The Seven Limits of Project Management



By David Shannon

London, UK



What is project management? 

Defining the scope of project management has been a continual concern for the profession.  In 1987 this was largely answered by the PMI’s first Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge.  Since 1991 the scope of the profession has been expanded, amongst others, by APM’s various editions of its Body of Knowledge.   Both publications, in different ways, treat the organisational context of project management as a defining boundary and an important subject for professionals to appreciate.    This brief paper suggests a structured model for understanding the limits of project management.  My contention, based on wide experience, is that on a lot of projects, time spent by project managers can be better allocated.  Greater clarity of limits will make for better use of effort, thus raising the productivity and respect of project management.

There are at least seven boundaries at which the limits of project management can be questioned.  I briefly describe each before touching on the implications for project management professionals.

The discipline can be represented as a six-sided box.  The sides of the box represent the external limits of project management.  The arrows represent two-way interactions across the boundaries.

Diagram 1 – The limits of project management

© David Shannon, 2019


Key:     Dimensions                          Arrows

Hierarchy                    Up                   Down

Expertise                 External                Internal

Focus           Socioeconomic                Tasks

Taking each of these dimensions in turn.


Along this axis project management sits between directing at the upper end and administration.

Limit 1  Up, or directing

However far project management projects itself up the hierarchy of projects, programmes and portfolio management it will eventually hit a ceiling.  This is where management gives way to direction.  The concerns at this higher level are about strategy, policy, accountability, organisational risks and opportunities, the provision of resources and balancing change with stability.  Project management does of course feed into direction and takes its lead from directors.  Provision must be made for communicating across this boundary where the role of Sponsor and effective disclosure and reporting are vital.  Nevertheless ours is by definition a management discipline focused on planning, monitoring and controlling resources to achieve objectives.

Directors should ensure that their project management resources are capable and well used, hence the APM’s flagship publication Directing Change.  In that guide, most of the recommendations are made to Directors and their advisers, not to managers.  Conversely project managers should be adept at managing upwards, ensuring that they receive the direction and sponsorship their project requires…


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How to cite this article: Shannon, D. (2019). The Seven Limits of Project Management; PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue VI, July.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/pmwj83-Jul2019-Shannon-Seven-Limits-of-Project-Management.pdf



About the Author

David Shannon

London, United Kingdom




David Shannon is a senior advisor and interim manager.  He designs, delivers and audits major change programmes and projects in the private, public and charity sectors.  He has been voted one of the ten top project management personalities in the UK. Since 1988 with Oxford Project Management he has delivered major improvements in over 100 assignments for blue chip clients in the UK and internationally.  He was an institutional development specialist with the World Bank during 1985-1987 and worked on capital projects in the City of London, the Middle East and Far East during 1974-1985.  Prior to 1974 he worked on civil, transport and urban renewal projects as an engineer.  Over the last 50 years, he has worked on, managed and advised on many programs and projects around the world.

David served as editor of three widely influential guides published by the Association for Project Management (APM): Directing Change, Co-Directing Change and Sponsoring Change, guides to the governance of project management. He has published and presented papers in academic and professional journals and conferences including: APM’s Project Magazine and Yearbook; Conference of the European Academy of Management; IPMA World and Regional Congresses; Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research; and the Ministry of Finance Concept Symposium, Norway. He contributed the Governance chapter to APM’s 6th edition of Project Management Planning and Control.

He has been a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers since 1968 and was a Fellow of the Institute of Consulting/CMI in the UK.  Elected both an Honorary Fellow and Fellow of APM, David previously served APM as Director and Head of Professional Board (1993-2000), Deputy Chairman (1998-2000) and Interim Chief Executive (2000). He is a past or current member of other professional societies in the UK and elsewhere.

David holds a B.A. in Engineering (with honours) and M.A. from Oxford University, and a Diploma in Accountancy and Finance.  He can be contacted at davidwtshannon@gmail.com