Modern practices, old principles
Projects in one form or another have been undertaken for millennia:
- Ancient Egyptians constructed pyramids some 4500 years ago.
- Ships were built to sail from Europe to the other end of the world.
- Numerous transcontinental railways were constructed during the 19th century.
- Buildings of different sizes and complexity have been erected for as long as mankind has occupied permanent settlements.
However, it was only in the latter part of the 20th century, people started to talk about project management. Since then we got project management organizations like PMI and IPMA with their bodies of knowledge, project management methods like PRINCE2, and numerous agile frameworks that say they can be used to manage projects too. All the above can be viewed as project management practices, and they are subject to lots of change over time.
What has not changed are the principles of project management. Principles are good ideas or good values stated in a context-independent manner. Practices are applications of these principles stated in a context-dependent way.
When you look at project management I firmly believe in the five principles of project success as defined by Glen B. Alleman in his excellent book “Performance-Based Project Management".
These principles are best stated in the form of questions. When we have the answers to these questions, we will have insight into the activities required for the project to succeed in ways not found using the traditional process group’s checklist, knowledge areas, or canned project templates.
1) What does “done” look like?
We need to know where we are going by defining “done” at some point in the future. This may be far in the future—months or years—or closer—days or weeks from now. Without a clear and concise description of done, the only measures of progress are the passage of time, consumption of resources, and production of technical features.
2) How can we get to “done” on time and on budget and achieve acceptable outcomes?
We need a plan to get to where we are going, to reach done. This plan can be simple or complex. The fidelity of the plan depends on our tolerance for risk. The complexity of the plan has to match the complexity of the project.
3) Do we have enough of the right resources to successfully complete the project?
We have to understand what resources are needed to execute the plan. We need to know how much time and money are required to reach the destination. This can be fixed or it can be variable. If money is limited, the project may be possible if more time is available and vice versa. What technologies are needed? What information must be discovered that we don’t know now?
4) What impediments will we encounter along the way and what work is needed to remove them?
We need a means of removing, avoiding, handling or ignoring these impediments. Most important, we need to ask and answer the question, “How long are we willing to wait before we find out we are late?”
5) How can we measure our progress to plan?
We need to measure planned progress, not just progress. Progress to plan is best measured in units of physical percent complete, which provides tangible evidence, not just opinion. This evidence must be in “usable” outcomes that the buyer recognizes as the things they requested from the project.
It does not matter what practices you use to manage and deliver your project. It also does not matter what kind of project it is. As long as it is a project, the five principles of project success are valid.
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