Art and Science

Photo by Malcolm Garret on

The first time I recall being blatantly told a topic was both an Art and a Science was in a project management course at Montana State. Since that day, I’ve grown to see every field as both an art and a science. At the extremes, even, there is some science to art, and science would be incomplete without aspects of art. Managing a restaurant, stocking shelves at a retail store, writing (coding), Ultimate Frisbee, making plans, deal making, sales and marketing, etc. All places where both art and science play a role. Let’s start with a couple definitions. 

Science- the governing rules around your particular topic. In sports, the particular rules are the “science” part. In deal making, the “science” is a core understanding of what is on the table and includes the non-negotiables. In sandwich making, the “science” is the set of common steps you follow. 

Art- being able to fluidly navigate unique scenarios, apply creative, non-standard thought, reading between the lines, and generally knowing how and when to break the rules. In sports, the “art” part is knowing how to fluidly deal with match ups or game-specific challenges (without breaking the rules). In deal making, the art is crafting a solution that is mutually beneficial and agreeable, without compromising on the non-negotiables. In sandwich making, the “art” is deciding what goes on the sandwich, how much of it, what order it goes in, etc.  

Both definitions above are distinctly not their dictionary definitions which is why it’s important to define them here. This whole attempt at explaining my thought process is in fact an example of how writing is a combination of art and science. The science being the point I want to get across, sentence syntax, and language rules. The art being the words, examples, and medium I choose to express myself in. 

Back to the beginning, though- why is project management an art and a science? PM is an art because projects are, by definition, unique. Putting a strict set of rules in place doesn’t work because the scenario is different with each project, and therefore each project requires a slightly different (or very different) approach. PM is science, though, because there are certain tools and procedures that are applicable and useful across the board. Which ones to use, though, is not always clear cut. As an example, every project will have criteria that are measured along the life of the project, generally referred to as a key performance indicator, or KPI. However, those KPIs may not be the same between all projects, thus they will be measured and reported in a different way. E.g. a construction company building a new parking lot may track the number of new parking slots completed as a KPI. A wealth management company running a specific marketing campaign may track new assets under management during the project as a KPI. Both can be valid, but neither would be useful if the sample companies swapped KPIs. 

In Ultimate frisbee, the science of the game includes the rules of the game, the field dimensions, number of allowed players, etc. Each team likely has a set of plays, defensive sets, and particular lines they know well and run often, which would also be considered “science” for that team. However, the art comes in when facing off against an opponent that can readily work against your plan. As an example, if Team A likes to run a zone defense, but their opponent, Team B, is throwing right through the zone, it’s probably time to think outside the system and determine a different approach (thus, breaking the “scientific” piece down). Relying solely on science will not get them to their goal (assuming they want to win). Additionally, relying solely on an artistic approach, where there are no set plays, lines, defenses, etc., would also not work because no one would not know what to expect from their own teammates. 

When it comes to writing a story or writing software, the science is that both need to be readable, flow logically (mostly), and adhere to certain syntax requirements. Flashbacks in a story might break the main timeline, but they’re allowed. When and where to use them is the writer’s choice, thus an art. Writing in Python requires certain rules are followed to declare variables, write if or while statements, and end loops. Naming your variables, breaking complicated tasks down into smaller pieces, commenting, calling other code or libraries, etc. is all on the art side of things. 

By this point, I hope I’ve made it clear that in nearly all aspects of life, there is both an art and a science to it. Almost nothing is so clear cut that a set of rules can exist to deal with every unique scenario.

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