Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life searching in vain for a unifying theory of physics. The project management profession has had a similar quest—defining a methodology, set of practices, or principles that could successfully guide any project.
Like physics and nature, project management is ubiquitous. Projects address simple, complicated, and complex problems. Everything from putting people back on the moon, developing new therapeutics and software, or planning a wedding. How could there be only one solution?
More recently, the profession has grappled with two intertwined questions:
Taxonomy complicates the conversation as terminology creates intellectual silos and emotional anchors. Understanding the definitions is helpful:
I do not think a unifying theory of project management will ever be found. Rather project managers must rely on principles, practices, and context to be successful. In this article, I will share some approaches that have shaped my approach.
Project management is multi-faceted, with multiple methodologies, frameworks, and choices. Traditional project management practices are grounded in engineering. Lean manufacturing influenced the quality movement, Agile, and DevOps. Multiple and ever-evolving agile practices contribute to that colorful tapestry.
Comprehending this body of knowledge is like viewing an impressionist painting. True appreciation comes from viewing the big picture and understanding the dots that create it. The more we know, the better we become.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) is a leading industry voice. Its Project Management Body of Knowledge® (PMBOK®) Guide is an ANSI standard, and over a million people have earned their Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification.
PMI initially approached project management from a process-centric perspective. The first edition of the PMBOK® (1996) described 39 project management processes. By the 6th Edition (2017), it expanded to 49 processes organized into 10 knowledge areas and 5 process groups.
The 7th Edition (2021) was a seismic shift from a process- to a principles-centric approach. It described a dozen principles and 8 performance domains to guide project execution. Moving towards a principles-based approach made the Guide more broadly applicable but lacked tactical guidance. PMI addressed the gap with the publication of Process Groups: A Practice Guide (2022), which revived the 49 processes.
Lean principles originated in Japan’s manufacturing sector after World War II but have since been adopted by various industries worldwide. The core concept is to deliver value quickly and eliminate waste. Lean organizations achieve these goals through empowerment and incremental change.
Deming’s plan-do-check-act cycle is a prominent Lean practice. It is the basis of continuous improvement (Kaizen), the Lean Start-Up Model, and multiple quality improvement practices. The Kanban board was created to manage the parts inventory in a factory and is now used to manage the flow of work for agile and operational teams.
The Agile Manifesto is a set of 4 value statements and 12 principles created for software. Pioneering software development thought leaders collaborated to create the Manifesto (2001). The Manifesto distills concepts from eXtremee Programming, Scrum, and other leading development practices. It provides guiding principles but does not prescribe specific practices.
Iterative and incremental delivery, welcoming change, empowered teams, and regular customer engagement are some of its core practices. The principles prioritize collaboration, flexibility, and delivering value to customers.
It also focuses on relationships. Customers and development teams should work together daily. Teams should be composed of motivated and empowered individuals. Radical transparency democratizes the process and fosters accountability.
Scrum is the most widely used Agile framework. And Scrum is built on the pillars of lean and systems thinking. It embraces the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect.
Scrum is a lightweight framework designed to address complex, adaptive problems. It describes a set of roles, ceremonies (meetings), and artifacts that enable the Agile principles. Scrum is easy to learn but hard to master. The Scrum Guide is only a dozen pages long and is purposefully incomplete. The creators intentionally left room for teams to explore and determine their own optimal methods.
Disciplined Agile (DA) is a toolkit that documents over 150 process choices and options applicable to all projects. The list is organized around common project phases: inception, construction, transition, as well as ongoing work to mature the team. For most choices, a curated ranked list of preferred options is available, which provides a path for continuous improvement.
Disciplined Agile also has a set of guiding principles, promises, and guidelines. The foundational principles recognize that every project is unique, and understanding the context is critical. Other principles support the toolkit by declaring that “choice is good” and that we should make pragmatic decisions.
The toolkit is methodology agnostic and supports multiple lifecycles. It uses Scrum- and Kanban-like frameworks and continuous delivery versions for high-velocity teams. It also includes guidance for managing programs or exploratory projects.
Scaled Agile (SAFe®) is the most commonly used framework for managing large-scale agile projects. SAFe builds on Lean, Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, and other leading management theories. And SAFe articulates 10 principles that focus on aligning teams, empowerment, making economic choices, and embracing the Lean-Agile mindset.
SAFe employs cadence, synchronization, and clear lines of content authority to help organizations scale their agile practices to hundreds or thousands of people. Cadence means that all teams on an Agile Release Train (program) follow the same delivery cycle. The teams establish and synchronize their objectives in a quarterly “big room” planning event.
Many project managers rely on what they learned informally or through trial and error. Those that engage in more formal studies can get trapped in the cross-current of the methodology debates. While these discussions may be intellectually engaging, they are polarizing and do not benefit working professionals.
I embrace the principles that “context counts” and “choice is good.” Exceptional project managers are knowledgeable and experienced with multiple methodologies. They employ principles and practices from across the spectrum of options. A well-informed set of principles guides them and assess the project’s context. Then, they apply critical thinking to select the most suitable practices and adjust when necessary.
© 2023, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC
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