PM Standards are not Holy Writ

Andrew Meyer at Inquiries into Alignment provides a useful corrective to the faith that we project management types put in our industry standards and frameworks (post here).   He hits on a lot of topics that are only alluded to in our project management “bibles”:

[P]rojects often pull people from different departments together to work on a project. While that is what the project requires to be successful, what does that mean for the people pulled from the different departments? Is the project of primary importance to them or is what’s happening in their department of primary importance?

Now, I believe Andrew that has set up a bit of a straw man here.  I’m not sure that it is the responsibility of the PMBOK Guide or PRINCE2 to elaborate some of these topics fully (I’ll leave Agile aside for the moment).  At least in the case of the PMBOK Guide, it is only a guide to the project management body of knowledge.  While a guide should reference the need to ensure business alignment, only so much content “meat” can be expected from such a guide.

My take is that firms should not count on generic standards to cover some of these topics —  one’s firm-specific methodology should elaborate the questions Andrew suggests (and more):

What is the business environment your company is working in?
How is that environment changing?
What is happening inside the business?
What is the state of the project?
Where does it need to go?
What needs to happen to get it there?  

5 Responses

  1. Paul,
    One of the primary tools for addressing the issue raised by Andrew is the project charter. Many times these chartering sessions are seen as “getting a check in the box,” meanig something to get through as fast as possible and on the the development process.
    This of course is a mistake. As well I’ve seen the chartering session go in the ditch arguing over simple and trivial items. Leadership is needed at this point. Guiding the project participants through the stages of chartering.
    In the end chartering the team is harder than it looks and the benefits are larger than they might appear.

  2. Hi Glen,
    Thanks for the link… I like the emphasis on team development straight out of the chute. Too often the vision/mission of the charter lives a disembodied existence, isolated from the establishment of the project team itself.

    As you note — and Andrew implies — leadership at this point is critical. Ticking off the boxes in the charter guide/template or reviewing a sample only goes so far.

    Checklists, templates, or samples make great aides-memoire — I love them. However, you need to know what to do once your memory is jogged!


  3. Paul,

    thanks for helping my thought process. It is a struggle and I’m not trying to downplay PMI or any other methodology.

    PM is an evolving discipline. The structures and guidelines put forth by PMI, CMMi, PRINCE2, ITIL etc are important and have personally helped me immensely.

    My concern is that the structures and guidelines of PM (Project Schedules, Risk Management etc.) are the easy parts. As so often happens, people focus the most attention on making the easy and quantifiable things easier.

    Often what is most important are the non-quantifiable things. For lack of a better word, judgment. Warren Bennis has a beautiful description of judgment, something like:

    Judgment is like the Yeti. You can see it’s footprints, but you never see the Yeti.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, PM has been linked with technology. (It’s probably a fortunate link for you…) For large IT implementations, it’s indispensable. But I’m not sure that link is beneficial to its development as a management discipline.

    Talk to someone in the construction industry (they have a lot of time now…) and they will tell you a totally different story about PM. Talk to a wheelman at a restaurant. The wheelman is the person who makes sure that everyone at a table gets their dinner at the same time and at the same temperature. Talk to someone in the movie industry about making a movie, and they will all tell very different stories about what is essentially project management. Wouldn’t those insights do more to further the discipline of PM then the refinement and codification of the structures and guidelines of PM?

    Unfortunately, the people who have the most interest in furthering the discipline of PM are the people who have based their careers around training, consulting and perfection of the mechanistic elements of PM. Those are all important skills, but they are skills that downplay the art and the judgment aspects of PM.

    From my experience, the more I see PM structures and guidelines, the fewer footprints I see from good judgment.

  4. I don’t think we’ll see issues connected with building a team and work environment covered with any project management or software development methodology. These areas are more about managing a team or a company which is a separate area.

    No matter how your team is gathered you’ll always face some people problems and you won’t find much help in all sorts of bibles (counting PMBOK, Agile principles and others here). That’s just another area which PMs should learn.

    From a great team manager you expect not only managerial skills but also profficiency in merits. Similar situation is with great PMs. They not only need project management skills but also should be able to deal with different kind of people.

  5. Hi Andrew and Pawel,
    Indeed, tech has seized on PM with the zeal of a convert, largely because it ignored it for so long. This reaction is also in response to long-standing tolerance of heroic and chaotic coding “techniques”. But like many converts, tech PMs have become holier-than-thou about PM to the detriment of other skills and competencies.

    I think that PMI, at least, tries not to fall into the PM-only/single industry trap. The PMBOK Guide explicitly acknowledges the knowledge gaps that Pavel notes. Also, the Global Corporate Council tries to foster cross-industry perspectives on PM — we have A&D, E&C, IT, CPG, Government, high tech mfg. members.

    One of the reasons I like Inquiries into Alignment is the power of cross-pollination among industry perspectives. IT could benefit from the perspective of A&D and E&C practioners, whose projects must deliver high-availability, high-quality outcomes. We also could benefit from looking at non-traditional project environments like food service and film (BTW, I’ve had about 10 years in restaurant management and my mom was a sous chef at two restaurants with Michelin pretensions).

    Good comments… Thanks.

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