First-principles thinking on Project Management

Two Simple Questions

The two simplest questions in project management are:

1. “What is a project?”, and

2. “How do I manage a project successfully?”

Why are these simple questions so hard to answer? Look no further than the dominant paradigms.

The Deepening Gulf between Project Management Paradigms

Currently, we have three significant paradigms of project management, each fundamentally incompatible with each other:

1. “Plan-based”: also known as “Traditional” or (incorrectly) “Waterfall”;

2. “Adaptive”: including Agile, Lean and similar approaches;

3. “Organic”: which is neither Plan-based nor Adaptive but some local or personal practice

Each paradigm largely sees all projects as potential “fodder” for their management practices.

Three Project Management Paradigms See All Projects as Their Turf

Usually we see project management paradigms as the grand battle between “Agile” and “Waterfall” but it’s important to see that this is a false dichotomy — there are many projects out there that don’t fit into either.

And forget about “Hybrid” the paradigms are so irreconcilable that this is a myth.

This third paradigm is an “anti-paradigm” in a sense, and the term “Organic” is a euphemism at best. The “Organic” paradigm represents that group of project management approaches that reject the overheads and perceived restrictions of either Plan-based or Adaptive paradigms. The reasons for rejection are many and often not very edifying — usually dressed up as being too expensive to follow.

Euphemistic as it may be, not all “Organic” projects fail, just as not all Plan-based or Adaptive projects succeed. In many cases, the “Organic” approach is appropriate.

Regardless, the prevailing views of each paradigm force project managers to accept or make decisions about how they manage projects.

There is rarely any debate or analysis of any alternative approaches.

Projects are instantiated deep in the guts of each paradigm’s practices, tools and techniques, and the PM and team are left to deal with the project whether these decisions are appropriate or not.

Why is this so?

The Problem

The modern project management narrative is complex and conflicted, even when considering only three paradigms. If anything, the emergence of agile practices seems to have only hardened all three paradigms into set positions. Or it has triggered attempts by one paradigm to take over and absorb another paradigm.

A simple proxy for this complexity is the many definitions of “project” in the narrative.

Max Wideman — a longtime thought leader on project constructs — has developed a collection of dozens of definitions on his website. His collection of over 30 definitions ranges in length from 81 to 9 words.

Let’s look at three of these definitions to illustrate this problem.

Three Definitions of Project

Wideman’s thoughtful acquisition and analysis of these definitions provide us with representative ends of a large spectrum. Let’s take three examples that are entirely incompatible with each other.

Definition one is typical of Wideman’s collection, not the longest or the shortest:

“A unique set of coordinated activities, with definite starting and finishing points, undertaken by an individual or organization to meet specific objectives within defined time, cost and performance parameters.”Definitions of “project” by Various Authors

This definition stuffs in multiple terms to lock in the perspective of professionally-trained and certified traditional project managers, e.g. PMP-certified practitioners or those that follow one of the Bodies of Knowledge (BOK).

Definition Two is one of the shortest in Wideman’s collection (11 words in total):

“A temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or outcome.”Definitions of “project” by Various Authors

Definition two is the PMI’s current standard definition, but nothing in it is incompatible with an Adaptive approach. The definition may apply, but the trap is that the practices are utterly incompatible with each other.

Definition three is what I think of as the “Organic” approach, but to be fair, I’d say it is an extreme example of an “Organic” project. This definition derives from a question by Wideman in a yarn about project management research. He asks why a project cannot be:

“a chaotic venture to some unknown destination — a randomized voyage of discovery with a total absence of management” — Max Wideman

And he answers, elsewhere “I think it can!”.

It is this third definition that triggered my investigations into generic and scalable principles of project success. We start with Contingency theory, which I touched on briefly in this yarn: The Project Manager’s “Predator Helmet”: Nine diagnostic filters

Contingency Theory

Contingency theory was developed by Fred Fiedler in the 1960s and 1970s originally from research into leadership styles. Fiedler argued that there was no single leadership style that applied to all situations.

“Contingency theory is an organizational theory that claims that there is no best way to organize a corporation, to lead a company, or to make decisions. Instead, the optimal course of action is contingent (dependent) upon the internal and external situation.”Contingency theory (Wikipedia)

Contingency approaches argue against “canned” strategies for managing a project. At this most fundamental level of project conception, there are no pre-defined strategies, methods or processes that we can apply to a project.

How we approach any project is contingent on each project’s context and specific characteristics. If projects are unique, which all three paradigms seem to accept, then why have a fixed view of managing them?

If we should avoid pre-determined approaches to project management and judge each project on its characteristics, from where should we start?

The answer is First-principles.

First Principles Thinking

First-principles are foundational concepts or propositions from which we derive all other propositions and ideas. Aristotle described them in his writings on physics.

More recently, Elon Musk popularised them as the basis for his creativity and success:

“… boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.” — Elon Musk (Ted interview)

Applying First Principles Thinking to Project management, we need to ask ourselves: “Why can there not be one single unified set of rules that applies to all projects, regardless of size, complexity, materials and application domain or the background and training of the person assigned as the Project Manager?”

This set of First Principles of Successful Projects will show us how to manage across the gulf between the three dominant paradigms for project management and approach any project type with confidence.

The Bottom Line

Obviously, this preamble is leading somewhere.

I’ve asked questions and posed problems here — now they demand an answer.

I believe I can describe four First Principles of Project Management, from which we can derive all other constructs, strategies, techniques, and tools to manage any given project.

When I first read Wideman’s “chaotic venture” question (see definition three above), I’ve been thinking about these questions and more.

Coincidentally, I read a quote by a French author and aeronaut, and I knew there was an answer.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Next post, I’ll provide an overview of the four “First Principles” of Project Success

Stay Tuned.

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