Project Management Research Agenda and Schools of Thought


It is evident that the field of project management (PM) has developed tremendously over the decades. Throughout the past 6 decades or so, organizations have expressed an increased interest in mobilizing projects to achieve pre-determined strategic objectives. The following paper aims to articulate and examine the research agenda in PM as defined by the work of Christophe N. Bredillet. The scholar has published his findings in the field of project management in a six-part series of “Letters From the Editor” in the Project Management Journal. These articles, published between 2007 and 2008, provide invaluable academic insights into the schools of thought related to project management as well as the interconnection of PM and other research fields.

Research Agenda Contextualization And Development

The notion of a research agenda is exceptionally important in the field of project management since it contributes to an overall understanding of PM conceptualization and development. Many researchers have focused on examining and theorizing about the research agenda in project management over the past couple of decades. Alya L. Abuseem (2020) offers a framework for classifying the research agenda in PM, which includes such categories as “classical project management, rethinking project management, brave new world and project studies” (p. 176). The first classification is represented by Lundin and Soderholm (1995) and Shenhar and Dvir (1996). The second category is best represented by the works of Winter et al. (2006). Svejvig and Andersen (2015) as well as Seymour and Hussein (2014) contributed greatly to the third classification. Lastly, the research conducted by Geraldi and Soderlund (2017) serves as the foundation for implementing project studies into practice. All of these classifications are essential to take into considerations when discussing the research agenda in project management and the development of literature in the field.

Classical Project Management and Rethinking Project Management

The studies of project management have been dominated by the notion that an organization is eternal, which would mean that decision making is the key determinant of organizational success. Lundin and Soderholm (1995) pursues an alternative theoretical approach and suggested that an organization is inherently a temporary entity. Therefore, action determines the success of an organization, highlighting the requirement to act the majority of organization should have. Another example of the classical approach to project management is the work of Shenhar and Dvir (1996), which aims to articulate the typology of project management. As for rethinking project management, this classification is best reflected in the literature of the early 2000s, including the 2006 study by Winter et al. The researchers define five future directions for the academic progress of the field of project management. The primary goal of the research focused on rethinking project management is to facilitate scholarly discussions targeted at expanding the current understanding of project management and re-defining the existing research agenda.

Brave New World and Project Studies

Brave new world is essentially an alternative context to apply when considering the issue of project management. Svejvig and Andersen (2015) advocate for the broader inclusion of the rethinking project management concept. Brave new world is a classification that actively empowers the integration of the classical theory in combination with the concepts proposed as part of the rethinking project management model. Lastly, project studies are the focus of discussion in the study by Geraldi and Soderlund (2018) who attempt to articulate the alternative typology of projects. Type 1 is defined by technical interest and emphasizes causal links and control. Type 2 “is practical and focuses on interpretation and understanding in social interfaces” (Abuseem, 2020, p. 178). Type 3 can be described as liberating since it centers on the analysis and elimination of constraints. Apart from that, project studies are subjected to three levels of analysis, which are macro, meso, and micro.

The Nine Perspectives

Schools of thought, as defined by Bredillet (2007-2008), provide invaluable insight into the perspectives surrounding the historical development of the concept of project management as well as the possible future progress in the field. As mentioned earlier, Bredillet (2007-2008) critically reviewed the existing knowledge and summarized the nine schools of project management, each offering a slightly different alternative perspective on the development of PM research. Thus, the first two parts of Bredillet’s series are thematically generic, addressing the research of others in relation to the nine schools of project management. The first part focuses on the origins of the development of modern schools of thought, highlighting the importance of future advancements in the field (Bredillet, 2007a). The second part offers a concise, yet comprehensive, categorization of project management. Bredillet (2007b) claims project management to be a knowledge field, first and foremost, with the additional relevance of such elements as knowledge producers and relationships between individuals tasked with defining the conditions. These insights are imperative to gain an in-depth understanding of the academic community involved in PM research. The third part of Bredillet’s series is an overview of the first PM schools. The full list of schools includes: optimization school, modeling school, governance school, behavior school, success school, decision school, the process school, the contingency school, the marketing school.

Optimization School

The origins of this perspective date back to the 1940s and 50s. This school implies the integration of operation tools such as “network scheduling techniques including the critical path methods (CPM) and program evaluation and review technique” (Bredillet, 2007c, p. 2). The main goals of project management, as defined by this approach, are to determine clear project objectives, coordinate planning, oversee scheduling, and ensure resource efficiency. In terms of the development of the concept of project management, thus school posits that a project is merely a system in need of optimization.

Modeling School

The theory of project management has started to develop, which resulted in the prominence of the modeling school during the 1980s. Instead of focusing on targeting specific objectives of a projects, which might include cost efficiency or proper scheduling, the goal of PM is shifting towards focusing on the system as a whole, taking into account the interactions between all of its separate elements. Soft-systems methodology later becomes the primary focus of the modeling school “with the aim of addressing organizational, behavioral, political, and other issue affecting projects” (Bredillet, 2007c, p. 3). Although certain differences are apparent in comparison to the optimization school, the modeling school is still an extension of the optimization school since it treasuries dividing a project into smaller parts to be able to understand and control it.

Governance School

This school differs from the ones mentioned earlier in its approach to regarding projects not as systems or interconnected elements but rather legal entities. According to Bredillet (2008a), “the focus of the project governance literature covers three areas: transaction costs associated with projects, (…) the principal agency relationship between client and contractor, (…) mechanisms of governance of projects” (pp. 2-3). Although the interest in this area persists and studies centered on project governance are still being published, there are directions for further development. Research surrounding governance can include the topics of regulatory compliance, project management organization, knowledge management, and so on.

Behavior School

If the modeling school is the extension of the optimization school, then the behavior school is the result of the expansion of the governance school. Both of them function off the premise that a project is a temporary organization. In addition, both schools include share some of the key aspects, including “organizational behavior (OB), team building and leadership, communication, and, more recently, human resource management” (Bredillet, 2008a, p. 3). Pioneers of the behavior school are researchers of the 1970s who focused on examining the issue of conflict management within an organization. In the 1980s, the focus has begun to shift towards a people focus in PM. Instead of prioritizing strictly organizational behavior, the development of the behavior school has signaled the inclusion of human resource management practices into the PM discussion.

Success School

It is evident that the success school deals primarily with the issues surrounding project success and failure. This is why success factors and criteria have become the main areas of scholarly inquiry in relation to project management. Such a shift dates back to the 1970s, with an emphasis on the interconnection between project organization and perceived success. The success school has a direct impact on the integration and execution of project management as the approach helps to clearly defined the most efficient planning, scheduling, and control practices to ensure project success.

Decision School

The decision school concerns itself primarily with the decision-making process as a part of early project planning as well as project information processing. According to Bredillet (2008b), it focuses on “factors relevant to the initiation, approval, and funding of projects, as well as factors relevant to project completion, terminations, and conclusions” (p. 2). Such a perspective allows to consider and navigate the ambiguity the decision-making process during various stages of project management usually implies. Hence, the goal of a project manager now encompasses the reduction of such uncertainty or its full elimination. When regarding this school against the backdrop of other approaches discussed earlier, one can notice that the decision school is rooted in optimization and project de-construction into separate elements.

Process School

As for the process school, it largely regards any project as an algorithm one can apply to turn a vision into reality. The popularity of such an approach can be attributed to the work of European researchers in the 1980s (Bredillet, 2008b). This school considers PM to be a structured process, which can help to reach a pre-determined destination, allowing to transition from the stage of desire to the stage of memory. An algorithm entails a series of steps (processes) required to achieve objectives of a project. Therefore, the focus of the literature is the life cycle of a project or a specific project management practice. The process school is closely interconnected with the governance approach, both of them focusing heavily on the project life cycle.

Contingency School

This perspective highlights the importance of regarding each project as a unique phenomenon in need of a distinct approach to project management. As such, this school takes into consideration a variety of factors, which might influence the choice of a PM system to apply. Such factors may include project settings, objectives, or core needs. The research with the contingency perspective includes works on the types and categories of projects. For instance, Crawford et al. (2006) defined the basic elements of any project categorization framework, which are categorization purposes and categorization attributes. Proponents of this perspective posit that “an organization’s ability to manage complex new projects is related to its ability to remember factors associated with past successes” (Bredillet, 2008b, p. 3). The research that considers this perspective aims to identify the most suitable PM approaches for specific project settings, methods, or goals.

Marketing School

There has always been a disconnect between the increased interest in project management and the actual impact of PM practices on organizational performance and productivity. The marketing school is reflected in the research addressing client and stakeholder needs, communication with clients, means of external and internal project marketing, and so on. Bredillet (2008b) articulates how challenging it might be to show the importance of a project and market it properly for the senior leadership to approach and invest in it. Thus, promoting and managing a project during early stages is the top priority for this school.

Constraints And The Future

In regards to possible constraints and the future of the research agenda in project management, it is important to recognize the potential each school of thought holds in introducing new exciting ideas to an academic community. The interest in some approaches is decreasing, which might limit the development of the field of project management overall. However, each perspective can productively expand to include more nuanced inquiries into project organization. For example, the optimization school research might “continue into the extensions of EVM [earned value management] such as forecasting project completion time, earned schedule method, integration of planning, and control of various project parameters” (Bredillet, 2007c, p. 3). In addition, research can center on the impact of PM on the finished project’s operational life cycle.

The modeling approach surely has a lot of potential in terms of constructing comprehensive PM models based on the insights gathered through adoption of both hard and soft system methodologies. This perspective is likely to expand the research agenda in project management further as it allows scholars and practitioners to reflect the existing project and extract valuable insights. When it comes to the governance school, the focus in the current studies is primarily on the regulatory process behind project and program governance. In addition to the existing agenda, this perspective might expand to include in-depth analysis of project coalition governance, portfolio refinement, and so on. The rapid pace of digitalization caused partially by the COVID-19 pandemic allows behavior school research to expand further. The focus might shift towards the management of virtual teams as well as human resource practices in new-generation project-oriented organizations. As for the success school, Bredillet (2008a) argues this area keeps “providing fertile grounds for research” (p. 4). There is certainly much potential in exploring the value and impact of PM being applied within organizations.

Furthermore, there is a need to categorize projects extensively and theorize about process applications to various types of projects. Thus, the area of research adopting the process perspective is projected to expand, particularly driven by the interest of practitioners in PM processes improvement. The contingency school has a lot of potential as well since it can assist in articulating the most suitable PM practices for a specific setting or using a specific set of methods. The future holds many opportunities for the research adopting a marketing perspective. According to Bredillet (2008b), this school’s research can “pursue the integration of strategic and tactical components of business success” and “address the linkages between strategic goals and project objectives” (p. 3). To summarize, it is apparent that although the potentials of each individual perspective might differ, the research agenda in project management is undoubtedly going to expand by adopting a variety of approaches.


It is evident that each of the nine schools defined by Bredillet provide a set of distinct perspectives on project management and the research agenda in relation to the subject. The analysis of available scholarly literature has demonstrated that the approaches to project management research have shifted through time. Although, as of now, all of them exist simultaneously, each school of thought being reflected in modern studies and possessing significant potential in progressing even further. The following paper has attempted to articulate the development of the research agenda in project management by introducing a set of classifications and critically reviewing the nine prominent schools of thought in PM.


Abuseem, A.J. (2020) ‘An examination of the project management research agenda and schools of thought’, International Conference on Industrial Engineering and Operations Management conference proceedings, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 10-12 March. Michigan: IEOM Society International.

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