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The New Project Management; the French … and Everyone Else!

Since 2006, I have been giving project management courses as part of a master degree in “Management by Project” for three associated French engineering schools, in Lyon, Rouen and Aix-in-Provence. This master program is being extended to two new schools next fall, Nancy and Toulouse and in 2010 to Paris and Nantes. I might end up passing more time there than in Canada to coach and teach project management.

The French, as a whole, are a very creative people when it comes to many project-related endeavours, particularly in the field of international construction projects. They are engineering geniuses and fantastic bridge builders, both in France, for example the Millau Bridge ( and the Normandy Bridge (, as well as outside their country, for example the Rio-Antirrio Bridge ( . So why this sudden fascination with project management, a domain that they apparently seem to control?

The recent rising of project management as a preferred mode of action is in line with the economic and social pressures of our current times, the Project Age: an era characterized by an ever changing business environment, high uncertainty and globalized human activities. It is also viewed by many as a major solution to deal with and adapt to the present world economic unrest.

But the type of project management we are talking about here, and which is required to deal with the current times, is a new type of management that has nothing to do with the project management paradigm of large construction projects. A major construction project is basically one that is highly hierarchically structured and uses dedicated full-time resources, something that works just like a well oiled traditional Taylorian organization. No wonder the French are good at realizing those large projects, since strong hierarchy and the cult of the “chef” (commanders-in-chief in an organization, be it the CEO or a service director) is an integral part of the French culture, an attribute that is almost impossible to change, even in very severe conditions that might call for a different way of organizing things.

The new project management is mostly a multi-project management paradigm, with ever changing targets, met through very few resources working part-time on a multiple projects, in an environment of unclear strategic priorities. In such conditions, a simple employee can basically end up deciding the strategic fate of a project by agreeing or not to work on it. So this type of project management goes really against the grain of the French culture; it will take very serious economic mayhem for it to be accepted as a way of doing business.

When I go to France to give these courses, I realize how hard it will be for those young graduates to get this new project management paradigm to work in their organizations, if anyone wants to take the chance of giving a job to those counter-culture prophets. I believe this is an extreme case of what is happening in our own Taylorian-inspired (not to say Orwellian) institutions, here in North America or, basically, everywhere else in the world. Project management today is not what it was when the first men landed on the moon or when the first PMBoK was written. It is more complex and calls for more collaborative, agile approaches to get highly-diversified project stakeholders to end up really sharing the same interests and working as a team. A friend of mine, an international expert in business governance, was telling me recently that managing a business endeavour, with the help of highly diversified, multiple-interests teams of uniquely knowledgeable, non-interchangeable people, is not anymore a matter of planning, commanding and controlling …. but rather a matter of being able to ask for help using the word “please” and to never, ever forget to say “thank you” with genuine humility. He says that power based on hierarchy and authority just does not work anymore in the business place.

So, I believe, based on what I am seeing in many organizations, that getting the new project management to work is not only a major cultural challenge for the French. It is a cultural challenge for a majority of organizations all over the world. And it represents a major paradigm shift for many project managers and their professional associations.

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