PMI recently released its 2018 Pulse of the Profession Report. On a quick glance, though there has been some improvement over the last five years, the numbers look pretty flat. While the conversation about project success and failure continues, it’s clear that we haven’t solved the problem. In this blog, I outline ten project management principles that I believe could reduce project failures, give executives valuable insights into their project portfolios, and improve project selection decisions.
There are so many different ways to manage a project that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Most project managers know a handful. I try to study as many as I can but the list continues to grow. At present, I can think of at least fifteen. The better known methodologies include:
- Waterfall, Agile
- Six Sigma
- Lean Six Sigma
- Extreme Programming
- PRINCE II
- Critical Path Method
- Adaptive Project Framework
- Event Chain Methodology
- Critical Chain Method
- Process-based PM
Some of these are highly structured methods, while others are more like a set of guiding principles. But have any of these methodologies improved overall success rates?
In recent years, there has been an emerging trend to allow project managers to choose the method that works best on their project. The disadvantage of that approach is the lack of comparable portfolio metrics that might improve executive decision-making. Can we find a set of guiding project management principles that could help us bridge the divides between all of these different methods?
One compelling reason to do this in the U.S. is the increasing amount of mismanagement, fraud, and abuse in government sectors, together with rising budget deficits. And in 2016, Congress mandated that the Federal Government address the problems of ineffective project management.
If we are going to dramatically improve project success rates, we need to evolve our thinking on project management. We must insist on some processes and tools, and some level of effective documentation. Contracts must still be negotiated, and we need project plans that will actually help us manage our projects.
So, what should we do? Here are ten very specific project management principles behind the Smart Projex approach. They are not listed in any particular order. Some will sound familiar. Others probably won’t. Some of them seem radically different from traditional thinking. These project management principles can be used on all kinds of projects – from IT to non-profit, to businesses of all sizes, and even government projects.
Build highly effective teams and re-use them when feasible.
People are the key to getting your project done. Without people who have the requisite skills and can work together effectively, your project is doomed.
In the IT world, organizations build highly effective teams and then continue to use them from project to project. It makes the time spent on team building worth the money when a team stays together for years.
Yet in the business world, and the legal world, teams frequently come together for a specific project and then, are disbanded at the end. What a shame! A highly functioning team is a valuable resource – in and of itself. A team that knows how to work well together is more valuable than the sum of its parts. The team members bring out the best in each other.
Build a work distribution approach that allows you to re-use your effective teams. And then occasionally tweak things – just to keep your teams energized.
Standardize project language.
I’ve written about the need to standardize project language before. It seems like a radical step for some organizations.
The benefits of having a standard project language include the potential for portfolio metrics that make sense across your organization and improved communications. What’s not to love about those benefits?
Build a detailed charter early in the process. I recently worked on a very short effort that frustrated me unnecessarily. I realized after thinking back on the project that there was no consensus on the project vision. People talked a good game, but in their hearts, they simply didn’t agree on the vision. If you aren’t familiar with how to start a project effectively, check out this blog on starting projects wisely.
Deliver value regularly and rapidly.
I have found that this one principle can be hard for people working on business projects with a final defined result as the goal. For example, if you’re developing a project to create a new on-boarding process, what is the value that you can create for the client (or your management team) at the end of the first two weeks or so?
The answer may involve changing the way you think about projects entirely. It may require you to be more client-centered. (If you’re working on an in-house project, your management team is your client.)
It may require you to rethink how you break the project down. Are you thinking about the little steps that need to be done from your perspective or from your clients? Do all of them really add value for the client?
Work in short sprints to remain flexible and aim to deliver something of value to the client at the end of each sprint. It may not be working software. It may be a PowerPoint presentation to senior executives that outlines a new budgeting system for the organization. It could be five miles of completely repaved roadway. It may be executive agreement on a new compensation plan. The point is to deliver something of value at the end of every sprint.
Create a high-level plan for the project.
Use a graphic work breakdown structure that documents the essential activities. Don’t try to identify every single phone call, memo, or meeting that will be needed. Focus on the big picture and make sure you understand it completely.
Fully document the scope of each of those activities. Understand the quality that is needed for each activity. Identify the risks involved. Determine who is going to be in charge of each activity and who is going to do the work. If a budget is needed for the client, the last step is to estimate the cost of each activity.
Accept that on some projects, you will not know much. Focus on what you do know, and put placeholders in for what you don’t know. If you want more help on how to plan a project, check out this blog on planning a project.
Distinguish between activities and tasks.
The amount of planning that is done on a project depends on the nature of the project. If you’re renovating an old building in a crowded city, with limited on-site storage for supplies, detailed planning is a must. You’ll need to arrange for subs to show up on the right day, plan for potential weather issues, ensure the right materials are on-site, and ensure the necessary preliminary work has been finished.
That said, I still believe there is value in distinguishing between activities, as discussed in the previous bullet, and tasks – all of those phone calls, memos, inspections, and meetings that you didn’t cover in your graphic work breakdown structure.
The reason is this. Activities need to be fully understood – but it takes time. If you do that kind of detailed planning for every phone call or memo early in the process, too much is likely to change and your time will have been wasted. By distinguishing between activities and tasks, we accept that different pieces of data are needed for each. It makes communication smoother and speeds up the planning process without compromising your success.
Estimate complexity, rather than durations.
Complexity is a term I created for Smart Projex. I have written before on why I advocate estimating complexity over durations, and how to do it here. Tracking complexity, rather than durations is quicker and allows teams to develop comparable metrics across an entire portfolio, providing valuable project insights.
Identify and focus on the critical deadlines.
Some project managers spend a considerable amount of time identifying what is called the critical path. It’s a complicated way of understanding which activities are most critical for the timely completion of the project based on the estimated time it will take to complete each activity and task. I have previously discussed the flaws of estimating durations in today’s more complex projects. And so, those focusing on the critical path have to spend considerable time paying attention to the variances between estimates and reality, and the impact on the critical path.
Timely completion of a project is important. On some projects, it may be essential or even required by contract. All deadlines are not equal. We can accomplish the objectives of the critical path method far more effectively by understanding which deadlines are most critical.
Some people need deadlines more than others. If you are working with people who need a deadline, give it to them. But if it’s not important – and it wasn’t met because something more important arose, let’s not beat up on project teams over missing that deadline. Set your projects up to meet the critical deadlines and be successful. Celebrate those wins. Focus on the positive, rather than the negative.
Manage what’s important.
Every project is different. When you started your project, you hopefully focused on figuring out what is important to your client. Some clients are completely budget conscious, others – not so much. There may be times where the risk of a shut-down trumps every other consideration. Have you figured out what is important? Are you ensuring that you deliver what’s most important to your client?
In Agile development, having a sustainable development process is important. In the non-profit, business, or government world, different projects will have a different cadence or timeline of priorities. You may not have a fully engaged team at times. Outside contractors and subject matter experts may come and go. You may not have pressing priorities on some, but will on others. By using sprints and checkpoint meetings, managing those variables is easier. If you’re struggling to manage your meetings effectively, this blog may help.
The other way to manage what’s important is through reporting. As the saying goes, if you can’t measure it, don’t do it. I have written on that here.
Embrace change, not chaos.
Perhaps the biggest reason that Waterfall project management, along with a number of other Gantt chart oriented approaches have declined in popularity is that people have recognized the need for agility. There is simply too much change in our world. And these methodologies offer little agility. What they offer is project controls.
But as our world has seen an increase in the number of methodologies, we’ve watched our portfolio management abilities decline.
We must set our projects up for success and that means walking the line between constant change and uncontrolled change. No one likes working for the boss who changes his mind about priorities every week. Change is hard but also necessary. As organizations, we must evolve, grow, and sometimes pivot. The challenge is to manage the change.
We need a way to manage priorities and project investments. A documented change management process, together with the use of focused sprints, can keep your teams from running in circles. Embracing change does not mean embracing chaos. Provide a stable and safe environment for your teams to thrive. Try these project management principles and see how they work for you. Let me know if they reduce your project failures, give your executives valuable insights into their project portfolios, and improve your project selection decisions.
As I’ve said to some, I’m at a crossroads with Smart Projex, and assessing my next steps. How can I help you? Would you be more interested in training, or a software solution that really works? Connect with me on LinkedIn here or schedule a call. Sign up for my newsletter where I share a book review almost every week. (That’s a lot of book reviews). Share your challenges with me and maybe I’ll feature you in an upcoming blog.