On the Subject of Black Elephants1



By Bob Prieto

Jupiter, Florida, USA


8 June 2020

Ref: Pells Editorial: Black Elephants and… maybe Project Management, PM World Journal, Vol IX, Issue VI, June 2020


Dear David,

Let me begin by applauding your return to writing. Your Black Elephant editorial was timely and most assuredly thought provoking on many levels. I will try to narrow the focus of my comments to two questions you pose at the end of your editorial. “Why are we just responding to crisis after crisis?” and “And why isn’t anyone in the project management world doing anything to stop or at least slow them down?”

Project management differs from operational management (day-to-day running of a business) in a couple fundamental ways that I believe are important to highlight. Projects by their very nature are often non-repetitive and for the game changing giga-projects that are required to deal with Black Elephants this is most certainly the case. By contrast, the very nature of operations involves a degree of repetition.

Project teams and to a high degree their supply chains are temporary endeavors, although some may last decades in the case of true giga-programs. We see higher permanence in operations with an emphasis on employee training, retention and advancement. Project based training all too often is task based and temporal.

Projects have ongoing, multi-faceted exposure to externalities (weather; labor; supply chain) to a degree an operation often bounded by four walls and a roof doesn’t.

Decisions made in a project setting are to a large degree irreversible with operations more readily able to “correct” a decision.

Finally, knowledge accumulated in a project context and importantly lessons learned are not readily translated to other projects compared to corporate knowledge management and continuous process improvements one will see in a well-run operation. Project companies do try to capture the knowledge from their projects but seldom share it beyond their corporate boundaries.

Addressing these important differences between the world of projects and the world of operations requires an integrating, accumulating and systems function to provide a bridge between projects but more importantly to recognize and encourage the emergence of alternative project management models. I want to underscore this last point since too many alternative project management models still rely heavily on the thinking of Taylor, Gantt and Fayol. In the world of physics all went to Newton until his theory broke down at scale. Traditional project management theory has shown itself to break down at scale and the giga-programs to address Black Elephants will most certainly be trampled. Something more akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity will be required…



To read entire Letter to the Editor, click here


How to cite this work: Prieto, R. (2020). On the Subject of Black Elephants, Letter to the Editor, PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue VII, July. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/pmwj95-Jun2020-Prieto-Letter-to-Editor-on-black-elephants.pdf