Working in the shadows

Exposing our inner demons


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management

United Kingdom


Last month’s column focused on the complexity of the terrain and the difficulty in mapping and making sense of the full scale of reality. An earlier article focused on creation of a culture of cooperation between different disciplines. This article shifts attention to the complexity of individuals, and the cultures and organisations within which they operate. In particular, it highlights the role of light and shadows in determining what we can see and do.

Shadows may conjure up childhood images of playful finger and hand shapes of animals and magical creatures projected onto a wall in front of a torch, flashlight or fire, or perhaps invoke memories of elongated shapes manipulated at dusk, which lengthen as the twilight descends, until they are subsumed by the surrounding darkness when the sun is no longer visible.

The Oxford Dictionary offers two pertinent definitions: ‘a dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface’, or, a term ‘used in reference to proximity, ominous oppressiveness, or sadness and gloom’. Upon reflection it thus becomes possible to focus on two main types of shadows:

  • The darkness that forms: the former description offered by the Oxford Dictionary refers to the shadow created when an opaque, or translucent, object casts a shadow, as it does not allow the light project projected from a source to pass straight through it.
  • The darkness that lurks: The latter definition acknowledges a more profound phenomena that could refer to a shadow of war impacting a country; a shadow of performance-enhancing drugs that blights a particular sport; a shadow cast by pests, vermin or disease, or some other threat; or even a more ominous shadow in the mind that encases the soul in darkness. Certain cultures, religions and mythologies also associate shadows with ghosts, demons or the underworld.

The common feature across both types of shadow is the absence of light, which manifests itself as a certain kind of emerging darkness.

Searching under the lamppost

Light seems to play an important part in driving local inquiry and emboldening the search for knowledge, while shadows and darkness, stifle the local search.

There is an old parable and joke about a police officer who observes a drunken man furiously searching under a streetlight. After a few minutes the police officer approaches to discover that the man had lost his house keys. The officer joins the search, as they both thoroughly and systematically comb the area underneath the streetlight. After repeating the search three or four times, the police officer asks the man if he is absolutely certain he lost the keys there, to which the man replies, ‘no, I lost them over there in the park’.

The officer proceeds to ask why he is searching in that particular spot, and the man replies that ‘this is where the light is

Searching under the lamppost is also known as ‘the streetlight effect’ or the drunkard’s search. It was popularised by Abraham Kaplan (1964), and has become an increasingly acknowledged and recognised observational bias where people search by looking in the easiest places. Farris (1969) observes that no matter where behavioural scientists have dropped their keys, they prefer to continue to search for them where it appears lighter, while Freedman maintains that ‘researchers tend to look for answers where the looking is good, rather than where the answers are likely to be hiding’ (2010).

The temptation to look under the light, where it is easier to organise a search, continues to appeal to many disciplines (see for example, Shanto & William, 1993; McKenna et al., 2008). Indeed, Noam Chomsky dryly reasons in a 1993 letter that ‘Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.’ (reported in, Barsky, 1998; p. 95)


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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 and other publishers in the Routledge family.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge 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. 

About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
United Kingdom


Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI SMIEEE SFHEA is Professor of Project Management, 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 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 200 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the 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.

Darren 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, A Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the British Academy of Management. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Member Advisory Group, the APM Research Advisory Group, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board.  He is the Academic Advisor and Consulting Editor for the next APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal.  He can be contacted at [email protected]

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