New book by Dr Greg Usher asks: what is project management really?

27 Sep 2021

RPS Executive General Manager - Buildings and Property, Dr Greg Usher has authored a new book set to redefine project management. 

The culmination of years of academic research and decades of experience as a project manager, Project management in the 21st Century: what you need to know about the elephant, eco-system and experience challenges the industry’s own preconceptions about what project managers do, and why.

Greg says the idea stemmed from the challenges he would face in describing his job to friends or acquaintances.

“Most people find talking about their job easy— ‘I’m a doctor, I assess sick people when they are ill, diagnose what’s wrong, and prescribe medication to help them get better’. When I tried to explain what I do, none of the definitions seemed right—they always lacked something. So, I asked one simple question: ‘why is project management so difficult to explain?'

“The question led me on a journey of discovery regarding the profession. Along the way, I found out that I’m not the only one who has trouble explaining what project managers do. In the book, I talk about our propensity to argue about what I’ve dubbed the ‘elephant’, disregard the ‘eco-system’, and ignore the experiential aspects of project management.”

Theoretical underpinnings unpacked and challenged

In the book, Greg goes right back to the beginning of his profession. While ‘small p’ project management has existed for millennia, Project Management as a professional discipline is much newer. Spawned by the arrival of mechanised manufacturing in the industrial age, perceptions about the discipline are borrowed from, and shaped by, theories of standardised, unitised manufacturing.

“While some aspects of these theories are helpful, for example in controlling cost, time and quality, many of the assumptions that support them simply do not fit into the practice of project management. In fact, some are diametrically opposed to the nature of projects. And yet, they have become the foundations of the entire profession.”

Greg proposes a new way to see, define, and ultimately manage projects. At the core of this is understanding the nature of value, and how it is created.

“People don’t build hospitals for the love of large institutional buildings. They create them for the health of communities, the advancement of medical science, the capacity they provide us to quickly and safely respond when communicable diseases like COVID-19 threaten public health.

“Whether it’s a building, a system, or any other type of initiative, a project is a means to an end. Or perhaps more accurately, a means to many ends. And yet, project managers continue to measure success on how strictly we can adhere to rigid, unitised production metrics like cost and time.

“These are objective measures of how to successfully ‘make things’ quickly and cost-effectively. What they can’t measure is where the project management magic really happens—creating value by taking a group of people who have never worked together before, on a journey that no one has taken before, to achieve an outcome that has never been created before."

Prioritising people, pursuing value

Greg argues that the competencies we use to assess whether a project manager is good at their job neglects the core capabilities that project managers really need–the ability to manage relationships and align stakeholders around the pursuit of value.

“No project is an island. They occur in a complex world of human interaction. What’s missing from the underpinning theories is the humanity. The ‘why’ behind the project. Our theoretical foundations drive us to focus on the ‘product’, but true value is created through the project management experience.”

Greg says some of the most successful projects he’s worked on could be considered objective failures if assessed purely on their performance against the original budget or program developed on day one.

As projects evolve, so too do stakeholders’ understanding, and expectations. This creates opportunities and challenges that simply did not exist at the start of the project – and every one of these presents an opportunity for value creation.

“Projects are more valuable than the individual components that make them up—a university is worth infinitely more than the bricks and mortar from which it is built. Just how valuable is determined by people. The students, teaching staff and community that the project will serve.

“As project managers, it’s our job to facilitate a continuing, ongoing conversation about value creation. We’re here to ensure that every action, at every phase of the project—be that design, construction, commissioning, or anything in between—adds value. And ultimately, our goal should be the creation of something that is invaluable to stakeholders."

Dr Greg Usher with his new book 'Project management in the 21st century: what you need to know about the elephant, eco-system and experience'

Dr Greg with his new book Project Management in the 21st Century: What you need to know about the elephant, the eco-system and the experience.

So, if our ideas about project management are wrong, what's next?

Well, Greg has plenty of positive ideas about the future of project management, so you’ll need to read the book. In the meantime, if you need support with a project, we’ve got a Dr/author/project management guru who has done the research, asked the questions, and is here to help.

Project management in the 21st Century: what you need to know about the elephant, eco-system and experience is available in hard copy or e-book, through Springer, Amazon, or Google Books.

Get in touch with Dr Greg and discover more of his insights on project management>>


Get in touch

Greg Usher

Dr Greg Usher

Executive General Manager - Project Management T: +61 7 3539 9500 Email
View profile »

Get in touch

Your contact information:

All fields are mandatory *