Do you work on projects in your company? Or do you have teams that do projects? Suppose you used the best project management principles to organize all of your work. What would that look like? What benefits might that provide?
It is always interesting to me to hear what other project managers think the best project management principles are. It’s hard to find total agreement. Some argue that budget and timeline management are most important. Others say planning or risk management is key. And others argue that a well-defined scope or sponsor involvement are key. If you had to boil it down to the top three principles, how would you vote? It’s a tough question. There are so many choices and many important principles.
What I’m interested in understanding is how redefining project management for the 21st century could improve project success. And redefining it, from my perspective, includes focusing on which principles will drive the most change. And what the benefits of that change are. Suppose we took it a bit further and used these principles to manage all of our work?
My Vote for the Best Project Management Principles
People focused leadership
I’ve written much on leadership and what I think it means. Does it mean winning, or beating the competition? Is it about creating strong strategic plans and then, going gangbusters? Or is it about effective communications?
I can’t argue against the need for remaining competitive in your marketplace, good planning and execution, or effective communications. But in my experience, highly collaborative teams that enjoy working together and have a clear vision of where they are going are the key to being competitive, planning, execution, and communications.
It’s not about smart goals that are strategic, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. It’s about whether your teams feel the love. I’m not suggesting that you never focus on the traditional approach of smart goals. I’m simply saying that building effective teams that are driven to produce valuable results is time well spent.
Much has been written on emotional intelligence, or emotional maturity, which many believe is one of the keys to effective leadership. People with low emotional intelligence have a hard time managing their own emotions. They can make life in your organization harder than it needs to be. So, focus on building skills – such as self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship management skills. Help people name their emotions. Allow people to own their emotions. Insist that people act with respect despite feeling any emotions that make that difficult.
Generally speaking, people want to work on something that is bigger than themselves. One of the most important roles of leadership is to convey the mission of the organization and get people to rally around that mission. Project leaders need to understand the vision for their project(s) and be able to build enthusiasm for that vision.
Rapid delivery of incremental client value
In the traditional Waterfall project management methodology, project managers spend time regularly assessing how much work has been finished on activities. The activity is estimated to be perhaps, 20% complete, or maybe 80% complete. Given those estimates on every activity that is in progress, managers and executives are provided with estimates on whether the project is on schedule, or not. Similarly, these estimates are used to ascertain whether the project is on budget.
In the Scrum world, teams are given no credit for work that is partially complete. Deliver activities that are completely finished. That’s the goal during every sprint.
That approach has the advantage of focusing teams. It eliminates the wasted effort of managing earned value – with data that are flawed. This is a sophisticated project management technique that takes time. Let me explain the flaw.
In projects where results are highly observable, it may be viable to estimate percent complete. For example, if the task is to put 50 windows in a house, and you have put in 25 windows, you can estimate that you are about 50% complete. Yes, we’ll hold back some kind of a retainer on that work, just to make sure that the remaining 25 windows are installed properly.
But what happens when the activity is to develop a training manual, a new compensation structure, a new web application, or a limited experiment to see if you really can mix the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines with equal efficacy? IF you have successfully defined what ‘Done’ looks like, you will know when you are finished. But when you’re not there yet, it will be very difficult to estimate how far you’ve come. And the estimate is likely worthless.
So, why waste time on that? Instead, break your project down so you can deliver real value at the end of every sprint. Focus on finishing work.
WIN – What’s Important Now
In Greg McKeown’s 2014 book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he recounts a story from Larry Gelwix, the coach of the Highland High School (Salt Lake City) rugby team, which won 418 games in 36 years, with only 10 losses. When asked how he did that, the coach talked about an acronym, WIN, which means “what’s important now?”
I first began to really understand the concept of “what’s important now?” when I was parenting four children in diapers. Anything could happen. On some days, it didn’t matter what my plan was. I had to constantly re-evaluate what was most important.
The lesson applies equally in the business world. Anything can happen overnight, or even over lunch. I always admire these folks who can prioritize their day the night before. I understand the value of waking to a plan – but more often, I wake to revising the plan.
Coach Gelwix’s point is to stay focused on the moment. It’s great advice. The past is over. The future is not yet here. What we have to work with is the present. I’m not ready to abandon the concept of planning for the future, but I do think focusing on the present is important. And when I’m in the middle of a meeting and watching others focusing on their cell phones, I’m more convinced than ever that being fully present is essential. Ask the question: what’s important now? WIN!
Suppose we were always focused on what’s important now. What would that mean? Sometimes, we would be planning or managing, sometimes we’d actually be executing real work, sometimes we’d be focusing on risks, issues, costs, or contracts. And if we worked in sprints, delivering real value at the end of every period, and paid just a little more attention to the people in our organization, what would happen? Working would become a highly choreographed dance with people we truly enjoy.
What Benefits Would Accrue?
Measurable results accomplished cost-effectively
You could produce the most thorough project plan in the world and still be unsuccessful if you don’t have a team that can deliver results that matter. And you could have a one-page plan that the team delivers with great success. The reality is that effective teams that produce valuable results are one of the most important benefits that we could achieve by redefining project management and focusing on a different set of core principles.
Less money spent on work that doesn’t add value
Perhaps time spent tracking earned value is time well-spent when the data used in the calculation are reasonably accurate, but when it’s not accurate, and never will be, I’m quite sure that spending time on earned value measurement is a waste. And in business projects, I’m reasonably sure that it doesn’t add value. And yet, many businesses continue to hire trained PMPs and insist on those measurements.
Pleasant working environment
Many people spend more time with their colleagues than their families. Shouldn’t it be fun? It’s way more costly to hire and train new people than to create a culture that is enjoyable. So why don’t we do that?
Better client relationships
In traditional project management there is definitely a focus on achieving milestones and completing tasks. The question is whether we are focusing on what the client wants most, now. Sometimes there is little question about what needs to be done next. For example, you can’t install the wiring in a house until the studs are up.
But in many business projects, the path to project completion is not as straightforward. And many times, there are competing choices of what could be done next and limited resources. Are we choosing what we will execute next by asking our client what it wants? Are we asking the project sponsor, or senior leadership what would be most beneficial to our company? OR was a schedule created at the outset and we are just checking off the boxes with great diligence?
More engaged leadership
Almost every analysis of a failed project will point to lack of effective sponsorship. When project teams, working on in-house projects, treat their sponsors like clients, perhaps it will move us in the direction of more engaged leadership.
Can project teams view progress from the perspective of the project sponsor? Perhaps the project team, in looking at what’s important now, might begin to realize that the project is no longer generating value for the company. What is their response? To keep plugging away, fearful that they won’t have a job if they raise that concern? Or confident that their best use of time is in something that is generating real value for the company.
And it’s a two-way street. There seems to be this notion that the data that bosses can collect on what we are doing, as employees, have value. The evidence for this belief is seen in the way Microsoft has built tracking ability into its Teams product.
When we set up our projects for success, as I wrote about in this blog on supercharging your work breakdown structure, we can deliver real value at the end of every sprint. When we are delivering real value, perhaps management will begin to realize that productivity is not measured by the number of chat messages or meetings attended.
Perhaps if we redefined project management for the 21st century we could give executives meaningful data with actionable insights that would truly help companies generate real value, both for customers and owners.
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