Project Practitioners > Project management "rules" that actually provide freedom

Project management "rules" that actually provide freedom

By Cinda Voegtli

I "grew up" in management distrusting rules, mechanics, and paperwork.  Not rejecting them outright, just viewing them with healthy skepticism and always judging what I think really works, really matters.  I guess I have this attitude because I think the world of projects and people is too messy to be consistently governed or handled by anything that seems rigid or one-size-fits-all.  Anything labeled "things we have to do no matter what".  Anything labeled "the way we have to do it no matter what."

So the word "rule" naturally always tended to put me off.  However, a few years ago a colleague and I started creating a new project management class for her company.  We wanted to go beyond the basics...yet somehow "advanced project management" was not quite what we were after either.  The former is the fundamentals. The latter felt more like "lots more tools and techniques for even more complex situations."  There's a need for that too, but it's not what we wanted to create.  We were looking for a way to get across what we felt we had learned past our early PM days.  How to use and adapt the fundamentals - and what really matters most, what makes the difference, in applying PM concepts and tools in real-world situations.

My friend hit on the concept of "golden rules".  THE Golden Rule many of us grew up hearing is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  This is of course not a rule in the sense of a very explicit something we must adhere to.  It's more like a philosophical guideline. THAT's more of what were after.  So thus were born the "5 Golden Rules of Project Management" (which we then built into a class on how to apply them, in order to get great project outcomes no matter the difficulties at hand.)

I continue to hear angst from execs as they work to develop groups of mature, capable PMs to handle their crazy project loads.  There is angst about how to grow people beyond the basics, how to use their PM basics not in the spirit of old-style rules, but as tools to be used as appropriate to each situation.   I think this is a great opportunity to get across a compelling guiding philosophy of what matters in project management.

So I thought it would be worth sharing these 5 Golden Rules of Project Management.  (My thanks to ICS Group for permission to write about these here.)  I also like to paint pictures of what individual and team behaviors "look like" to help get across how these philosophies would bear fruit in the real world.  So here goes - the "Rules, with descriptions of what I think it looks like in action!

Golden Rule #1 – Cultivate personal responsibility, accountability and initiative in every team member:  Pervasive personal responsibility for team effectiveness and project outcomes and team-wide personal initiative for handling tough issues.
What it looks like - Each Individual:  "I  take personal responsibility for this team achieving the desired project outcomes,  exhibit leadership by suggesting actions and raising tough issues, and proactively help the team operate well throughout the project."

What it looks like - The team:  A group of committed people working together, each of whom is equally "carrying the load" of achieving a successful project, ‘showing up' in every team interaction, and holding each other accountable rather than assuming the project manager bears sole responsibility for team discipline.

Golden Rule # 2 – Master proactive and productive communication and manage expectations: Team members raise issues, explain their perspectives, and use influence skills to work with stakeholders and cross-functional colleagues.
What it looks like - Each Individual:    "I  ensure other  team members, stakeholders and influencers understand my progress and decisions;  proactively communicate issues and changes;   help the team manage expectations in the face of tough project tradeoffs;  and  use my influence skills with team members and stakeholders to help keep the project on track."

What it looks like - The team:   A team bound tightly together by  pervasive, proactive, unflinching (but sensitive) communication.  The shared value of rich communication creates a productive and fear-free environment which enables the team to  surface tough issues,  reach deep mutual understanding of goals, take the right actions, manage stakeholder expectations, and keep the project on track with business goals.

Golden Rule #3 – Maintain business and customer focus and continual team alignment: Project team understanding of business objectives and the customers the project is serving, and business-savvy project decision making.
What it looks like - Each Individual:  "I understand and buy into the business objectives and critical success factors of the project,  know how those goals affect my work, and strive daily to keep my work and that of the team aligned to those goals."

What it looks like - The team: A cohesive group of people single-mindedly and explicitly focused on the business goals of the project and the needs of its customers.

Golden Rule #4 – Master cross-functional collaboration throughout the project: Tight cross-functional relationships and integration of work among cross-functional team members, to meet project goals and eliminate late surprises.
What it looks like - Each Individual: "I understand how cross-functional contributions will influence the project's business goals, know what groups are customers of my project work at different points, and interact with them proactively and richly throughout the project timeline."

What it looks like - The team: Rich ongoing relationships and interactions between all cross-functional team members, working together on the big picture, as well as the lowest level of detail needed to avoid problems and misunderstandings; working together toward the business objectives with respect for each others' needs and contributions.

Golden Rule #5 – Master the art of "just enough" project management:  Effective non-bureaucratic use of management and development processes and "tools" on the project at hand.
What it Looks Like - Each Individual: "I contribute my ideas of how to best use project management and other processes and "tools" on this project to ensure we're doing the right things and buy into and support the team's ultimate approach. I keep an eye out for ineffective practices and suggest how to best achieve a goal."

What it looks like - The team: A confident and fully-accepted use of key project management tools for their particular project. Effective, flexible, fast-moving, adaptable team that uses project paper, and their time, wisely.

For me, these golden rules provide a clear picture of how we should operate individually and together on projects. And if I review a particular project, and look for places where one of these philosophies was not followed, I can usually pretty quickly identify real performance issues the project suffered as a result.

When a guiding philosophy is communicated clearly, it's much easier, I believe, to take our PM tools and rules and mechanics and paper and determine the right thing to do with them in every situation (and when to throw them away altogether). We can help project managers operate within the spirit of the law, rather than getting wrapped up and tripped up by the letter of the law. That's a form of management freedom I have come to value very highly indeed.

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