All Shapes and Sizes

January 16, 2012 by
Filed under: Project management, Teamwork 

I spent a few years facilitating an award winning PM Certificate program in Vancouver, up to about a year ago. One of the things that astounded me in that program (and I’m sure the scenario plays out elsewhere as well) is that on the first day, most of the students were looking for a standard set of templates and a recipe for project success.

I guess I astounded them right back when I said “Nope, sorry”. Here’s my reasoning.

Projects come in all shapes and sizes, and no single approach will be the most effective for all of them. Your best bet is to arm yourself with a wide variety of tools, techniques, and analysis approaches, and know how they fit together, where they are most appropriately applied, and their blindsides. With this, you can look critically at the latest project in hand and strategize how to tackle this latest best. Consciously and proactively.

You need to actively exercise grey matter on each and every project.

Unfortunately, almost all training in project management ignores this idea completely, or merely suggests this strategic approach in passing, with little practical guidance in how to do so. Some will regurgitate the PMBoK and call it a methodology (which it isn’t), others will provide a branded approach that may have worked for them in a narrow space in the past, and blindly suggest that it is a universal solution. Neither arms you for the real world, unless your ‘real world’ is the same sort of project, over and over again.

The alternative to this dogma isn’t rocket science.

It requires an appreciation for the principles of effective project management over any particular techniques – the principles will always apply, the techniques may make sense in a given situation, but also may not. It also requires that you devote part of your professional development to the understanding of a wide range of different techniques, understanding where they best apply and how they can complement each other to provide a comprehensive solution.

Then you need to look at each project to understand the characteristics that make it unique. Understand the business constraints that this project must fit, understand the critical complexities and the simplifying assumptions that may make your life easier. Understand all the stakeholders involved in the project, and how they can best work together to provide the best solution possible. Understand which of those elements of the project you don’t yet completely understand.

Then you can marry the two – select the appropriate (and complementary) tools that will work best with the project at hand and the people involved. Work together to gain the best shared understanding of the project you can: where you are, where you need to be, what can get in your way and what you can do to reduce the risks, always adjusting the tools you use to gain that best understanding and keep it current.

If you try to simply use a standard approach for projects, you are guaranteed to do two things: you will fall into the trap of wasting time on unimportant steps, and you will fail to see things that can get you into serious trouble on your project.

Something those that are selling a standard approach (even a standard agile approach) often fail to tell you in their fine print. – JB

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One Response to “All Shapes and Sizes”

  1. Roberto Baena on January 16th, 2012 3:11 pm

    I agree with your comments, in particular with “You need to actively exercise grey matter on each and every project.”
    That’s very good for PMs, because if every project could be managed with a set of templates and a standard solution… there wouldn’t be a need for them.

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