Monday, January 4, 2016

The Logical Flaw with Project Management

One of the reasons that companies struggle with project management is that the approach they use has some basic logical flaws.  A company thinks it has some good project managers, and is disappointed when the results are poor. So the entire discipline of project management gets a bad name in that company.  But the problem was not with using project management. The problem was that the logic behind their project management approach was flawed.

This is the logic often used in appointing project managers:

Major Premise: The best project managers create project plans.

Minor Premise: Bob created a project plan.

Conclusion: Therefore, Bob is one of the best project managers.

But then Bob’s project becomes a train wreck and Bob and the project team are clueless as to why that happened or what should be done.  The problem was in the approach to project management. Let’s go back to the major premise that was used.

The best project managers create project plans. There are several flaws in this logic.  First, although it is true that the “best project managers” create project plans, there is no statement about what the “worst project managers” do.  In fact, many of the worst project managers also create project plans.  And some of those project plans use all of the latest forms, templates, software and are full of excruciating detail.   

Second, the “best project managers” do much more than just create project plans.  They execute their project plans.  They regularly do status checks and risk reviews.  They manage the stakeholder interactions and project teams wisely and well.  It is an ongoing continuous set of interactions that are not part of planning – but are necessary for success.

Project Plans

Project plans come in all levels of accuracy and completeness.  Project plans that are based upon incorrect assumptions about resource availability, technical capability, or stakeholder interactions are doomed from the start.  I have seen many books and courses on how to do project planning.  They often gloss over some of these points and instead focus on things like the format of the WBS or critical path calculations.  If the underlying assumptions about the project conditions are wrong, everything else in the plan is just a fantasy.

Project management gurus often talk about the need for upfront planning in a project.  The focus of that effort should not be just the technical planning activities; it should be identifying and testing the assumptions and constraints.  There are assumptions about business conditions and assumptions about project objectives.   There are constraints on resources and constraints on project options.  If any of these are missed, it can destroy the validity of the best formatted and calculated project plan.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple (or even complex) equation that can be applied to identify and test the assumptions and constraints.  Rather, the project manager must meet with the stakeholders and ask probing questions about goals and risks.  They need to determine how much support the stakeholders will really provide to the project – it is just cheering on from the side lines, or will they dedicate time and money.  The project manager needs to determine realistic resource capability and capacity, regardless of what is promised.  These activities require cross-functional and multi-level communication skills.  It is one of the hardest things to teach technical professionals.  One of the most challenging aspects of this activity is that you don’t know if you did it well until the project is over – which may be months or years later.   

Project Execution

A project plan is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for excellent project management.  The plan must still be executed – or at least a variation on the plan must be executed.  Inevitably, something unexpected happens.  The project manager must be regularly pulsing the project to recognize the change and make the appropriate adjustment.  A project manager who blindly follows a project plan, even after a risk or issue has invalidated elements of the plan, can lead the project into disaster.

In addition to regular updates and adjustments to the plan, the project manager must interact with stakeholders and team members to ensure appropriate decisions and actions.  In many cases the project team members are matrixed onto the project team.  They still have other responsibilities, often simultaneously working on multiple projects.  The project manager must keep them engaged and focused.  This usually requires strong interpersonal skills and negotiating skills. 

The stakeholders who are involved in project decisions can delay and derail a project if they are not engaged regularly and kept informed of the project status and project risks.  Stakeholders often change during a project.  The project manager must bring the new stakeholders up to speed.  The stakeholders often are looking at the “big picture” in the business and the project manager is often focused on “immediate details.”  If the project manager is not careful, the project communication will actually confuse and irritate the stakeholders.  A good project manager is able to switch between the perspectives and effectively communicate and manage both “big picture” and “immediate details.”

The Real Logic of Project Management

So let’s review.  An organization that only focuses project managers on creating complete and intricate project plans will likely be disappointed in the actual project performance.  A good project plan is needed, but the most important aspect of planning is to understand and account for the assumptions and constraints – not just filling out forms and spreadsheets.  Then once the plan is in place, the project manager must stay flexible to modify the plan when appropriate.   And the plan is not enough; the project manager must engage the stakeholders and team members to keep things running smoothly and achieve project success.

This leads us to a new logical statement:

Major Premise 1: The best project managers create project plans based upon realistic project assumptions and constraints.

Major Premise 2: The best project managers adapt their plans throughout the project to reflect changing conditions.

Major Premise 3:  The best project managers interact with stakeholders and team members regularly to ensure alignment and appropriate actions and decisions.

Minor Premise: Jill creates project plans that are based upon realistic assumptions and constraints; she modifies them to reflect changing conditions; and she regularly interacts with stakeholders and team members to ensure alignment and appropriate actions and decisions.

Conclusion:   Jill is one of the best project managers.


  1. Hi Ray,

    Good concept, nicely explained. In my experience many organizations force PMs to follow the defined process (plan, execute, M&C etc.). Many PMs follow the process because org. demands without really understanding its purpose. And this leads to project challenges.

    Praveen Malik


    1. Tag: PM202A54. Let me share all of you about #5 Tips for Project Management Success,, I hope you enjoy it

      1. Plan your day using time management techniques

      As a project manager, time management skills are essential because you are dealing with a wide range of tasks that demand a quick turnaround time. Planning your day will go a long way in keeping you organized and increasing your productivity. Assist your task planning by using project management software which helps you track the work of you and your team.

      If you are not very tech savvy, a simple to-do list can also be a great organizational tool. Prioritize your most important tasks by putting them at the top of the list and less important ones at the bottom. Having a visual plan of your daily tasks helps to keep you on track and aware of time.

      Related post: Free ebook 104 secrets to become a great project manager

      2. Include stakeholders in important project conversations

      While you will have plenty of responsibilities regarding the project, don’t neglect your clients.

      Good communication is essential is keeping both parties informed of project progression, curtailing scope creep, and apprised of changing requirements. Some clients may have different expectations when it comes to communication, so make sure to establish the frequency and type of communication (like emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations) at the beginning of your project.

      Establishing communication expectations early helps alleviate stakeholder uncertainty about communication frequency and delivery.

      3. Regularly communicate with your team

      Daily team communication helps keep misunderstandings and unclear requirements under control. Keeping your team informed in every step of the project is essential to project management success.

      For example, a study published by Procedia Technology found that good communication skills were the cornerstone of project management. The study examined over 300 “construction project managers, architects, construction managers, engineers and quantity surveyors” and their successes and failures on various construction projects.

      4. Anticipate project setbacks

      Even the best-laid plans often go awry.

      Remember that even with a high amount of planning and attention to detail, your project may still encounter some challenges. Pay attention to complaints from stakeholders or colleagues, and other warning signs, like a missed deadline or cost overrun, that there may be a problem.

      Preventing a crisis will keep your project running smoothly, save you a lot of time, and keep you, your team, and your stakeholders confident in progressing with the project.

      Unfortunately not every complication can be avoided. Crisis management skills are essential for dealing with the unexpected. Project managers need to be flexible and pragmatic. Improvise and make sharp decisions when needed.

      Related post: 92 free project management templates

      5. Stay focused on the details

      A common problem project managers encounter is having the project aims not aligned with the organization’s objectives. A great project manager will strategize a plan for the project to lead back to the overall success of the business.

      Know your project’s scope by heart and avoid wandering outside of the project’s requirements. It’s too easy to get lost in minor details and forget what your focus is, so a well-planned project scope is essential for success.

      And final, you should use KPI to measure effectiveness of the project, here are full list: 76 project management KPIs

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