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Back to Basics? – A Top Ten Rules of Project Management

Project managementNever has it been so easy to keep up with the latest hot topics and innovations in project management. In addition to the rigorous academic and practice journals published by bodies such as the PMI and APM, there are many conferences and workshops where it is possible to interact with the leaders in various areas of the field.

I was interested, however, to go back to basics, and to find out from experienced, practising project managers, what they believed to be the fundamental principles of good project management.

At two recent international project management conferences I had the opportunity to do this, by organising informal workshops and generating opinion on the subject. The 40 managers canvassed were senior, with many years’ experience of delivering large and complex projects. The businesses represented were diverse – oil and gas, transport, telecommunications, construction, and defence amongst others. In the mix were both buyers and sellers of final product.

Some qualifications: although most projects represented involved software customisation, most project managers polled were responsible for high-technology-certainty/ high-requirement-certainty projects and thus tended towards the application of ‘predictive’ lifecycles. Therefore, not all the ‘rules’ generated could be said to apply to projects that might be better controlled using adaptive lifecycles. Significantly too, the projects represented were big. Again, not all rules may apply to smaller projects.

A simple question was asked: ‘What would you consider are the top ten ‘Golden Rules’ of project management, that you would like to communicate to future generations of project managers?

There was remarkable agreement as to the list. In no particular order:


  1. Teamwork: It is essential to get the right people on the team, both in terms of capability and the ability to collaborate and pull together towards the same goal. The team should be committed and should be transparent in their interactions. The project manager must work hard at building the team, and maintaining it.
  2. Stakeholders: successful project management involves understanding, managing and meeting stakeholder needs and expectations. There is a direct relationship between getting this right, and project success.
  3. A tollgate review process should be implemented, if not already present, and rigorously followed. The team should embrace and commit to the process, viewing it as an essential project management tool. Work must not continue unless the prerequisites of each gate are satisfied. It should not be necessary to generate additional project documentation in order to pass each gate.
  4. Apply a rigorous risk management process. It must be ensured that best practices are applied, if the process is not to become a ‘risk register-ticking’ exercise. As expressed in PMBOK 6th edition, it is no longer sufficient to simply look at ‘binary’ yes/ no risks. It must be recognised that only by quantifying overall uncertainty at a program and portfolio level may the true risk to benefit delivery and achievement of strategic objectives be understood. Interestingly, there was a general feeling that the ‘standard’ risk register has held back understanding of overall uncertainty in projects, as it rigidly focussed on just one aspect of uncertainty, that is, ‘yes-no’ risks.
  5. Different delivering functions (and contractors) must commit to a ‘one team’ philosophy, and it is imperative that the organisation itself must provide the environment in which this is achievable. Functions should remember that the organisation is project driven. This being the case, they must commit to scope, schedule and cost targets. Cooperation between contractors should, equally, be ‘one-team’.
  6. Focus on the project’s overall Return on Investment. This means the project team should be responsible not only for costs and revenue (and so, margin), but also cash flow.
  7. Strive for excellence in project communication.
  8. Make sure that a detailed plan is created by the team, and committed to. A critical team role is a capable project scheduler, responsible for maintaining the plan, and providing updates, what-ifs and scenarios.
  9. Ensure a thorough requirements management process, remembering the clear link between effort spent in front end loading versus potential rework of missed or unclear requirements. Rigorous requirements management includes identifying where there are gaps between requirements and planned delivery, and either managing the risk where there is a shortfall, or properly commercialising the opportunity where there is a potential over-provision. A critical resource in this respect is a skilled engineering authority.
  10. Manage changes. Opinions as to whether we like changes vary considerably. The classic view of project managers, that we don’t like change, and of the commercial representative that we like lots of value added changes turns out to be over-simplification. What is important is that changes are properly recognised and controlled. From a practical point of view this means firstly identifying where something is a change, and, secondly, either managing a process of no change, or making sure that changes are properly commercialised where appropriate.

This is certainly not a list of ‘the’ top ten rules, but only a selection. There is no doubt that what is most important must vary across industries and projects. However, it is no surprise that the project managers surveyed placed such great value on the fundamental concepts listed above.

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About Rick Graham

Rick Graham
Rick Graham, an instructor with Strategy Execution, has been an active project manager for over 20 years. Areas of expertise and experience include strategic alignment, risk management, and optimisation of business value. Recent examples of projects with which Dr Graham has been involved include support in aligning project portfolio management systems with corporate strategic vision (telecommunications), development support in roll out of a global project risk management system, and support in project contracting strategy development and execution (oil & gas). He is a frequent speaker, and has been a keynote speaker at regional PMI conferences.

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