Asking strategic questions: reflections on the temporal bounds of projects and programmes


Advances in Project Management

By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire

United Kingdom


Is it time to revisit our definitions of projects and programmes?

Definitions and assumptions play a key part in delimiting both knowledge and practice. Language is closely entwined with human life: Words and constructions and the way a language is used can shape what is seen and understood, defining what is acceptable and even possible.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1871)

The Humpty Dumpty theory of semantics holds sway in most societies and many organisations and cultures. Words, symbols and concepts are endowed with additional meaning or associations, often derived from highly contextual, regional or vernacular sources, which can make a word mean precisely what the user wants it to mean.

Debates around the real nature of linguistics often focus around the ability to learn and adapt as opposed to inborn notions. Yet, given that meanings within linguistic communities change over time, there appears to be a need to re-visit linguistic associations and consider their impacts on language, understanding, and more widely on the implications for the wider practice.

American philosopher and logician, Willard Van Orman Quine invoked the metaphor of the ‘myth of the museum’, where exhibits are meanings and words are labels (1960). His main objection is to the assumption that semantics is determinate in the mind. Instead, Quine advocates for a naturalistic view of language, which implies discovery of the use of native words that comes from observation of behaviour. By this logic, only an empirically based account can address the indeterminacy and contextuality of words and their use, and uncover Humpty Dumpty’s intended interpretation.

Cognitive psychologist, Steve Pinker concedes that semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts (2007). But he is quick to point out that it is also about: the relation of words to other human concerns; the relation of words to reality; the relation of words to a community; the relation of words to emotions; and, the relation of words to social relations. Semantics thus defines how thoughts are anchored to things and situations in the world, what shared understanding may be possible, how a word comes to evoke (and even define) an idea, how these ideas are transferred, and ultimately hint at what is allowed and what is considered possible. Above all, semantics can open a window into Humpty Dumpty’s wider world and its impact on ours…


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK. Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM. Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.


About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Advances in Project Management Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire, UK



Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK. He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London. Professor Dalcher has written over 150 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Software Process Improvement and Practice, an international journal focusing on capability, maturity, growth and improvement. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Gower Publishing of a new companion series Fundamentals of Project Management. Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond. He is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board. Prof Dalcher is an academic editorial advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at [email protected].

To see other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.