Nick Clemens, PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition Development Team member
As a project manager I find myself immersed in uncertainties and change. People roll on and off my program teams, my management chain changes frequently, and my customer base is in flux. I am a contractor for a larger US Federal Department and even within the US Federal bureaucracy change comes quick and often. I think for large bureaucracies the problem is not change, it’s here and must be dealt with. The problem is adaption and response.
The same is true for projects. Project leaders must adapt and overcome. Our response as project leaders must insure the on-time delivery of our products and services within project constraints. This is how we deliver benefits that create value for our customers and companies alike. And for those who like to deliver incrementally, I’m also talking to you. Implicit in the idea of a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is the delivery of a benefit that creates inherent value for both the user and the supplying enterprise.
So how do we keep track of where we are going with everything changing around us? To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, If you don't know where you're going, any road can take you there. The answer is to go back to basics. Basic project management principles provide us with a framework to guide us when our projects are troubled. The PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition development team is taking just that approach in updating The Standard for Project Management. We are looking at a better way to guide project leaders using a principles-based approach that will allow flexible responses to an environment fraught with change and uncertainty.
So, what’s a project management principle that could help us to navigate our complex environments and keep track of where we are going? It has to do with “systems thinking” and is related to a management principle from the risk area, “work to balance threats and opportunities.” The principle I am thinking of is around the idea of Think Holistically.
Holistic thinking tells us to get out of the weeds, to see the forest for the trees. In other words, as a project leader have a vision for your project. That vision should include your project’s purpose, value to be delivered, impact to the business environment, and its effect on the people involved. Holistic thinking also includes understanding the trade-off space to ensure the team delivers outputs that will drive outcomes. It allows self-organization of work but keeps the pieces integrated. Holistic thinking challenges assumptions and mental models to broaden the possible solution space.
Whether managing a group of work packages to a project plan or integrating a couple of scrum teams to deliver a MVP according to a release plan, the challenge to the project leader is the same—keeping on track to meet our customer’s vision and expectations and delivering outcomes, even if the precise end goal is not fully defined at present. I didn’t say it would be easy. In most cases the days of the practically perfect project plans went out with the departure of Mary Poppins, not in the most recent Disney sequel, but in the original 1964 movie! To say the least, a principles-based approach to project management has been a long time coming.
So, think holistically to keep the focus of your project 100% aligned with your customer’s vision and expectations. Remember as the project leader your job is to deliver and create value for your customers and company. Everything else is in the weeds. The key is to recognize, evaluate, and respond to the dynamic circumstances within and surrounding the project delivery systems as the systems interact and react with each other.