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5 October 2010

Aristotle and project management

By Andrew Clifford

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) has been one of the major contributors to the development of Western thinking, covering areas as diverse as logic, biology, philosophy and IT project management.

Yes, that's right. Aristotle was an expert on IT project management, or would have been if IT had been invented then.

Aristotle's great contribution to project management was to explain causality, the reasons why things come about.

Aristotle explained that every thing can have four causes:

  • Material cause. This describes the parts or materials that make up the thing.
  • Formal cause. This describes the pattern of the thing, the way that the parts are arranged and come together.
  • Efficient cause. This describes the tasks and skills that are used to create the thing.
  • Final cause. This describes the purpose or aim of the thing.

Aristotle's four causes are a great way of analysing an IT system or an IT project. For an IT project, we have:

  • Material cause. This is the hardware, software, equipment and components that must be combined to produce the solution.
  • Formal cause. This is the architecture or design of the solution.
  • Efficient cause. This is the project management and development activities that must be applied to build the solution.
  • Final cause. This is the business purpose, value and requirements that the solution must meet.

This analysis of causes is useful because it is simple and succinct, but is complete and covers every aspect of delivering an IT solution.

You can use it to check whether your project is properly balanced.

In IT, we tend to stick to what we know. For many IT projects, we know the technology and design, and can cope with the development and project management. We are good at bringing the first three causes together. However, we often forget the final cause. We have a rather sketchy idea of how the solution will deliver business value. But without the final cause, the project is purposeless.

You can use this approach to build better teams, to make sure that you have the right balance of skills. Each of us has preferences. My order of preference is formal, material, final and then efficient. I like design, I can cope with technology, I am interested in business value, but I do not find day-to-day project management particularly engaging. If I am on a team, I like to work with good project managers and with people who are good at capturing and analysing business needs.

You can also use this approach to assess existing IT systems. You can consider the technology (material cause), design (formal cause), the human and system process flows (efficient cause) and then the value that it brings (final cause). From my experience of assessing IT systems, many people can articulate the material causes of their IT, but have only a sketchy idea of the other three.

Although it is not a detailed analysis, Aristotle's four causes is a useful reminder that IT is not simply about technology or design or process or value, but the skilful combination of all of these.

Next: Knowing when to change

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