The sprint or the marathon?


Finding a metaphor to account for value in projects and programmes

Advances in Project Management Series

By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire

United Kingdom

A metaphor is a powerful instrument: Metaphors enable individuals, groups, organisations and society in general to create, shape and share understanding. The mental model associated with a metaphor establishes the images, rules, names, associations and links connected to a topic, whilst also creating boundaries by excluding the unimportant and irrelevant.

Metaphors impact the way we think, what we see and how we do things. Shared metaphors encompass tacit understanding, thereby embodying many of the premises and assumptions that are never uttered. The choice of metaphor will influence the problem formulation, and subsequently, the solution that emerges. It is therefore important to select the right metaphor.

A metaphor represents a single and rather limited perspective on a situation, thereby bringing out a similarly limited meaning. Karl Weick observed that organisations have a major hand in creating the realities, which they then view as ‘facts’ to which they must accommodate. This ultimately becomes the lens through which the world around us is observed as they are used to engage, understand and organise the world around us.

The project as a sprint

Projects share many common features with a sprint. A sprint is an intense run executed over a short distance at (or very close to) top speed. The intensive nature of the undertaking, aimed at quickly reaching a target or a goal, makes for a compelling race at peak performance.

The sprint is likely to have a starting block and a delineated finish line. The intense nature of the undertaking carried out between the starting point and finish line, and the intense and all-consuming focus on the activity itself invoke a similarity to dedicated and concentrated project work.

Human physiological limitations dictate that the pace of such a race can only be maintained over a short distance. While many projects display a sprint-like race features there is an increasing tendency to focus on short-term projects that last over a short period. Indeed, agile projects, which also utilise the sprint terminology to depict an intense short-term undertaking, increasingly focus on dedicated delivery cycles lasting two weeks, or even less. However, such single-minded focus can also prove to be limiting.

In search of a more encompassing metaphor

Wider ideas within the management of projects space challenge the short-term hegemony associated with the pursuit of a sprint metaphor. In particular, considerations related to the adoption of extended life cycles, encompassing system use, realisation of benefits, delivery of value, consideration of environmental impacts and sustainability, and the adoption of enterprise and organisational perspectives require a wider frame. Projects results persist beyond handover, contributing to the accumulation of benefits, the consideration of safe decommissioning and environmental impact, the concept of operation and usage, and the delivery of organisational value. Indeed, it would appear that project and programme work often extends beyond the confines of a rapid sprint race invoking the vision of an extended and sustained marathon.


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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


pmwj36-Jul2015-Dalcher-PHOTODarren Dalcher, PhD

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/.