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12 Project Management Rules You’d be Wise to Note

12 Essential Project Management Rules

When you have been Managing Projects for a while, you will start to notice that some things are always true. Each of these ‘Project Management Rules‘ reminds us of something important about Project Management, so I have been collecting them for nearly 20 years.

I am sure the list in my notebook is far from complete. so, please do add your own to the comments at the bottom of this article.

I am equally sure that some people will have good reason to disagree with the universality I am claiming for each of these (and I welcome your comments on that too).

And, of course, I know that you may have you own interpretation of some of these Project Management rules (which I also invite you to share below).

But, here’s the thing…

12 Essential Project Management Rules

12 Essential Project Management Rules

I think each of my Project Management rules offers a valuable insight into how to manage a project effectively. So I have decided to share twelve of the best with you. I hope you will comment on them below. I don’t know if any one of them will stop your project from failing, but I do know that following each one will make you a better Project Manager, who gets better results.

Mike’s Project Management Rules

None of my Project Management rules is more important than the others – although I don’t doubt that you will have favorites! So to organise them, I have folowed my own sense of the story of a project. This doesn’t mean there is any compelling logic for the sequence – it just make sense to me. Indeed, it is probably best to think of each one as a stand-alone rule. Which is why in the set of free posters you can download, the rules are not numbered, so you can print and use only the posters you like.

 

Save your Arguments about what a Project is for the Coffee Shop.
Focus on the Characteristics of What Needs to be Done.

Project Managers are justly proud of our calling. So we’ll defend it at any time. When I finally started managing my first project, I remember being told by a colleague (in a patronising kind of way):

‘Well Mike, that isn’t really a project. It’s just an initiative’.

Later in my career, when I was indisputably managing a project, another colleague said to me (with a straight face):

‘You see Mike, you’re managing a project, and I’m managing a program’.

Save your arguments about what a project is for the coffee shop

Save your arguments about what a project is for the coffee shop

Of course there are definitions of what a Project is. And you can watch short video of my description of what a Project is, too. But why would you waste time arguing about it? What matters is what you need to get done. And the more something looks and feels like a Project, the more of your Project Management toolset you will need to deploy.

The same is true, by the way, of Programs and Program Management. Save your philosophical arguments for the coffee shop, where they belong. The first of my Project Management rules reminds you to be practical, and focus on the job at hand.

Rule 1: Save your arguments about what a #Project is for the coffee shop. Click To Tweet

 

The One Thing a Project Manager Craves, above all else, is Control

Projects exist on the edge of chaos. They need to deliver something specific in an environment of uncertainty. And they need to do so within deadlines, using a constrained budget and resource pool. And of course, you will have multiple team members and stakeholders to co-ordinate and please.

So, Project Management is fundamentally about creating a controlled environment within which you, as Project Manger, can feel a sense of control. It is no coincidence that the developers of the UK Government’s Project Management methodology, PRINCE (now, PRINCE2), chose the acronym they did, for their new methodology. PRINCE stands for PRojects IN  Controlled Environments. PRINCE2 was updated in 2007, by the way.

The One Thing a Project Manager Craves, above all else, is Control

The One Thing a Project Manager Craves, above all else, is Control

A large part of what you will do as a Project Manager will be about creating control. And many of the Project Management tools and techniques, and systems and processes that we use are designed to help you.

Rule 2: The one thing a #Project Manager craves, above all else, is Control. Click To Tweet

 

Scoping is the Most Difficult Part of Project Management

Scoping your Project is a process of negotiating with a range of stakeholders. All of them will have different wants and needs. And your job is to balance those wants and needs and come up with a set of design features that best meets the collective needs, with a balance that properly reflects priorities. And, as if that is not hard enough, your final scope must also reconcile with your available budget and resources. If not, you nee to go back and do some more negotiating.

Rule 3: Scoping is the most difficult part of #Project Management. Click To Tweet
Scoping is the most Difficult Part of Project Management

Scoping is the most Difficult Part of Project Management

It is no coincidence that more of my Project Management rules are about stakeholders than about any other aspect of Project Management. Indeed, I have also collected a set of rules about stakeholders and Stakeholder engagement, but let’s save those for another day. The perfect tool to finalise your scope and make sure you document all the detail, is a Work Breakdown Structure. This is a tool to make into your friend.

Creating a Robust Project Definition

To help you with scoping – and all other aspects of Project definition, take a look at our Project Manager’s Project Definition Kit – an innovative course and resource kit, so you can take a jumble of ideas, needs, and requests and turn it into a well-defined project.

 

You can Please all of your Stakeholders some of the Time, and Some of your Stakeholders all of the Time; but you Can’t Please All of your Stakeholders all of the Time

In my mind, this rule is the primary reason for the the previous rule. As soon as you manage to please some of your stakeholders, you will inevitably start to upset others, with contradictory expectations or aspirations.

You can't please all of your stakeholders all of the time

You can’t please all of your stakeholders all of the time

I don’t particularly claim originality for any of my Project Management rules, but this one will certainly sound familiar to you.  Whether the credit should go to Lincoln or Lydgate is something I’ll leave to the scholars. It seems to me that these multiply-attributed quotes and their variants do always contain an important truth.

Rule 4: You can’t please all of your #Stakeholders all of the time. Click To Tweet

We have a whole bunch of articles about stakeholder engagement:

 

Projects would be Easy, if it weren’t for the People

We often think of Project Management as a technocratic, process driven discipline. If it were, things would be a lot more predictable and, well… easy. But people are not easy. They have opinions, agendas, aspirations and, well, foibles. Getting the best out of your team, and keeping your stakeholders happy are the real hard work of Project Management. And this part is far from easy.

Projects would be Easy, if it weren't for the People

Projects would be Easy, if it weren’t for the People

Rule 5: #Projects would be easy, if it weren’t for the people. Click To Tweet

 

Stakeholders will Determine the Success, or Not, of your Project

If there is one of my Project Management rules I tend to over-use in training courses and seminars, this is it. But it is so true. It doesn’t matter how well you define your project, the rigor of your planning, or the excellence of your execution. If your stakeholders don’t like or accept what you have delivered, you have failed. Because your stakeholders will be the ones who turn your deliverables into outcomes.

Stakeholders will Determine Your Success or Not

Stakeholders will Determine Your Success or Not

While it may suit you to assess your performance on the quality and functionality of your deliverables, and on the time and cost of your implementation, your stakeholder will evaluate your project on its outcomes. And it is your stakeholders who will turn deliverables into outcomes.

To paraphrase a familiar saying (also of widely disputed origin): ‘Keep your team close, but your stakeholders closer still.’

Rule 6: Stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your #Project. Click To Tweet

 

Failing to Plan is the same as Planning to Fail

This is not one of my Project Management rules. But this is an often quoted prediction, which is a modern form of a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

Failing to Plan is the same as Planning to Fail

Failing to Plan is the same as Planning to Fail

It is at the heart of what most Project Managers believe is the essential secret of success: robust planning.

Failing to plan is the same as #planning to fail Click To Tweet

 

I cannot come up with a better paraphrase of this to form my own rule, but there is another quote, which I find myself using more often…

‘In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’

This is attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower – formerly a senior US general during the Second World War. It is another of those great quotes I find myself repeating again and again – even though it is not truly one of my Project Management rules. For me, it holds an important truth about why we plan. We don’t plan because we believe that our plans will come true: no experienced Project Manager would be that naive.

In planning for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable - Dwight D Eisenhower

In planning for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable – Dwight D Eisenhower

We plan because the process of planning helps us understand what we need to do, and sharpens our senses to recognise the conditions and events that will warn us of problems. A plan is something to vary in the light of change; not something to stick to rigidly, regardless of circumstance. We also published an article on 12 Project Planning mistakes that can let you down – and how to fix them.

'Plans are useless, but #planning is indispensable' - Eisenhower. Click To Tweet

 

Milestones are your Best Friends

When you use milestones to plan, you create distinct points where you will be able to check progress. And the delightful thing about a milestone is that you have either reached it or you have not.

Milestones are your Best Friends

Milestones are your Best Friends

There is no ‘sort of’ or ‘maybe’ about a milestone. And that means that, like your best friends, a milestone will always tell you the truth. It will always give you a single fact that you can rely upon. And for that reason, on a Project, milestones are your best friends.

Rule 7: Milestones are your best friends Click To Tweet

 

Shift Happens! Things Change

I once told the story of how my book on Risk Management, ‘Risk Happens!‘ came by its title. Essentially, it was going to be called Shift Happens! and the cover design had already been done, when I was threatened with legal action if I used the name. A bogus threat I am sure.

But any risk manager knows that risk is a combination of likelihood and impact. Although I was confident that the likelihood of a successful prosecution was extraordinarily remote; the potential impact on my life of such action (even if it failed), let alone the cost of any successful claim, was enormous. Ho hum. Shift happens. Things change.

Shift Happens - Things Change

Shift Happens – Things Change

Rule 8: Shift Happens! Things #change. Click To Tweet

We’ve written a lot of articles about Risk Management:

 

Fizzing  bombs will explode if you don’t deal with them

This is one of my Project Management rules that people frequently misinterpret. They think, for obvious reasons, it is about risks, and how we need to engage in active risk management, to avert any threats to our projects. This is true, of course. But it is not the principal interpretation I have for this rule. I think of it at a far more mundane level.

For me, this rule links best to the one that says: ‘Project Management would be easy, if it weren’t for the people.’

All sorts of little issues will crop up during the life of your projects. But you will be tempted to ignore them as a minor irritant, and focus on the project itself. A lot of these things are about people: conflicts and disputes, under-performance, behaviours…  Another strategy you’ll be tempted to use is to pass on the issue to someone else. A bit like Tom and Jerry passing a lit bomb to each other.

The fact is, though, that if you don’t deal with these things properly, they tend to go off in your face. And that can mean singed whiskers for you, just as it does for Tom in the cartoons. The sooner you pinch ff these kinds of issues; the less pain they will inflict.

Fizzing Bombs will Explode if Your Don't Deal with Them

Fizzing Bombs will Explode if Your Don’t Deal with Them

Rule 9: Fizzing bombs will explode if you don’t deal with them Click To Tweet

 

No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

Here is another direct quote, which is therefore not one of my own Project Management rules. It was said by the Prussian/German General, Helmuth von Moltke. What it signifies is that, as soon as you start implementing your plan, the real world will step in and get in the way. Shift will happen and pretty soon your plan will be out of date.

Von Moltke, like Nelson before him had the concept that Nelson referred to as ‘Commander’s intent’. These are general directives, rather than direct orders.

No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy

No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy

As a Project Manager, you will have the definition of your project, an understanding of your stakeholders, and a framework of governance. Within these constraints, you need to be able to sense deviations from your plan, and adapt accordingly. You will need to keep your plan under constant review, and update it in the light of changes to your situation.

'No #plan survives contact with the enemy' - Helmuth von Moltke Click To Tweet

 

An Absentee Project Manager is a Contradiction in Terms

If you accept that Shift Happens, and that your plan will rapidly become out of date, then the tenth of my Project Management rules must follow logically.

An Absentee Project Manager is a Contradiction in Terms

An Absentee Project Manager is a Contradiction in Terms

If you aren’t there, you can’t manage your project.

This doesn’t mean you are indispensible. It means that if you need to step away from your project, you need to appoint a locum Project Manager to stand in for you, and to give them the authority to do what it takes to deal with the shift. If nobody is present to manage your project, it can very quickly spiral out of control.

Rule 10: An absentee #Project Manager is a contradiction in terms. Click To Tweet

 

If it isn’t Right, it isn’t Finished

Notice what this rule does not say. It does not say: ‘If it isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished.’ Perfection is not the measure of completeness, or very little would ever get finished.

If it isn't Right, it isn't Finished

If it isn’t Right, it isn’t Finished

Right from the outset, you need to work with your stakeholders to define what ‘right’ looks like. Once you have that definition locked and documented, your job is simple: deliver ‘right’.

This is the end point, and stopping anywhere short of it will be to cheat your stakeholders. And guess what:

Your Stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your Project.’

Rule 11: If it isn’t right, it isn’t finished. Click To Tweet

 

The Level of Attention to Details can often Make the Difference between Success and Failure

One of the paradoxes of Project Management is summed up by the last of my twelve Project Management rules.

On the one hand, you need to be able to take a wide perspective and see how all the different parts of your project fit together into a larger whole. But on the other hand, you also need to be able to zoom in and get each of the details right.

Attention to detail can be the difference between success and failure

Attention to detail can be the difference between success and failure

Notice that this rule does not specify the what ‘right’ level of attention to detail is. That will vary from project to project. So it is your job, as Project Manager, to determine this anew for each of your projects. But it is an important thing to get right, so give it careful thought.

Rule 12: Details can often make the difference between #project success or failure. Click To Tweet

 

What are Your Own Project Management Rules?

Please do tell us what rules you have discovered from your own Project Management experience, using the comments below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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  • George Plummer says:

    I have (had before I retired) two “golden rules”.
    1. – No surprises! Bad new is like fish – it doesn’t improve with waiting. Inform your Sponsors and Managers about any bad news as soon as you know it. [You can always ask for time to work out a fix – and maybe they know something you don’t.]
    2. – Safety first! It doesn’t matter what position a worker occupies – Chief Mucky-Muck or Floor Sweeper. Their family expects them to return from work in the same condition they sent them off to your site: two hands, two legs, two eyes, and so on. Safety must never be sacrificed for progress, budget, or personal aggrandizement.

    Rule 3A – It is often easier to get forgiveness than permission! (But make sure that your “transgression” is successful! 🙂

    • Mike Clayton says:

      George, thank you. I spent the start of my career, where ‘no surprises’ was like a mantra, so I can totally agree to that.

      Likewise, I couldn’t argue with safety first. The reason for omission is prosaic: I don’t come from a safety critical industry. So my experience is formal H&S Plans, but with few serious concerns. So it is good to be reminded that, for many PMs, this is a primary concern. It puts me in mind to do an article on H&S for PMs who don’t have experience in this arena.

      Finally: ha-ha, yes. I’ve heard your Rule 3A often and applied it sometimes. However, the word ‘often’ which you rightly include is the giveaway. Less a rule and more a epithet. But so true!

  • Jim says:

    Here are the real principles and while these may not guarantee success, we ignore them at our peril:

    Regularly reappraise the justification for our project.
    Have a sponsor who gives us clear direction and support.
    Agree and unambiguously define roles and responsibilities.
    Communicate with stakeholders early and often.
    Use a disciplined approach from start to finish.
    Pre-empt problems (ie, risks) and address issues promptly.
    Check progress regularly & take timely corrective action.
    Manage change to ensure effective product adoption.
    Remember ultimate project success is realised benefits.
    Capture lessons and learn from each project.

    • Mike Clayton says:

      Jim, thank you – that’s a great list. It makes for the framework of a methodology. The one that catches my eye as being particularly under-utilised is that ultimate project success is realised benefits. It reminds me of how passionate I was about this as a program manager back in the late 1990s, and leaves me wondering why I’ve not written a feature article about it yet. Something to schedule, thank you.

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