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Exploding the Myth of Project Management Best Practices

12 Jul 2018
Exploding the Myth of Project Management Best Practices

What are the Best Practices in the world of project management? Are there a few immutable truths transferable across nations, organizations, industries, cultures, and project teams?

I often see assertions promoting PM Best Practices - despite my belief that the phrase is an oxymoron, our discipline is not yet mature enough to have universal best practices.

My opinions about PM Best Practices go back to the early 1980s, when, as a PM consultant, I frequently encountered executives, line managers, project managers, and other consultants, who expected to hear my handful of easy-to-implement “Project Management Best Practices.”

In that era, I often made recommendations for improved effectiveness, but I called them “Competitive Practices.”

I usually identified them from within their own organizations. I realised that one organization’s best practices could be a scourge for others because best practices vary across contexts, because they are sensitive to:

  • The national culture(s) of your organization
  • The industry you are part of
  • Your corporate culture
  • The size of the project or program
  • The nature and part of your organization you work within
  • The size of your work unit
  • Specific situations within a project

When William Duncan, primary author of the original PMBOK® Guide, wrote about the industry-changing knowledge areas and practices he helped establish, he did not call them best practices.

Instead, he described them as “applicable to most projects most of the time.” Bravo such insight! For example, many commonly accepted practices on large projects would crush almost all small projects; they are too heavy.

Do Standards Provide Best Practices?

Standards, such as ISO 21500, Guidance on project management, are touted by some as “best practices.” But are they, really? I believe that standards can be beneficial; they help to establish a common vocabulary, and in some cases, consistent processes.

But they are not best practices. As ISO states, they are “documents that provide requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.”

If you look at the way we develop standards, we involve large teams, contributing over a period of years. Their result: A useful document containing all they could agree to. In the case of ISO 21500, it is a good start. I believe it to be a useful foundation for many situations. But I would not call the result PM best practices.

One could even say this standard is the lowest common denominator, as agreed to by those who served on the standards development teams. That suggests that many standards are average practices - a good consensus starting point, but not best, superlative, or competitive.

Where Do We Find Project Management Best Practices?

A commonplace to find best practices is within the clients’ organizations. For example, while helping a “Big Eight” consulting firm to 1. Win More Bids and 2. Make More Profit on Bids Won, we found, identified and institutionalized the hidden practices of their most effective teams.

Why? Their practices had the greatest chance of transferability to similar groups in the same organization - even when rolled out over hundreds of offices worldwide.

Of course, we provide our “value add” in distilling and evaluating the practices. And we help overcome the natural tendency for rejection by introducing the practices from within.

Internally, we most often study project histories for Risks, Issues, Success and Failure stories from Lessons Learned - the Project Intelligence (captured and re-used Knowledge) that we have mined for years to help organizations achieve higher levels of PM performance.

This process of actually re-using project intelligence also helps smart project teams get even more support from their management.

When the teams’ achievements are recognized across the organization, the leadership skills of their managers also gain recognition - thus perpetuating smart practices. This experience, repeated many times in many organizations, demonstrated our clients’ true grasp of Organizational Change Management.

This is a great win-win-win for all - except for the competition - who only discover competitive practices in project management after it is too late for them to catch up.

What are your organisation's best project management practices, and how do you recognize and spread them? Whose responsibility is it to do so?

Guest Author:  Stacy A. Goff, CEO of Project Experts

Stacy A. Goffis

Stacy A. Goffis CEO of Project Experts, (USA) and a faculty member of the Institute of Project Management.

His professional affiliations include serving as a founder and president of IPMA-USA; and also serving two terms as the IPMA Vice President of Marketing & Events. In 2015, he was named an IPMA Honorary Fellow, in recognition of his contributions to the profession, and to society.