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Project Management and Music – In Search of an Adaptive Model

February 14, 2009

I was reading Jim Scheel’s blog this week on “We’ve been Managing
Software Development all Wrong
” and it got me thinking about
project management models and the discussion about PMBOK
or PRINCE2 or Agile… and where my head goes is that the
whole concept of which model is right or wrong is misplaced.

I think the whole project management discussion and process
would do much better if it learned from music.


That probably sounds strange, but let me explain.  I’ve had the
opportunity in my life to play classical music, to play rock and roll
at clubs and parties and with Elvis impersonators, and jazz with
people like Benny Goodman.

They all are different styles of music, they represent certain differences
and certain parallels in getting from the start to the end of a piece.
They all have a place, serve a function, have a following.  You wouldn’t
typically say one is right and one is wrong.

If you compared music to project management, you might say both
are a way of organizing people and their actions to generate certain
outputs.  Yikes that sounds detached.

What I’m getting at is this:
Playing music is roughly equivalent to project managment.

When playing classical music, you play what’s written, so that dozen’s of
people can all produce and finish largely an exact copy of what was
originally penned.  Very structured.  Very defined.  It is akin to one form
of project management as perhaps best applied to producing known

In playing the blues, you usually are working over a 12 bar chord
progression, with a particular use of thirds and a base pattern that
gives it that unmistakeable “blues” sound and feel.  Much less exact
or prescribed than classical, yet it has a defined sequence and feel
that has to be created for it to sound “right” to the listeners.  Again,
it represents a different form of project management.  One that allows
more latitude, but still moves through various phases or gates.

When it comes to playing jazz, there’s lots of room for freedom of
expression, interpretation, adaptation, how long you play the song
(e.g. how many repeats), what exact chords you play from verse to
verse, and for adapting to the unexpected…

Jazz is still music, the players still work within a structure, they still start
and stop, they still produce an intended outcome.  But if described in project
management terms, it’s a very different model, perhaps more like Agile
than PMBOK (classical).

Bottom Line:
Project management and playing music have some strong parallels, and
my perspective is thatproject management would benefit from embracing
the fact that there are different appropriate forms of project management,
just as there are different forms of music.

Part of the differentiator seems to be how much the project is to be a
replication of defined, known requirements, versus an improvised creation
with a roughly defined outcome (e.g. let’s play Stella by Starlight in 3/4
instead of 4/4, key of G, you take the first chorus and we’ll finish by playing
it one moretime through from the top).

Maybe the less we know the exact outcome and all the obstacles we will
have to overcome to reach that outcome, the more project management
needs to move from a classical to blues, to jazz orientation.


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5 Comments. Leave new

julian mendoza
February 25, 2009 5:55 pm

That has to be dead on; even just sitting in the audience, and unfamiliar with the forms and idioms of a particular type of jazz, I can appreciate a good band. Maybe jazz is what we’d like to think as quintessentially American – strongly distinct individuals each making their own way around the basic melody, playing to each other, but knowing where they are supposed to end up, and delivering. And nothing more satisfying than watching a tight band deliver.


Great post – I like the parallel and totally agree with using different approaches of project/performance management based on how well defined the outcome is (i.e. jazz for loosely-defined outcomes and orchestra for well-defined outcomes). Something tells me that as projects become more collaborative and more complex (incorporating more data and a broader ecosystem of participants) we’ll see a lot more “jazzy” approaches to project management.


You raise an interesting point. As projects get more collaborative and complex, what will they really look like? I don’t think they will get jazzy. Sometimes, this makes me laugh, they remind me of high school band practice on the football field, trying to play music, march into a formation. Lots of different things happening all at the same time, definitely a collaborative event that at times was choatic, but needed a very definitive leadership position and rules for engagement to function. The challenge, or I should say one challenge, is how to make large efforts adaptive through collaboration, instead of slow and ponderous. The typical large organization versus a “skunk works” dynamic. Your thoughts?


manajemen proyek
March 21, 2011 11:41 am

wow manajemen project and music? this new approach. thank you for sharing


Hi Rodney, Nice article and good comparison of various music styles with project management. I liked how your differentiated classical from jazz. Every composition is a project with a definite start and end and is unique in nature. Free-style jam could be less of a structured project but does require intution to gel together with other musicians. I’m myself into playing music so I can relate to it very well but I never thought about PM and music this way. So today I learnt something new from your post. Now I can think in this direction and explore more. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Blessings!


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