Maxims of Project Management
October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.
by Dick Miller
been managing projects all my adult life. Part of the time, I was
doing it unconsciously, without training or awareness of what I was
doing or why. After I got some training, my eyes were opened, and I
could see why I succeeded in some cases and failed in others.
been managing projects in a conscious fashion for more than 40 years
now, have managed an organization that taught people how to manage
projects, and have taught project management at the undergraduate and
graduate levels at college.
that is not by way of blowing my own horn, but to show you that
been there and done that when it comes to project management. The
following tips come from those years of experience, and I share them
with you in the hope that they will help move you in the direction of
conscious project management.
to plan is like planning to fail
project is any activity that has a definite beginning, middle, and an
end. Taking a family vacation is a project. Doing the weekly grocery
shopping is a project. As any mother of the bride will tell you,
planning a formal wedding is definitely
project. In any of these cases, you could possibly arrive at the
final result of two weeks away from home, six bags of groceries, or a
married daughter without a plan, but I’d be willing to bet
the experience of getting to that result would be a lot less
pleasurable than it would have been if you had planned the project
simple examples refer to everyday life. Through the rest of this
story, I’m going to restrict my comments to projects in the
context of the business world. That’s where I gained my
experience, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.
what you want to accomplish
man much wiser than I once said, “If you don’t know
you’re going, then any road will take you there.”
first thing you need to establish is exactly
what things are going to be like when the project is successfully
completed. This must be stated in observable, measurable terms.
not allowed to say things like, “Quality will improve by
Quality of what? How will it be measured? Compared to what? Who will
do the measuring? How often will it be measured?
end result statement must pass the “Gee, Dad” test.
little Johnny says, “Gee, Dad, watch me! I can ride my bike
the way from here to the corner all by myself without falling
Dad can observe, measure, and determine whether little Johnny has met
the criteria for success that he has established for himself. Even if
the success criterion is as simple as “The boss signs off on
the document,” that’s observable and measurable,
an acceptable success criterion.
project has three aspects: scope of work,
schedule, and cost. One may
be fixed, one optimized, and one floats.
scope of work we mean the work that is to be done in the project.
This gets back to the end result we talked about in the previous
section. Are there things that must
and others that wait until later? The schedule is an obvious
consideration: is there a definite time by which the project must
be completed, or is the time a bit more flexible? Finally, resource
constraints must be considered, in terms of dollars, people, and
old project management truism says: “Scope, schedule,
resources: pick two.” The meaning of that brief version of
second sentence of this section’s title is that you
have everything. If you’ve got a hard deadline and tight
resources, you may need to postpone some features from this release
of your software until the next release. If you must have certain
features in the product and you’re working with a fixed
then the schedule may have to slip. You get the idea.
way to settle this question is at a project kickoff meeting. One of
the first agenda items should be a discussion of which of the three
aspects of the project is fixed, which is to be optimized, and which
floats. Determine first whether scope, schedule, or resources is the
element that absolutely, positively must
unchanged. Having done that, choose which of the remaining two
elements is to be optimized: if you have to choose between this and
that, which one gets picked? The third element has to wind up
wherever it winds up, depending upon the demands of the other two
the real stakeholders
the project kickoff meeting, it’s important to have all
the key stakeholders for the project in the room. If schedule demands
require that a stakeholder send a representative in his or her place,
it’s with the understanding that the representative has full
authority to speak and act in the stakeholder’s place.
I say real
stakeholders, I mean the people for
whom this project is actually going to make a difference.
invite anyone simply because of his or her job title. This is a
working meeting, and the people who attend will probably inform the
executives in their regular activity reports if they think
important to do so. You need to have people who will be providing
resources for the project, people who will be consumers of the output
of the project, and people who have authority to approve the project
from various perspectives (human resources, legal, public relations,
marketing, engineering, or whatever). Many of the attendees may not
attend regular team meetings after the kickoff meeting, but they must
all be there when it begins.
needs to be on board
that you’ve got everyone in the room, you need to lead them
consensus on what this project is all about. One thing is key to
is not your project; it’s their
You’re just the caretaker, janitor, chief
cook and bottle washer. You get all the grief and, when it’s
all over, you might get a few Atta boys or Atta girls if
done a good job.
the key is consensus. It’s important to get everyone to agree
to the priorities of the three elements, and to commit the necessary
resources to get the project done. If you’re a little rusty
your team facilitation and consensus-building skills, check out a
marvelous book called “The Team Handbook” by
Joiner, and Streibel. It’s filled with how-tos and useful
on such things.
out from the kickoff meeting participants the extent to which they
want to participate in the future. They may want to attend the
regular team meetings, to be copied on the minutes of those meetings,
to be informed when things are going wrong, or to be brought in at
the end when their approval is needed. Try to accommodate their
your project is running late, it’s never because you
work fast enough, it’s always because you didn’t
always has to be made for contingencies. Key people get sick, go on
vacations, get drawn off onto other projects, take longer to do what
they need to do than you thought they would, and so on. Outside
factors change constantly: the marketing folks want to impress a new
customer, so they’d like to show them a prototype sooner than
you had planned to have it ready; the CEO decides we can afford a
booth at the big trade show after all; important input or parts you
were counting on from some outside organization didn’t show
when you expected them.
of this means that you need to build in some slack time to your tasks
on the front end. As soon as you are able to begin a task, do so.
Having a task completed and waiting for its successor is much better
than a frantic scramble to get it done so the successor can begin.
project has ever been completed on time, within budget, as originally
planned. Yours will not be the first.
project manager will tell you that every project plan must be
adjusted many, many times during the course of the project. A
requirement changes; a resource dries up or frees up; a schedule
slips. These are all ordinary occurrences in the daily life of a
project manager. Don’t take it personally. The project plan
a tool. Don’t be a slave to it; let it work for you instead.
sure to consider all the ramifications of any change in the project
plan. If you have set up your project plan in any of the popular
project planning software applications, the application should take
care of that for you. Watch
everything that the application has changed as a result of the change
you introduced to make sure that some constraint was not violated
that you didn’t foresee. You don’t want the big
meeting happening on a Sunday, for example.
you’re up to you’re a** in alligators,
it’s hard to
remember that you were sent to drain the swamp
management is not a pastime for the leisure class. It seems the
day-to-day activities involved in managing projects take up all
time. There’s always a crisis to deal with, a fire to put
or some ruffled feathers to smooth over.
easy to lose sight of what the project is trying to accomplish when
you’re dealing with the nuts and bolts of making the machine
work. But you, as project manager, have the responsibility to keep
that end in sight and make sure that everyone on the team keeps his
or her eyes on the prize. Exactly how you go about it is probably
determined by your own management style, so I won’t get
specific. I will suggest that the regular team meetings present good
opportunities to help everyone focus on the project goals.
not over when it’s over
you have delivered a successful result and your customer has signed
off, you’re not done. You need to bring the members of the
together for a debriefing, sometimes called a post-mortem meeting.
That’s where you talk about what went well, what
go well, and how things could be done better next time. Be careful
not to personalize or play blame games.
most important part of this step is to write down what is said and to
distribute it to all the team members. If the project has an archive
of the project records, be sure that the debriefing minutes are
included. In that way, you might not have to learn the same lessons
all over again on the next project.
management is not for the faint of heart or for those looking for an
easy job. It can be very fulfilling in the same way that leading an
orchestra during a great performance can be, except you’re
likely to get a chance to take a bow.
(Unless you type
line of the message
to send it.)
Dick's Story List and Biography
A Nonprofit Book Publisher