An Introduction to a Typology of Projects


Advances in Project Management Series

By Oliver F. Lehmann

Munich, Germany

Could it be that in its current self-conception, project management is much more similar to ancient alchemy than to a modern science or an art?

Alchemists were driven by the desire to find the philosopher’s stone that could turn lead and other cheap metals into gold. They searched for panaceas, cures for all diseases, and while they developed various laboratory methods, some of them still in use today, their activities were mostly performed against a background of mysticism and magic.

There were several steps that took practitioners and scientists from old alchemists’ approaches to those of modern chemists. A central one was the publication of the periodic table (Mendelejew, 1869), which allowed chemists to classify and typify chemical elements and improve the understanding of chemistry through the identification of an inner order in the diversity of elements. A similar step was achieved in biology with the development of the Linnaean taxonomy, which allowed scientists to classify species and understand their relationships but also their differences.

Typologies and with them classifications allow to better manage diversity. Another example is provided by burns. Burns happen on a continuum between a minor injury and the most dreadful damage to tissue that can happen to humans. Each burn is different, but a typology in the form of a system of degrees helps respond appropriately to them. Burns of a first degree are mostly treated by applying outpatient care and superficial methods. Burns of the third or fourth degree (depending on the system) will be treated in intensive care within a hospital. Despite the uniqueness of burns, the typology helps to better select the most suitable response.

One should note that the classification systems in chemistry and biology are open classifications, that can be expanded, when new knowledge has been explored and new elements or species, genera and so on should be added to the existing ones. This is different to the closed classification of burns; this classification is generally considered to be complete.

“Best Practices” or Uniqueness?

In project management, the common belief in the existence of a “Best practice” approach is a concept comparable to Alchemy, and it is widely held. Many project managers believe that there must be a practice that is applicable to all projects that generally ensures success in all of them.

Interested in the question of how popular this concept is, the author asked project managers between April and August 2015, whether they believed in universal best practices. He received 189 responses, and the majority confirmed that they believed in best practices within the discipline. Figure 1 shows the results of the survey.


Figure 1: In a 2015 survey among project managers, more than 50% responded that they believe in the existence of universal project management methods as “Best practices”.

In scientific papers and articles, any differences between project types are also commonly ignored. Searching in websites that provide links to published work on project management gives many results of research in project management generally, but the vast majority is not linked to specific types of projects. The questions that they raise would be similar to scientific papers and articles in chemistry asking “What is the boiling point of an element” or in zoology “How do animals survive?”, ignoring the fact that boiling points are different from element to element and also depend on environmental conditions; and the same is true for the survival strategies of animals.

There are also “proven best practice methodologies” promoted, that can be “applied to all types of projects”, which would be comparable to a description of the best treatment practice of all burns, ignoring their degree.

More (with figures, footnotes and references)…

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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in UK and now by Routledge or Routledge publishers. Information about the series can be found at https://www.routledge.com/Advances-in-Project-Management/book-series/APM


About the Author                                                 

Oliver F. Lehmann

Munich, Germany



Oliver F. Lehmann
, MSc., PMP, is a project management trainer, author and speaker. He has trained thousands of project managers in Europe, USA and Asia in methodological project management with a focus on certification preparation. In addition, he is a visiting lecturer at the Technical University of Munich and a volunteer and insider at the Project Management Institute (PMI).

Living in Munich, Bavaria, he is the President of the PMI Southern Germany Chapter and author of the book “Situational Project Management: The Dynamics of Success and Failure” (Taylor & Francis, ISBN 9781498722612).