‘Managing By Projects’ is Different From Project Management, And Here’s Why

Some organizations use a methodology called “managing by projects,” but it’s not traditional Project Management  

January 26, 2023 | Helen S. Cooke

managing by projectsAs organizations scramble to adapt to rapid changes in the contemporary work environment – including increased automation – there is a new focus on improving work methods and getting results by whatever means necessary. In the realm of project management, this has resulted in an interesting strategy that many refer to as “management by projects.” This type of work method has some similarities to traditional project management, but it’s important to understand the differences.

The long-standing approach of traditional project management typically involves creating a project led by a project manager, with the goal of implementing strategic results that cannot easily be accomplished using the normal way of doing business. The project is a separate initiative with a team, a budget, a timeframe for implementation, and set standards of performance or quality for the resulting product or service. Once the results are delivered, the project ends and operations takes over the newly defined work product.

The classic project management process taps the managerial knowledge, skills, and discipline of the project manager to lead the team. The critical importance of the objective justifies the money and time consumed by the project, and the risk it entails in its innovative effort is often offset by the threat of what would occur if the project wasn’t done at all.

On the other hand, another technique for improving existing work methods, “managing by projects,” is often promoted by management at large organizations. As automation has replaced many of the clerical and quality control roles in the workforce, and as layers of supervisory managers have been removed, top-down managerial control has gradually been replaced by a “bottom up” rebalancing of the work force. This means that professional employees take on a larger role in determining how they perform their own work, and agility in responding to changing work demands has become paramount. In many workplaces, centralized headquarters offices have been replaced by self-contained “field units,” each with separate work groups.

In this type of context, encouraging both professional and line workers to adopt some of the processes and methods used on projects makes the workforce more flexible. Management by projects involves training operations supervisors and teams in selected methods and processes that project managers use, using methodologies that incorporate various approaches from other sources to improve performance. The objective is to streamline work methods and improve control over results.

The History of “Managing by Projects”

This technique, “managing by projects,” can be understood as a series of performance improvement initiatives that slowly evolved during the past several decades. The earliest iterations can be traced back to the 1970s and ’80s, when “management by objectives” became a popular term. At about the same time, the Japanese introduced quality circles, among other quality improvement methods, in their American automobile plants.

American management initially resisted the “soft” approaches used by the Japanese and were slow to adopt them, but the methods caught on among workers who liked the collaborative approach. Since then, the command-and-control approach to management has slowly been phased out. Older industrial methods have been replaced by the introduction of new technologies by means of projects: electronics, biotechnology, microchip and digital communications, alternative energy sources, mining of the seabeds, robotics and more. A project was created for the first iteration. After that, organizations standardized the work and adopted the methods.

Since doing these types of large, complex infrastructure improvements cannot be reduced to repetitive tasks the first time out, projects will always be a part of these initiatives – and top management roles have also needed to change their approach. Supervisors can no longer be the technical experts in every field of work, and their roles have been replaced by team leads who understand the technical requirements of the job in their particular field. In other words, the workforce has become increasingly specialized and more comfortable managing their own methods. In many fields of work, senior managers now focus primarily on the organization’s legal and financial obligations and rely on staff and automated systems to recruit, deploy and guide the professional worker.

And thus we have “management by projects,” a single term that refers to the implementation of performance improvement initiatives in segmented work. Many of the methods are an evolution of the quality circles that were first introduced by the Japanese, rounded out by traditional management science. These include the “agile” methods of software development, where technical professionals work in self-governing teams to improve how they do their work, and “lean” methods of streamlining existing work methods to improve speed and accuracy.

Self-governing teams are not projects, but they use the “quality” focus of the project triangle: time, cost, or quality. Cost remains part of the work unit’s regular budget, so team leads don’t need to be financial experts. The clerical and control roles in prior decades have been replaced by automation. And since the team lead’s co-workers share a common knowledge base, teams can be led by someone who is knowledgeable in the technical aspects of the job.

The role of project manager, if it exists in a “managing by projects” environment, is created whenever some entirely new initiative needs to be put in place. The organization may have a cadre of project managers “on call” for such initiatives, but projects aren’t typically critical to these types of businesses. Still, treating everyday work assignments and internal task forces as projects allows a stronger focus on results and requires less “command and control” from above.

“Managing by Projects” is Not Quite Project Management

Although both traditional project management and “managing by projects” share some similarities, they are not one and the same. Let’s take a look at what is unique about traditional project management.

First, consider what happens when a project manager is hired and placed in charge of delivering results. What they are tackling is often completely new. They are empowered to use diverse methods and deploy heterogeneous specialized teams. The project manager and their team are completely focused on getting the job done and delivering what the organization needs. The scope and alignment of the objectives is the responsibility of the project manager and the executive sponsor. A high-level approach is approved and funded. A custom team of specialists is created to do the work of the initial effort.

Once the project begins, the project team is set aside from normal business operations. They are exclusively committed to the project. By chartering a staffed and budgeted project, the organization gives the project team the autonomy and authority to create their own work environment, process and methods. The team is not under the supervision of line management, and it reports directly to the project’s owner or executive sponsor. When the project is complete, the team hands off the result to management, and the team is dispersed to return to their regular jobs. The processes and methods created by the project team are turned over to operations to incorporate.

Large organizations following a “managing by projects” process will sometimes assign pre-trained team members to help with a project, but this is no substitute for the mental agility and managerial knowledge and skill of the professional project manager. In short, if you have a methodology and an “operations manual” to tell you how to practice project management, you are not involved in a project. You are probably part of a work improvement initiative called “managing by projects.” After all, project managers are members of a different profession, management, and are accountable to only the organization’s executives for delivering results that address the strategic costs, time and quality defined for their initiative. Their job is to make the decisions and deliver results that enable the organization’s future success. It’s hard to imagine any manager who would consult a manual to decide what decision to make.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.