Stick to Project Management Basics

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The importance of fundamentals in project management is obvious, but easy to lose sight of.

As professionals who constantly strive to improve, we study, read, take courses, attend seminars, listen to podcasts and more -- all to become better project managers. Ironically, sometimes this desire to learn causes us to lose focus on the fundamentals.

Instead, we look to novelty, the latest trends and perhaps even the latest fads in the interest of improving.

Likewise, we might embrace sophisticated techniques without ensuring that we've properly implemented the basic things on which the sophisticated techniques depend.

I've often heard great sports figures and musicians emphasize the importance of fundamentals in their success. Project managers would do well to place similar emphasis on the basics of our profession. I'd go even further to suggest that before we embrace any new or sophisticated technique, we should first look at how well we are implementing the fundamentals.

For example, what good does it do us to implement the latest agile techniques on a project where we haven't adequately implemented rudimentary change management disciplines? Similarly, what good would it do to implement Monte Carlo simulations in a context where we haven't adequately identified basic risks?

In my estimation, our success depends almost entirely on how well we have implemented fundamental risk and change management processes.

Things go wrong and plans change -- yet we often charge ahead without adequately planning and preparing for those realities. Certainly, our intuition tells us this is true, and our experience validates our intuition. Yet it still often happens that we lose sight of the obvious fact that the basics matter and matter most.

If you should ever waiver in your conviction, look no further than PMI's 2012 Pulse of the Profession. The report notes that change management and project management basics are among the most critical project success factors.

New and sophisticated techniques have their place, but the best thing to do in any profession is to go back to basics. Don't let the allure of the sophisticated or the novel, distract us from the value of fundamentals.

To discuss Pulse of the Profession on Twitter, please use #pmipulse.

See more on the Pulse of the Profession.

Posted by Jim De Piante on: July 19, 2012 11:05 AM | Permalink

Comments

PM Hut
Hi Jim, It's interesting how you are asking people to stick with the PM basics when many are saying that these basics, such as upfront estimates, are the cause of all evil (I'm not giving my opinion, by the way). The problem is that most project managers perceive change management (and change requests) as an evil that must be avoided at all costs, and not as an integral part of project management.

Geir Amsjø
Hi Jim, PM fundamentals hasn´t really been very successful in complex IT projects, has they? Why not admit that these ideas of management are dysfunctional in many cases? When you know what to do and you know how to do it: Project Management works fine. In the rest of the cases - dysfunctional. Better Risk and Change Management will not do. We have tried hard for so many years. I think PMP put far too much emphasis on management and tend to forget the important stuff: the product itself and the value of this product. A clear vision, experienced and skilled developers, close collaboration between developers and users, and learning while working are all more vital success factors than management.

Ibrahim Dani
Jim, This is an interesting point of view. I believe your core thought "success depends almost entirely on how well we have implemented fundamental risk and change management processes" has a lot of merit. I like the way you stressed on "fundamental". The more we think of it, the more 'sense' it makes. If project managers 'avoid' risk and change management (as mentioned in the previous comment) then they are not doing their job - they are avoiding it. They have to embrace risk/change management rather than work on avoiding them. An excellent insight. Thank you for this.

Jim De Piante
Hi Geir,

If the research is to be believed, fundamentals apparently do have a positive effect on all projects. Personally (and you may disagree), I put the blame for such a high failure rate on poor implementation of the principles rather than the principles themselves. In any event, I’m happy to see the principles implemented well, rather than not.

You wisely point out that, “When you know what to do and you know how to do it: Project Management works fine.â€쳌 Here again, we agree. To implement risk and change management on top of poorly implemented planning is worse than useless. It gives a false sense of control.

I also agree that it’s a mistake for a PM “... to forget the important stuff: the product itself and the value of this product.â€쳌 A PM who doesn’t isn’t fulfilling the role of a real (and good) PMP.

Without a doubt, as you put it, “A clear vision, experienced and skilled developers, close collaboration between developers and users, and learning while working are all ... vital to success ...â€쳌 Where we rank them in the constellation of PM competencies is perhaps a matter of personal emphasis. On the other hand, how we rank them doesn’t mean that we can implement the more highly ranked things without also implementing the more lowly ranked things, and still expect to succeed.

The PMP worthy of the title plans well, does all the things you suggest and also implements change and risk management, and likely will succeed. The PMP who doesn’t do all of those things might succeed, but that is a matter of good fortune, and personally, I don’t like to bet my projects on good fortune.

Thanks,
Jim


Geir Amsjø
Hi again Jim. I have been following Software Development field closely the recent 20 years, and as far as I know there are no scientifically viable research on success factors and methods. So we need to rely on experience and reasoning. (If you have research that also publish their methods I would really love to see it!) Personally I have observed more than 20 IT projects closely - some of them as PM or developer, others more as an evaluator. I have seen project executed "by the book" - delivered the agreed scope, within time and budget. The only problem was that the product was useless. Or in other cases - the customer discovered long after the project was finished that the quality (reliability and maintainability) was really bad. And I remember catastrophic projects that was severely delayed and had apparently no controle - that ended up with an extremely valuable product worth every extra month and dollar. I strongly believe that we tend to underestimate complexity. Most IT projects today involves innovation and learning while we work. New technical solutions emerges while we work. New needs pops up while we work. And we discover new opportunities while we work. Risk analysis and traditional change management will not do in these cases. They just gives sand in the machinery and will delay progress and learning. In these complex projects pure Agile approaches works far better than Project Management Basics. I urge you to read about Dave Snowdens Cynefin model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin) that elegantly explains how radically things change when you enter the complex area. In predominantly complex projects there is no use making detailed plans up-front. You need to have a process that emphasize learning while working. If you are in the simple corner of Cynefin PM Basics works fine. Scrum is very well suited for the complex area. In Scrum there is collaboration, self-organisation and constantly emerging backlog of work. In Scrum there is no Project Manager. No Change Management process. Risk Management is embedded.

Dot Olonovich
I agree that successful IT projects require a holistic approach.

IT seems impossibly complex, but actually I've found that there's a very small set of problems that are experienced by a very large set of project managers. (I'm in the middle of a sizable research project.) Management methodologies are useful; the problem is that they are incomplete.

People who successfully use project management methodologies have, for whatever reason, filled in the missing pieces on their own. For example, some managers may naturally be collaborative, or the corporate culture might be collaborative, enabling those managers to come up with stronger solutions and enjoy more support.

I'm working on filling in the other missing pieces as well. Project management methodologies are useful and necessary in the context of a broader management skillset.

Eirik M
"Personally (and you may disagree), I put the blame for such a high failure rate on poor implementation of the principles rather than the principles themselves." Do I read this correctly that there is a high rate of project that does not implement "basic" project management principles? In that case it might be a good idea to reflect on why this is so. Because these basic and fundamentals are actually very hard? Is it because they are not relevant in every project? Because there is an epidemic laziness/ignorance among project managers? I'm used to agile development and certainly wouldn't call that "sophisticated techniques". Basic PM I have worked with wasn't rocket science either, but it required a lot of effort and didn't address the challenges of the project. I think what is "basic" and what is "sophisticated" is largely related to what you are used to.

Jim De Piante
Hi Eirik, My own experience, invariably, has been that “troubledâ€쳌 projects got that way because the most basic things were not done well. For example, regardless of approach, at some point, there needs to be agreement about and a common and accurate understanding of what is required. It really doesn’t matter how you achieve that, but you must achieve that if the people working on the project are going to create something that meets requirements. Similarly, regardless of approach, at some point, there needs to be agreement about and a common and accurate understanding of precisely what it is that will be created to meet those requirements. It really doesn’t matter how you achieve that, but you must achieve that if the people working on the project are going to put together a plan to, and eventually create, things that will meet requirements. Thus, it is my personal observation (rather than a scientifically derived statistic) that tells me to “...put the blame for such a high failure rate on poor implementation of the principles rather than the principles themselves.â€쳌 You ask, “Why is it so?â€쳌 Once again, I can only comment from personal observation. And I must say that I agree completely that, as you put it, “This is not rocket science.â€쳌 The principles are rather simple. Good principles always are. The challenge is always that the principles must be implemented by, and in the context of, real flesh and blood human beings, who are enormously complex. And the complexity increases exponentially because they must work in teams. Further, the environments and circumstances in which the principles must be implemented are complex and fluid, and there are tremendous pressures to get more and more done, faster and faster, and at lower and lower costs. PS It’s not the use of agile, per se, that I am speaking about. Rather, I am critical of the implementation of “...the latest agile techniquesâ€쳌 in a context where more rudimentary techniques have not been adequately implemented. Kind regards, Jim

Jonathan Feist
Eh, formal project management reduces risk, but plenty of projects turn out just fine without it.

Stefannorton
I'm 4 weeks into becoming a Project Manager and I'm scared to death. It is a career change for me. I know I've made the right decision but anxious just the same. You mentioned that you Liston to podcasts. What ones are worth subscribing to? Stefan

PM Hut
Hi Jim, All the post is focused on the importance of sticking to PM basics and how great they are and how people are being more interested in new PM methods. But here's a question: What are the PM basics? Can you define them? Can you list them?

Todd Stone
I agree with the author somewhat - I also have seen on many projects over many years that often times the huge "blow-out" projects are ones where the basics were not effectively done. By basics I specifically mean scope definition, project plan preparation, adequate time (schedule) planning and schedule creation and budget planning and preparation. If you do a decent job of defining and controlling the scope, budget and schedule you are 80-90% of the way there. Are you all the way there? NO, but if you make sure you have these things thoroughly planned, defined and tracked you will certainly avoid most problems. Especially for new PM's out there - focus on this first and don't get yourself paralyzed by the fear of what else you're not doing!

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