The problem with projects

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At the OU we use projects and project management as our default approach to content, product and system development, and organisational change. In this post we ask why, and we make the case for a new openness to alternative methods and ideas for product development and service and organisation design.

[6 minute read]

Why do we rely on projects and project management as our default approach to curriculum and module content development and maintenance?

Project management gives us great benefits. Everyone knows that projects and project management are very good ways of delivering predictable outcomes to previously agreed amounts of money and time. Project management gives us a logical structure, and well-understood tools, for governing and executing projects from beginning to end. 

Such are the apparent upside benefits of project management that we no longer question its inevitability.

But stop to think for a moment. 

Is it really working? 

Are the benefits of project management being realised? 

Are we getting better at delivering high-value outputs predictably to time and cost? 

How are we doing at managing risk and change? 

Are we achieving the quality that we want and users expect? 

Do staff and students really value the experience and outcomes of our projects? 

Are projects really creating value for the organisation? 

What is project management?

The Association for Project Management (APM) defines a project in the following terms: 

‘A unique transient endeavour, with a defined start-point and end-point, undertaken to achieve specific planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.’ 

And it defines project management thus: 

‘Project management is the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives. Projects bring about change and project management is recognised as the most efficient way of managing such change.’

Let’s break this down. 

Projects are transient endeavours with pre-determined starts and ends. Projects are time-bound, unlike ‘business as usual’ which is continuous. (The APM Project Management Qualification syllabus includes as a learning outcome the ability to ‘distinguish between project management and business as usual’.) 

What are the consequences of this short-term, episodic nature of projects and project management in our organisation? 

The most obvious consequence is cost. Setting up and shutting down short-run projects is costly and wasteful, and enterprise project-management methods and governance multiply the costs and waste, and therefore often reduce the value created by projects.

And I don’t mean just the overheads of setting up and running projects, and the countless hours spent by project managers, sponsors and stakeholders with business cases, investment appraisals, benefits profiling, requirements, planning, estimating, scheduling, budgeting, creating teams, communicating. 

These costs are obvious. We all see them.

But there are other costs. 

Such as the cost of overruns, and the additional project management activity that is invariably needed to correct planning and estimation errors, changes to scope, changes to business organisation or strategy, or changes in the macroenvironment.

Such as the opportunity costs, or the value we could gain by doing something else with the money we pour into project management.

Such as the cost of delay (like lost revenue, or first-mover advantage) created by all the activity in the project concept and definition phases.

Such as the sunk costs incurred when we pause or cancel projects before they have created any valuable output.

‘There is clearly a bad fit in using current approaches to project management for curriculum development …’

Let’s go back to the APM definition: projects are transient endeavours, distinct from ‘business as usual’. 

In the APM’s terms, projects and project management are clearly out of place in our context.

Our work is not project work. Our work is creative knowledge work. We develop digital products and services which enable the OU to deliver its curriculum and empower its students to success throughout their lives. Our mission is to support and enable our students to succeed continuously, from the moment they first click on to the OU website to browse our list of courses and qualifications, then during their time studying with us, and then on through their life-long learning journeys. We seek to continuously enhance the learning experience and curriculum currency, based on feedback from students (and employers) and by prioritising the student voice.

To be successful, we need to do all of this continuously, not episodically. And we need to improve continuously.

And project management is not helping.

As one academic told me recently:

‘There is a clear bad fit between producing curriculum and current approaches to project management … teams have a production schedule imposed upon them with relatively little room for manoeuvre or negotiation. And that is particularly frustrating now, as everything needs to be done quicker, and everyone needs to be ruthlessly responsive and adaptive to students.’

Our work is messy

Creative knowledge work is by nature complex and emergent. Our work is messy. It is not predictable or susceptible to the crude controls of time, cost and scope. Project management introduces language and logics which are extraneous to academic teaching and learning, and (maybe to a lesser degree) to digital product development. Applying the mindset and practices of project management in these domains creates confusion, conflict and distrust. 

This is bad news, because creative knowledge work requires us to collaborate closely, in empowered and motivated teams of multi-skilled, trusting professionals focused on the student. Instead, in the project management culture, we merely transact, and our focus is insular. Work is handed over from one function to another. And handed back. The handoffs create further waste and delays (and distrust, demotivation and stress), which in turn require further project management intervention and control. All of this reduces the quality of the work itself, and diminishes our ability to create exceptional learning experiences continuously. 

‘Project management has a place. It prevents the worst of the worst from happening …’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, academics and developers are questioning the project management orthodoxy. One module team chair told me recently: 

‘Project management has a place. It prevents the worst of the worst from happening. In that sense, it is necessary to have in the background. But what we [academics] need, because we can sometimes be quite traditional in our thinking about functionality, pedagogy and production – what we need are new ideas, someone to tell us “have you considered doing this?” To think beyond the project power block.’ 

So why do we keep doing it? 

Surely project management gives us some value? 

Creative knowledge work is inherently complex and unpredictable. And messy. But our students expect to start a course on a pre-determined date, they expect to have course materials on time, and for each course we have a fixed budget (in theory, in practice budgets may be flexible). Multiple functions and teams must work together to create and deliver these materials, and these dependencies introduce complicatedness and risk. People are unpredictable, and creative people may be more unpredictable than the average, and most of these unpredictable creative people are working on multiple other priorities, projects and missions simultaneously. 

When we look at it in this way, it’s easy to see how we came to rely on project management. We use project management to reduce uncertainty and risk, particularly technical and social risk. Project management is our hedge against the risk that teams don’t know how to build it. Or they won’t be able to figure out how to work together to build it. Or they won’t be around enough, or at the right time, to build it. Or they won’t build it ‘right’. 

It seems to me that project management has become for us less and less about predictable outputs, outcomes and benefits, and more and more about managing the fallout from our legacy of structures and processes which are ineffective and inflexible, which prevent knowledge workers from collaborating, and disempower and rob them of the authority and agency to do their essential work for students. 

As another academic told me:

‘The added value they [project managers] bring is frequently about their willingness and ability to create wiggle room in our production processes.’ 

In other words, we use project management not to achieve predictable outputs, outcomes and benefits. We use it to counter the worst effects of our legacy structure, our often misaligned processes and practices for prioritisation and workload planning, and the culture of distrust and disempowerment. 

As my colleague said, we use project management to prevent the worst of the worst from happening. 

This is plainly irrational and unsustainable, given the costs and other disbenefits associated with project management. 

There was a time when we printed and distributed our courses in boxes in the mail. Now we deliver our curriculum and services and support for students digitally. In order to continue to succeed, we need to be able to deliver value to students continuously. Value degrades. The value generated by course developers begins to degrade as soon as our online courses go into production. And our students’ needs and wants change rapidly and unpredictably. Just look at the sudden increase in the numbers of students studying full time or close to full time. And think of the different kinds of students, with differing needs and expectations, on new apprenticeship and vocational programmes. 

This generation of students expects on-demand access, and continuous upgrades and improvement. 

And project management is not delivering for them. 

‘Beyond the project power block’ 

The challenges we face are not unique to us. Many other organisations are adopting alternative development methods and practices, and changing their structures and processes, for relentless customer focus and responsiveness. 

This is the first of a series of posts in which we will describe the upgrades and alternatives to projects and project management that we will need to embrace in order to support the next generation of students to succeed.


Association for Project Management (2008), APM Competence Framework, APM, Princes Risborough.

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