Project Management

The Value of a Principle-based Standard for Project Management

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by Dave Violette, PMP

Those engaged in the discipline of managing projects can attest to rapid changes in approaches, methods, and techniques being introduced. The global evolution of how project management (PM) is tackled has been significant, and the pace of change continues at a head-spinning rate. These changes have made it difficult to keep up with developments; and even more, challenges efforts to link existing PM standards to new approaches. No sooner is a standard updated than some new subsuming approach or technique is developed.

Standard setting organizations are now starting to embrace the concept of defining Principles to guide the fundamentals involved in the practice of managing projects and delivering outcomes. Unlike process or approach-centered standards, which lists a series of process recommendations to meet the challenges of effective PM, focusing on Principles provides broader and more adaptable delivery guidance.

My view of PM Principles is that they represent the fundamental essence or norms that guide behavior and thinking at all levels of managing projects. Adhering to Principles helps project managers deliver better outcomes. Principles provide guidance, without imposing uniform adherence to a set of prescriptive processes or approaches.

So, where does the value of following these Principles arise? A set of Principles are used for guidance, rather than dictating how decisions are made or appropriate approaches adopted. Principles remain solid, provide stability, and focus on adapting behavior and thinking in the rapidly changing world of PM. Principles capture and summarize concept(s), action(s), condition(s), or consideration(s) generally recognized as necessary for guiding or influencing PM delivery success.

An example of using a fundamental Principle could be around the proactive engagement with stakeholders. This type of Principle would guide the selection of the specific approach for effective identification of stakeholders—those who have significant influence on project delivery outcomes. It would also provide guidance for the selection of processes to allow for stakeholder interests, rights, and expectations to be understood at a level where stakeholders are effectively engaged. The approach or processes to use needs to be flexible and adaptable to the specific delivery/business environment, so as to effectively engage the stakeholders. Following a stakeholder engagement Principle versus being tied to specific processes, techniques, or tools outlined in process-centered standards would help to ensure effective stakeholder engagement happens. Principle-based decisions can allow for varying situational or environmental adjustments needed for that project.

A second example could be around a fundamental Principle of maintaining a focus on value. Realizing value is a key determinant for project delivery success, the organization either realizes intended value or it does not. An underlying tenet of this focus is continuous evaluation during project delivery considering both the benefits and the costs to realize them—this is Benefits Realization Management. Adhering to a value-focused principle helps the project team ensure alignment with the business objectives and intended outcomes rather than a specific deliverable or result. This sets up an approach where the outcomes help assure the expected benefits from the project work are realized and the intended value to the organization is achieved. In setting up the metrics for tracking project progress, the focus on the value principle requires a means to measure and evaluate whether the project remains on track to deliver the intended value. Each project is unique so no prescriptive metric or evaluation process can work in all cases. Following a value-focused principle though allows the project team to craft metrics and processes that work in their specific environment.

Principle-based standards offer greater flexibility within and adaptability to the project delivery environment. PM Principles guide the thinking and behavior of those engaged in the delivery of a project’s outcomes. Those involved in selecting and following an approach, method, or technique for delivering a specific type of project result can look at agnostic Principles to guide their thinking and behavior versus following a set of prescriptive approaches or processes that may not satisfy the unique challenges of a given project.

Appropriate Principles provide guidance without imposing uniform adherence to a set of prescriptive processes or approaches, whilst embracing differing organizational, cultural, and industrial environments. I firmly believe that standards based on Principles remain solid, provide stability, and focus on adapting behavior and thinking in the rapidly changing world of project management, and is the best approach for the future.

Posted by Marjorie Anderson on: January 08, 2020 08:37 AM | Permalink

Comments (16)

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Thanks for sharing, Dave!

#ContextCounts and #ChoiceIsGood to quote two of the DA principles, and a principles-based evolution of PMI's standards is long overdue.

Dear Dave
Interesting reflection on the theme: "The Value of a Principle-based Standard for Project Management"
Thanks for sharing

Principles-based approach is a paradigm shift

Will PMI make available to Project Managers a set of techniques and tools that can be used?

Hi Dave,

I totally agree that standards for human activities like management (as opposed to technical standards that are all about measurements) should start with and be focused on a set of principles and values that should be timeless and universal – of course, with respect to specific cultural traditions and other local specifics.

However, one of the main purposes for developing standards is to enable cooperation and interaction between parties (people or organizations) based on certain commonalities. If parties don’t use the same standard it’s hard or even impossible to make it work – like screwing a nut in millimeters onto an screw in inches …

Back to our domain, it would be extremely hard for the project managers of a supplier and a client to work together if – for example - they use the term “schedule” for some different documents, or if the risk registry and assessment procedure include different elements and steps, for example.

Similarly, inconsistent terminology and processes between organizations will require each PM to first be trained in the organization’s approach at hiring, reducing efficiency and seriously impacting people’s mobility.

So, while it certainly should start with principles, I would think that there is a need for specifics as well – so when we say “project budget” (for example) we all understand exactly what it is, what it contains and how it is developed and maintained, without additional explanations.

Of course, we can further discuss if all of it should be part of the “standard” or if the principles are “the standard” a.k.a. the Body of Knowledge, and the specifics are a “framework” a.k.a. the Guide to (implementing) the Body of Knowledge, and what exactly should be included in each… where does one stop and the other one starts…

Hi George. Hope things are going well for you.

I agree completely that common terminology is also a fundamental element for successfully managing projects - we must have a common understanding around what we are discussing and terms do count.

My take again is that these fundamental principles guide the thinking and behavior around decision making as to approach and processes to follow. Whether it is within a given or across organizations those involved must have a common understanding on how things will be carried out, tracked, and changed to meet real time impacts. With the plethora of approaches, tools, and techniques out in the PM community, there is no way one could standardize how projects are undertaken - the variables are too large. Principles can help guide the decision making process. Then once a given approach or set of processes are agreed upon, everyone engaged in that project (or for organizations the type of projects normally undertaken) should be on the same page. As you stated, specifics do matter. The application of principles allows those making the decisions to make more informed decisions and better tailor their approach/processes to the circumstances at hand.

It will be very interesting to see how well the Principles being put forth with the new 7th Edition update to the PMBOK(R) Guide are embraced. I am sure there will be lots of discussions around Principles and how they can be applied.

Hi Dave, Thanks for the great article. But I see that the shift should have happened at least a decade back when the information technology domain took-off in full steam. I see that there is a delay in identifying the required chages to the body of knowldge.

thanks for sharing, great and informative article.

thanks for sharing, great and informative article.

Thanks for the article, Dave! Appreciated the statement of Appropriate Principles provide guidance without imposing uniform adherence to a set of prescriptive processes or approaches, whilst embracing differing organizational, cultural, and industrial environments.

Processes and standards are rooted in principles and experience (lessons learned). When applying a process or standard one should ask the hardest questions. Why? Why are we doing this and why are we doing it this way? What is the principle behind it and what is our experience?
Too often we accept standards and processes blindly, assuming that there is a purpose and that evolution has perfected its application. This is especially true in government/bureaucratic organizations. The answer to "why are we doing it this way?" is "we always do it this way and its in the manual." That becomes the principle! This approach is also use to deflect accountability.
The Project Plan is where you can define your "principles" and provide processes to achieve those principles. Start with a project "Mission Statement" - this is what we are setting out to do and this is how we are going to get there.
Note: each project management elements - cost, time, risk, quality, etc. - has an underlying principle, sometimes we just forget.

thanks for the perspective and insight.


Very interesting post, you make some very good points. It's about time for Principle-Based guidelines but as George mentioned, common terminology is important too to avoid conflict.

There is nothing much to add for me as it seems I cam late to the party. There is some solid feedback here.


Principle-based execution has already permeated IT. It's about time. that we consider applying it to project management.

Good article, Dave. Thanks for submitting. I agree with comments from other colleagues that principals are critical (I'd better, since I wrote the "Baking Principals" article here on and I also agree that standard terms are critical.

To address some of the comments on the how-to and process side of things, I would point to the new Standards Plus product we demonstrated at the Philadelphia PMI Conference in October. Many of those who attended the demonstration will attest to the very useful material for designed for practitioners.

The material in Standards Plus includes downloadable templates, videos, infographics, documents, etc. all related to specific areas of the PMBOK Guide, 6th Edition. This material will grow over time through submissions by experts.

The content can be filtered by approach, industry, content format and knowledge areas, allowing practitioners to dive directly into the exact content they are seeking. I think this is an exciting development for PPM Practitioners that will allow access to expert content on any mobile device. Just in time help. And no 800-page book to carry around! ;)

I concur that principles-based standards are the right approach.

Well written, particulary about how principles stay the foundation in managing projects.

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