A viewpoint on guidelines for “non-traditional” projects


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia



This viewpoint has been prompted by David Pells’ editorial article in the March 2017 issue of this journal regarding the growing importance of identifying categories, context and typology in project management, to help in adopting appropriate approaches to managing them. Pells pointed out that I have had an interest in developing such classifications. I also have an emergent interest in guidelines which have already been published for managing what I describe as “non-traditional” projects. This is the broad subject of this viewpoint, although the main focus is the question of how these might be related to “traditional” guidelines as they appear in project management bodies of knowledge and similar standards.

Problems with “one-size-fits-all” approaches

Current bodies of knowledge, competency standards and similar guidelines cover only certain types of projects. Pells noted that “there seems to be an emerging realization that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach [to project management] may not be enough”. My observation is that, for well over two decades, multitudes of writers have been saying that “one-size-fits-all” most definitely does not apply to project management. I think Pells’ quote from Russ Archibald summarizes the situation nicely, when he says, “…the discipline of project management has not fully recognized that these different types of projects often exhibit different life cycle models and require different methods of governance, prioritizing, planning, executing and controlling….”.

In particular, the most widely used project management standard, PMI’s PMBOK Guide, appears to perpetuate the “one-size-fits-all” perspective, when it claims that the knowledge and practices it describes “are applicable to most projects most of the time”. This has been refuted countless times. For example, quite recently Prieto 2015:119 put it this way in the context of large complex projects (his emphasis):

Large complex projects differ from those that comprise the traditional domain of projects as defined and served by the Project Management Institute and its Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Remember its admonishment that PMBOK provides a management framework for most projects, most of the time. Large complex project appear to live outside these boundary conditions.

So, there is evidently wide-spread skepticism about the “one-size-fits-all” implication that project management standards tend to carry with them. This implication is contradicted by so many writers – and is also contradicted by the realities of practice, as many practitioners can attest, including myself.

Re-stating the reason for current standards being so important

However, current standards are still enormously important. This is primarily because, as Shenhar & Dvir 2007:7 (and many others) have pointed out, they provide sound and well understood foundations for basic training and learning about project management. In my view, this critically important attribute should be specifically spelt out by each standard. Accompanying this, any “one-size-fits-all” implications should be denied, with appropriate commentary about broader spectrums of project types – i.e. “non-traditional” projects.

Guidelines for managing “non-traditional” projects

Now, most of us who write about project management are well aware that several guidelines for managing various types of “non-traditional” projects have already been published in the wider project management literature. For example, I have quite often referred to Turner & Cochrane’s 1993 goals-and-methods matrix, with its recommended start-up and implementation techniques for four different types of projects, three of which are “non-typical”. There will be few writers indeed who do not know about the classifications of projects developed by Shenhar and colleagues since the early 1990s (more about these shortly when we discuss Shenhar & Dvir 2007). Readers of this journal will know of the many contributions by Bob Prieto on “non-typical” large complex projects, later consolidated into his book Prieto 2015. Agile is also a candidate for managing a particular type of non-traditional project.

Facilitating awareness of “non-traditional” project management guidelines?

It appears that, with the possible exception of Agile, most people who look mainly to traditional standards for guidance have little cause to be aware of the existence of the types of “non-traditional” project management guidelines exampled above. So, how could/should we promote pro-active awareness of the existence of such guidelines to people who use only traditional standards as guidelines?


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Editor’s note: This paper is by Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon), Life Fellow of AIPM (Australia), a pioneer in the field of professional project management and one of the most widely recognized voices in the practice of program and project management.   Long retired, Alan is still tackling some of the most challenging research and writing assignments; he is a frequent contributor to the PM World Journal. See his author profile below.

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton
is one of the pioneers of modern project management. He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA. In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects. He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France). Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992. He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996. He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management. He has published over 170 professional articles and papers. Alan can be contacted at [email protected].

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.