious view of the subject area.

What the book is not is a “how to” textbook. It will not appeal to the practitioner who simply wants an authoritative guide on how to manage projects. It does not address the mechanics of how to schedule the critical path, how to derive an appropriate contracting strategy, how to estimate and track costs, how to form teams and lead people, or similar such important things. These, and many other practical matters, are ably covered elsewhere by literally dozens and dozens of books and thousands of articles—and it is frankly not really what the project management research community is much about anymore, although some of it can be important for the basic training in the skills of project management. Instead it addresses the phenomenon of projects and issues about our understanding of projects from different perspectives, and of how to manage them—particularly in different forms and in (p. 5) different contextual settings. It is reflective and conceptual. For as Chapter 1 concludes, the challenges now shaping the future of the domain are less about tools and techniques than about interpretive matters: about leadership as much as management; about strategy and governance, risk and uncertainty; about programs and learning, people and relationships; about information and knowledge; technology and innovation; context and philosophy.

All these are important topics—not just for postgraduate students and teachers but for researchers, managers, legislators, and other stakeholders. They should help them better understand projects: their theoretical reality: what they are and how they—and their management—differ; what kind of management and organization it takes to shape and deliver them successfully. Understanding them more fully should help us improve our language (and conceptualization) of the subject so we can better grasp and communicate the wide spectrum of knowledge and experience called upon in exploring and shaping the domain.

Researching the third wave

A handbook of this sort, which has engaged the contributions of some of the foremost researchers in the field across the world today, is both a reflection of the interests of the editors and an instant snapshot of the collective mindset of the scholars who participated in developing its chapters. As editors, we sought to enlist the contributions of some of the most noted project management theoreticians actively at work today, while offering some broad guidelines for the organization of the book and their proposed contributions. Not everyone, it is important to say, felt able to contribute within the timeframes we were working to. Nevertheless, the topics which the book addresses represent areas in project management research that we felt were most current and critical for building and elaborating theory. In this way, we, as editors, proposed an agenda. And yet, by the same token, this Handbook has also been a vehicle for discovery: we may have proposed, but the contributors disposed, justly accepting or modifying our suggestions within their own special experiences and current interests. Thus, producing this book led to a number of insights, some deliberately sought, some which only emerged as we edited and wrote it.

What struck us was the manner in which the major themes of the Handbook arose, not always mirroring our a priori suggestions but deriving and developing from a willingness on the part of editors and authors alike to explore together critical project management themes and shape them within this current work. The amount of editorial–authorial dialogue that lies behind these chapters has been quite extraordinary and well beyond our previous experience. The result is thus a collection of chapters that is neither intended nor claims to cover every critical topic or (p. 6) thematic element in the project management field but rather, one which reflects some of the most critical and au courant topics within the discipline.

The “management of projects” paradigm has been critical in pointing to a whole swathe of important, under-researched areas bearing directly on project performance, and to a great extent has moved project management on from its first wave of formalization, with its prime focus on normative tools and techniques. It provided a springboard into a new dimension for project management as an academic field—a “second-wave” paradigm, including such developments as “temporary organizations,” “contingency models,” and models for “rethinking project management.” But what has emerged in writing this book has expanded and is taking forward this second-wave paradigm, moving it in several new directions to a putative “third wave,” as judged not just by ourselves but through the persuasiveness of our leading scholars, the chapter authors—one that is more engaged with the outside looking in: with projects and their management in their institutional contexts.

Characteristics of this third wave are: (1) an interest in the theoretical foundations and history of project management; (2) an awareness of the importance of context—societal, sectoral, enterprise (the firm), business unit, project; (3) an acknowledgement of the linkages between firms (enterprises) and projects; and hence (4) an interest in the linkage between strategy and projects, and the role of projects for innovation, in inventing the “future perfect” (5) an appreciation of the role of governance and control to foster and assure effective use of resources within and across organizations; (6) an increased recognition of the role of leadership and the challenges of creating trust and building competence when operating at this level in shaping projects (“invented not found”) and creating appropriate contexts for the project; and (7) seeing projects as often complex organizations involving cross-firm relationships engaged in addressing uncertainty and novelty, and facing special challenges of learning and knowledge integration.

These features have emerged as centrally important when summarizing the entire scope of the present Handbook. Hence we have grouped the chapters into six overall parts: Part I: History and Foundations, Part II: Industry and Context, Part III: Strategy and Decision-making, Part IV: Governance and Control, Part V: Contracting and Relationships, and Part VI: Organizing and Learning.

At the same time, we wanted the chapters to cross boundaries and simple distinctions and to explore common themes of importance to project management at the present stage of its development. These topics relate to the seven features identified above but they also show that many are not easily divided along traditional lines. Instead they illustrate themes that are critical to this third wave of project management: themes to do with:

  • Context: Grabher and Ibert on their truly original idea of project ecologies (Chapter 7); Bresnen and Marshall on the influence of institutional theory on the shaping of practice (Chapter 6); Lindkvist on how industry types affect project learning and knowledge integration (Chapter 19).

  • (p. 7)
  • The two-way interaction between corporate enterprises and projects: Artto, Davies, Kujala, and Prencipe (Chapter 5) on projects as forms of business activity; Söderlund and Tell on the nature of the project-based firm (Chapter 8); Loch and Kavadias (Chapter 9) on the linkages between projects and strategy; and Cova and Salle on the role of project shaping (Chapter 16).

  • The way we organize projects to deliver complex outcomes: Pellegrinelli, Partington, and Geraldi on programme management (Chapter 10); Brady and Hobday on projects and innovation (Chapter 11); Müller on project governance (Chapter 12).

  • Relationships and contracting as a core dimension of organizing projects, and one which has seen major change in recent years: Bresnen and Marshall and the importance of institutional context in introducing partnering (Chapter 6); Clegg, Bjørkeng, and Pitsis on how alliancing is changing the institution of contracting and contract administration (Chapter 17); and Gil, Smyth, and Pinto on trust and partnering (Chapter 18); Cova and Salle again on networks (Chapter 16).

  • New demands on people: Hoegl, Muethel, and Gemünden on teamwork and leadership in dispersed projects (Chapter 20); Hällgren and Söderholm on “projects-as-practice” (Chapter 21); and Hodgson and Muzio on project managers as professionals (Chapter 4).

  • Technology and the way we work: Whyte and Levitt on the influence of information and communication technologies on the way we have managed and organized (Chapter 15); Hoegl et al. again on virtual environments (Chapter 20).

  • Failure and risks (potential and perceived) and what to do about it: Winch and Maytorena on limits of classical risk and uncertainty practice (Chapter 14); Flyvbjerg on optimism bias and reference forecasting (Chapter 13); and Lindkvist again on the role of deviations to trigger learning (Chapter 19); Brady and Hobday again on innovation (Chapter 11).

  • A reflective stance about the role of theory and reflective researchers and practitioners: Hällgren and Söderholm on focusing on practice as a research method (Chapter 21); Hodgson and Muzio again on the “peculiar” position of project management as a professional discipline (Chapter 4).

In moving forward we have been necessarily evaluative and critical. This is a deliberate characteristic of the book and a core theme for the first part of the book: History and Foundations. Hence Morris in Chapter 1 portrays the evolution of the subject showing how it has evolved from its initial holistic project focus, bifurcating in the late 1970s and 1980s into a normative “execution” paradigm on the one hand, and the broader project-focused one on the other. Söderlund in Chapter 2 reviews the literature and suggests a framework to arrange for unified pluralism in project management theory and discusses the need to explicate perspectives, address specific types of projects and problems, and take process into account. Turner, Pinto, and Bredillet in Chapter 3 examine the academic growth and the emerging themes within the leading project management journals over the past twenty years and (p. 8) document the growing awareness of research approaches, methodologies, and extant literature. Hodgson and Muzio analyze the tactics of professionalization employed within the field of project management thereby enhancing our understanding of project management as a practice and professional field of a particular kind and critically examining the prospects for a project management profession.

Being critical of course, as any researcher knows, can suggest new opportunities, and there is one such opportunity which has struck us forcibly from the emerging text. Most project management, we posit, largely relates to technical issues (analysis, design, execution, testing, etc.), performed on a commercial platform, addressed by and through people, with all the challenges this presents. Truly a modern form of socio-technical work (Burns and Stalker 1961; Emery and Trist 1960)! Yet few researchers seem to be interested in or capable of approaching the subject from this dual perspective. Partly this may reflect the formation and interests of the current research-active community. Somehow we seem unable, to date, to conceptualize as a valid field of research and teach the ménge of technical, commercial, organizational, and human issues that the real world of project management involves. Maybe this is the real challenge of the third wave, one we have only glimpsed by reflecting on what we have and have not achieved.

Positive signs

There is clearly then still a way to go and much research to be done. Which, actually, is exciting: it would be boring if we had all the answers. This Handbook offers lots of ideas for future research, and in doing so will, we are sure, position the domain of project management as an important one in management studies. Indeed, a goal of this Handbook has been to identify new challenges and new vistas for research. Hence, all chapters end with suggestions for future research and an account of unresolved issues. The fact that research works to identify new questions and new research issues is an important positive sign about the contemporary project landscape.

Projects and their management will, we believe, continue to grow as an area of interest within the broader field of general management for the foreseeable future. This is particularly true if we look at the practice of project management—a field that is highly vivid, with new applications and innovations being introduced constantly. These developments make use of, integrate, test, and challenge the theories that exist. In that sense, practice is an important source for inspiration to the project management researcher: simultaneously a test-bed for managerial innovations and theoretical ideas. So far, the practice side of project management has given the theorists plenty to think about and plenty of new ideas. But the research (p. 9) community too has contributed notably to practice. Precedence diagramming was invented at Berkeley; resource scheduling was the result of academic work; the MIT and Harvard auto studies of the late 1980s and early 1990s have had a huge influence on product development processes; knowledge management and organizational learning have a very strong research background; most of our “people” knowledge is research based; and the studies of major projects and of project success and failure have had a major impact on practice (see Morris 2010). This strong theory–practice interrelationship is thus a second important and positive sign for the health of the subject.

As with any research-led piece of work, an explicit aim of the book has been to strengthen the theoretical base of the domain, to draw attention to dangers, identify alternatives, and test assumptions. In that respect, the book is theory-rich. Theory builds knowledge and tries to make sense of practice. It seeks to offer new ideas to trigger improvements in practice. By explicating theoretical bases underlying the domain, communication between the academic and the practitioner communities should be strengthened. Project management scholarship not only has a critical role in shaping and critiquing theoretical perspectives, it has a duty to do so: to emphasize the importance of evidence and insist on rigor of argument. In performing this role it will shape the thinking of the people who will lead the projects of the future. It is therefore a very positive sign that the teaching and learning of project management are being addressed in an increasingly serious way through more research-focused conferences, special journal issues, wider general management publication, and better books. It is not only the topics and theories that we teach that are important but how we teach them. The development of the pedagogy of the subject is accordingly another positive sign for research in shaping project management.

It is also positive that research may sometimes give different views to similar problems and in doing so raise debate and challenge. Accordingly, there have been some pleasant inter-chapter dialogues in the book, and there are still some contrasts between the main arguments presented in the various chapters. For example, if Flyvbjerg in Chapter 13 rests his case on data, Winch and Maytorena, in Chapter 14, on risk and uncertainty, question its utility with regard to assessing future performance. At the heart of current risk management practices is the “expected utility” paradigm. This is based on the assumption, amongst several, that the distributions around the probabilities of the occurrence of a risk event, and the size of the impact should that event occur, are measurable. In fact it is often difficult to do this due to the poverty of the dataset (and hence the utility of the probabilities); the future may not be like the past; it is often difficult to quantify the impact of the event; there is the effect of time lags. The fact that we have multiple theories and multiple explanations opens up possibilities for problematizing common assumptions and conventional practice—this is a key step in knowledge development and a step that is impossible to be omitted.

(p. 10) In sum

What this Handbook has to offer then is much that is of contemporary interest and plenty also of future research opportunities. Indeed, it offers the beginnings of a new research agenda: a reorientation of much of the traditional focus on management “within” the project, so to speak, largely removed from context but now, here, paying more attention to the enabling institutional conditions and to the embedded, socio-technical, and processual nature of project management which, we suspect, is so distinctive about managing projects and that creates so many of its challenges.

Whether you agree or not, researchers, we are arguing, would seem—do need—to engage more widely with the full range of issues and topics that face those who are engaged practically in the management of projects. The academic community has to be able to formulate and meld conceptual frameworks that are integrative and multi-disciplinary, reflecting the mix of issues that project and program managers and their sponsors face on a daily basis; doing so from a theoretically sound position; turning theory, via data, and data via theory, efficiently into outputs which are of value to all who are interested in projects and their management.

If this Handbook helps the communities involved to do this then we will not have labored in vain, and we shall look forward to future scholarly commentaries on how best to study projects and their management in the ever-changing context of tomorrow.


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