Reboot for purpose

Beyond the tragedy of the commons


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School

United Kingdom



It is not often that we get the opportunity to reboot life, and start all over again. Imagine that you have been given a chance to redesign your life, restructure your routines, re-configure your organisation and re-purpose and re-position it strategically. Where would you start? What would you change?

Most of us are change averse, especially when the change originates elsewhere, and would rapidly seek to resume old habits and resort to the safety of the recognisable and the known. Indeed, ‘normal’ management relies heavily on well established, repeatable routines and habits. Small perturbations typically offer the impetus to restore the stable status-quo and resume where we left off, thus minimising variations.

Crises present an opportunity to reboot society and realign ourselves to match a rapidly changing landscape (Dalcher, 2020). Significant crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, invite, or even demand, fundamental and far reaching transformations to the way individuals, communities, organisations, societies, and even states, organise themselves. More critically, as we frantically search for new responses and approaches to match the novel dimensions we encounter, such conditions necessitate radical reflection on the purpose of our systems, organisations and structures, and the philosophies, values and positions that underpin them.

The tragedy of the commons

Crises demand that we endeavour to question, reflect upon and make sense of our aspirations, assumptions and intentions. They often bring out the worst and the best in people. When crises strike, we may see an urgent scramble for resources emphasising selfish personal interests (Mills, 1836; Dalcher, 2014), but as communities and societies attempt to recover, and resume into a new normality, there is also an emerging need for greater scrutiny of potential modes of co-existing and collaboration (Tsolkas, 2020). Such repositioning inevitably questions the values that underpin and support co-existence (Walsh, 2007; Folke et al., 2010).

The continuous tension between the wishes of the individual, and the needs of the wider community, made up as it is of a collective of individuals with their own personal priorities, have long been recognised. Hardin (1968) invokes the idea of the tragedy of the commons, by building on the earlier work of William Forster Lloyd (1833).

Commons, or common land, refer to vast tracts of land that are owned collectively recognising that certain resources could not, and should not, be privately owned and controlled. At one-point commons occupied approximately half of Britain, whereas now they cover about 1.2 million hectares, accounting for roughly 5% of the country (CLF, 2020), often in spectacular landscapes and areas of outstanding natural beauty. People with a right to use a common are known as commoners, and are typically able to graze domestic livestock without fences or boundaries, and to take other specific products from the common, such as wood, vegetation, turves or minerals (Kruse, 2019).

The common lands scattered all about England and Wales are part of our heritage from the past. They enable considerable areas of land to be preserved and unspoilt. Wherever they are registered as common land they should be preserved intact. …’ Lord Denning in Corpus Christi College vs. Gloucester City Council (Times, 1982).

Common areas allow all commoners to bring their livestock to graze on the commons. The tragedy of the commons refers to the situation where individual commoners, acting independently in their own best self-interest, combine to abuse the common resource they hold in trust. As each commoner increases the size of their herds, less and less grazing areas remain available to others, whose herds are also growing, leading to overgrazing and the destruction of the common resource. While the action of each individual taken in isolation may seem rational and in their own personal interest, the pressure resulting from the combination of individual acts overwhelms the shared asset, ultimately, endangering the sustainability of the entire community.

‘However, if everyone starts to behave in that same manner, impacting overall resources or common assets it is no longer harmless. …. The combined effect of many such collective actions is to erode, deplete, spoil and destroy the common resource. … Common resource systems can collapse due to overuse by the wider community unless an effort is made to regulate or govern such use (Ostrom, 1990; Ostrom et al., 2002). Such regulation could be done by the wider community or group, or emerge from the responsible actions of cognisant individuals.’ (Dalcher, 2019: p. 3-4)

The tragedy of the commons shows what happens when each participant maximises their own self-interest, ignoring the overall impacts on the whole system. The actions further inflate the stakes, resulting in destructive dynamics which ultimately lead towards an inevitable disastrous outcome.

‘But this is a conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited… Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.’ (Hardin, 1968: p. 1245).



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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 Routledge publishers.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the 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. 

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2020). Reboot for purpose: Beyond the tragedy of the commons, Advances in Project Management Series, PM World Journal, Volume IX, Issue VI, June.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/pmwj94-Jun2020-Dalcher-reboot-for-purpose.pdf



About the Author


Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK


Darren Dalcher, Ph.D., HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, 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 is the academic advisor and consulting editor for the forthcoming edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. He can be contacted at d.dalcher@lancaster.ac.uk.

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