The Four “First Principles” of Project Success — An Introduction

In my recent post, First-principles thinking on Project Management, I laid out the case for needing generic and scalable management principles that can apply across any project, regardless of size, complexity, materials or organisation.

We need these to cut through the complex and arbitrary set of approaches and toolsets that are conventionally promoted as necessary to project success.

In this yarn, I outline four “First-principles” that are the basis of universal project success.

Applying these principles promotes project success. Conversely, the absence of these principles in your management approach is a strong indicator of failure.

These principles are immutable in that you cannot substitute them with other principles, and you must apply them at a minimum in every goal-based human endeavour — aka project.

Depending on the nature of each unique project, these principles will both indicate the need for and help you select additional strategies and toolsets.

The Four Principles of Project Success

These four principles of project success are:

1. The Principle of Reflective Agency

2. The Principle of Outcome Enablement

3. The Principle of Purposeful Evolution

4. The Principle of Pragmatic Abundance

The Four “First Principles” of Project Success and their interactions

I’ll provide a quick summary of each principle below and then follow up with a more detailed exposition of each principle in the following four articles.

The Principle of Reflective Agency

The Principle of Reflective Agency refers to the imperative for individuals and groups to act and choose; to take responsibility and reflectively make progress.

Reflective Agency is the engine by which any project gains energy and forward momentum, allowing team members to prosecute the project’s objectives actively. Its absence results in a project that loses its way.

Through their Agency, people take responsibility to collaborate with other stakeholders, align their actions with the project’s objectives, and adjust their performance to converge on agreed quality.

Suppose you think about the projects you worked on in the past. And think about all the project processes that you’ve operated. It’s startling to think of how much the project management processes are designed to force accountability or detect the results of poor engagement, accountability failure, and lack of trust between teams and management.

Let’s take, for example, something as simple as an issue management system or a process for tracking actions. To be sure, the degree to which such systems are needed is a function of project size and complexity. But, it is equally a function of how likely people are to take ownership and accountability for issues and prosecute their resolution without centralised processes.

Albert Bandura described “Emergent Interactive Agency”, which seems to apply perfectly to projects. In this type of agency, people are self-organizing, proactive, self-regulating, and engage in self-reflection. They are not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events.

This type of agency is strongly associated with higher orders of Kegan’s Evolution of Consciousness framework, which resolve the “tension between the yearnings for inclusion and distinctness”. The implications of this are powerful: only a relatively small subset of practitioners are able to operate at this level.

Bandura’s Agency unpacks many of the attributes that are the basis for Agile approaches. But other project modalities need these agentic attributes equally.

Every successful project has a high order of Reflective Agency and, as Project Manager, you must do all you can to create, promote and allow agentic behaviour.

The Principle of Outcome Enablement

The Principle of Outcome Enablement holds that the value of a project is not what you deliver but the enhanced capabilities of those using those deliverables to capture value within their context.

We talk endlessly about projects “delivering value”, but the reality is that projects don’t deliver value: they deliver a bunch of stuff and an invoice!

Projects enable value capture by customers in their context. To illustrate, consider this famous marketing quote:

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” — Harvard Business School, Professor Theodore Levitt

An enablement focus makes us realise that people don’t even want the quarter-inch holes. People want the coat rack attached to the wall using those holes.

Extending the enablement analysis, it’s evident that people don’t even really want the coat rack. What they really wish is that they didn’t have to throw their guests’ coats on their child’s bed or the sofa and then have to move them when little Bobbie wants to sleep or when the adults want to have coffee and brandy on the couch.

But most projects are set up to produce deliverables. In economic terms, this is called “Exchange Value”, where goods and services are exchanged for some consideration such as money.

However, focusing on deliverables alone is a limited and highly flawed approach. Projects focused on outputs find it much harder to control their scope and the work that generates the project deliverables.

“Enablement” is a value model that emphasises “Use Value” over “Exchange Value”. In projects, this means focusing on how the consumer uses the project to service their customers and what the customer is enabled to do. It means a focus on customer “Outcomes” and “Impacts” over project “Outputs”.

Outcome Enablement means that the purpose of a project is to create change for a customer that enables them to capture value with their customers or other stakeholders.

Every successful project is firmly anchored in the desired outcomes and impacts that enable this value capture. And in this, they apply the Principle of Outcome Enablement.

The Principle of Purposeful Evolution

The Principle of Purposeful Evolution leverages the natural ways in which people think and work together. This principle recognises that all human ideas evolve through iteration and interaction.

This human capacity for iterative learning and innovation cannot be underestimated.

Conceptual evolution occurs naturally and cannot be controlled or suppressed by process or technique.

Evolution is a process of development that causes something to change from one state to another in a series of steps, often but not always gradually.

The most prominent model for evolution is biological evolution: a cycle of repeated incremental change followed by a fitness or survival test that allows (or prevents) an organism to replicate. The survivors pass their organic memory on to their progeny and the cycle repeats.

The question is: how many evolutionary cycles exist between these two states?

Biological evolution is both random and achingly slow. On the other hand, projects function more like “directed evolution,” e.g. animal breeding programs that are neither random nor slow. Or at least they should — some approaches attempt to stifle this evolution.

Regardless of the construct or methodology overlaid onto a project, the developed concepts and products continually evolve towards a future state.

In projects, we refer to the “as-is state” and the “to-be state” as the beginning and end. But the “as-is state” is often not fully known or understood; the “to-be state” is not yet imagined or formulated.

Any human endeavour proceeds in an evolutionary manner and attempts to prevent this end up as impaired or failed.

Successful projects recognise, embrace and promote the Principle of Purposeful Evolution.

The Principle of Pragmatic Abundance

The Principle of Pragmatic Abundance leverages a mindset through which people approach the future believing that there are plenty of resources to spare for everyone according to their needs.

Stephen Covey described abundance in the book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Since then, abundance was adopted by the popular psychology and personal growth industries in the context of gaining personal wealth. Thus, abundance is not prominent in modern management theories.

But research since Covey’s time identified several solid foundations for applying abundance concepts to project performance.

At their essence, projects are a bridge to an unknown future. As such, projects entail risk, and the success rates for projects are not great. Regardless of how much planning we do about the future state or monitoring during project execution, we never really know about project success until we get there (or are pretty close).

Unless managed, this can lead to risk aversion or indecision. But abundance enables a perspective on the future through which project stakeholders envisage a beneficial outcome even if all the elements are not in place.

Through an explicit, two-step process called “Pragmatic Prospection”, people and teams first imagine the future in favourable terms and then consider the pitfalls and risks of achieving those benefits.

Abundance allows individuals and teams to maintain a positive belief in the future and the ability of the project to fulfil its goals while still understanding the potential pitfalls and hardships along the way.

Abundance relates strongly to optimism, and optimism brings many positive benefits. Optimists endure: they keep on going in the face of hardship. Projects require optimism and grit.

Project stakeholders need to be open to the future and be willing to collaborate with others to achieve imagined future outcomes.

The principle of Pragmatic Abundance binds us to that future.

The Bottom Line

At first glance, you may think these principles are too vague or contain useless buzzwords.

But, each of these principles unpacks solid and useful strategies based on research and practice so you can apply them to your projects.

The hard part is leveraging such apparent simplicity in real life.

Projects experience many distractions and influences, and it is hard to stay focused. Applying these principles in your daily project lives allows you to remain focused and avoid distraction: this is what really matters.

The things that we traditionally rate as necessary, even critical, for project success are at best codified, limited, and often arbitrary.

They are distractions.

They apply only to specific situations or combinations of circumstances, and they focus on what you do (or should do), not why (or even if) you should do them.

In the coming posts, I’ll detail each of the four principles of project success and how they relate to each other.

Stay Tuned.

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Where people think and work naturally together, projects succeed.

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