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Exploding the Myth of Project Management Best Practices

By Stacy Goffis 12 Jul 2018
Exploding the Myth of Project Management Best Practices

What are the Best Practices in the world of project management? Are there a few immutable truths transferable across nations, organisations, industries, cultures, and project teams? I often see assertions promoting PM Best Practices despite my belief that the phrase is an oxymoron; our discipline is not yet mature enough to have universal best practices.

My opinions about PM Best Practices go back to the early 1980s when, as a PM consultant, I frequently encountered executives, line managers, project managers, and other consultants who expected to hear my handful of easy-to-implement “Project Management Best Practices”. I often made recommendations for improved effectiveness in that era, but I called them “Competitive Practices”.

I usually identified them from within their organisations. I realised that one organisation’s best practices could be a scourge for others because best practices vary across contexts and are sensitive to:

  • The national culture(s) of your organisation
  • The industry you are part of
  • Your corporate culture
  • The size of the project or programme
  • The nature and part of the organisation you work within
  • The size of your work unit
  • Specific situations within a project

When William Duncan, primary author of the original PMBOK® Guide, wrote about the industry-changing knowledge areas and practices he helped establish, he did not call them best practices.

Instead, he described them as “applicable to most projects most of the time.” Bravo, such insight! For example, many commonly accepted practices on large projects would crush almost all small projects, as they are too heavy.

Do Standards Provide Best Practices?

Some touted standards, such as ISO 21500 and Guidance on Project Management, as “best practices.” But are they really? Standards can undoubtedly be beneficial; they help to establish a common vocabulary and, in some cases, consistent processes. But they are not best practices. ISO states that they are “documents that provide requirements, specifications, guidelines, or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose.”

If you look at the way we develop standards, we involve large teams contributing over many years. These teams produce a useful document containing all they could agree to. In the case of ISO 21500, it is a good start. I believe it to be a valuable foundation for many situations. But I would not call the result a best practice.

One could even say this standard is the lowest common denominator, as only those who served on the standards development teams agreed to it. That suggests that many standards are average practices - a good consensus starting point, but not best, superlative, or competitive.

Where Do We Find Project Management Best Practices?

A commonplace to find best practices is within the clients’ organisations. For example, while helping a “Big Eight” consulting firm to win more bids and make more profit on bids won, we found, identified, and institutionalised the hidden practices of their most effective teams.

Why? Their practices had the greatest transferability to similar groups in the same organisation, even when rolled out hundreds of offices worldwide.

Of course, we provide our “value add” in distilling and evaluating the practices, and we help overcome the natural tendency for rejection by introducing the practices from within. Internally, we often study project histories for risks, issues, success stories, and failure stories from lessons learned - the Project Intelligence (captured and re-used Knowledge) that we have mined for years to help organisations achieve higher levels of PM performance.

Re-using project intelligence also helps smart project teams get even more support from their management. When the teams’ achievements are recognised across the organisation, the leadership skills of their managers also gain recognition, thus perpetuating intelligent practices. This experience, often repeated in many organisations, demonstrated our clients’ true grasp of Organisational Change Management. This is an excellent win-win-win for all except the competition, who only discover competitive practices in project management after it is too late for them to catch up.

What are your organisation's best project management practices, and how do you recognise and spread them? Whose responsibility is it to do so?