Exploding the Myth of PM Best Practices

PM ChangeAgent Commentary by Stacy Goff.
What are the Best Practices in the world of project and program management (PPM)? Are there a few immutable truths that are transferable across nations, organizations, industries, cultures, and project teams? I often see assertions promoting PM Best Practices. This despite my belief that the phrase is an oxymoron. That our discipline is not yet mature enough to have universal best practices. This article recaps discussions on best practices in my years as a PM practitioner, then as a consultant.

My opinions about PM Best Practices go back to the early 1980s. In that era, as a PPM consultant, I frequently encountered executives, line managers, project managers, and other consultants. They expected to hear my handful of easy-to-implement “PM Best Practices.” In that era, I often made recommendations for improved effectiveness, but I called them “Competitive Practices.” And I usually sought, uncovered, and identified those smartest practices from within their own organizations. I understood over thirty years ago that one organization’s best practices could be a scourge for others. Here’s why…

Best Practices Vary

Best Practices vary across contexts, because they are sensitive to:

  • The national culture(s) of your organization.
  • The industry you are part of.
  • Your corporate culture.
  • The size of the project or program.
  • The nature and part of your organization you work within.
  • The size of your work unit.
  • Specific situations within a project.
  • … and other contextual factors.

William Duncan, primary author of the original PMBOK® Guide, wrote about the industry-changing knowledge areas and practices he helped establish. In his work, he did not call them Best Practices. Instead, he described them as “applicable to most projects most of the time.” Bravo! Such insight he demonstrated! For example, many commonly accepted practices on large projects would crush almost all small projects; they are too heavy.

Don’t Standards Provide Best Practices?

Standards, such as ISO 21500, Guidance on project management, are touted by some as “best practices.” But are they, really? I believe that standards can be incredibly useful; they help to establish common vocabulary, and in some cases, consistent processes. But they are not best practices. As ISO states, they are “documents that provide requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics. These 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 a period of years. Their result: 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 useful foundation for many situations. But I would not call the result PM best practices. I’d assert this standard is the lowest common denominator, agreed to by those serving on the standards development teams. This suggests that many standards are average practices. A good consensus starting point, but not best, superlative, or competitive practices.

Then, Where Do We Find PM Best Practices?

From the 1980s through today, we seek best practices within our clients’ organizations. For example, while helping a “Big Eight” consulting firm to achieve two competing objectives. They intended to 1. Win More Bids and 2. Make More Profit on Bids Won. These are often mutually exclusive. In our work with them, we found, highlighted, and institutionalized the hidden practices of their most effective teams. Why? Their practices had the greatest chance of transferability to teams in their organization—even when implemented in hundreds of offices around the World.

Of course, we provided our “value add,” in distilling and evaluating the practices. We helped overcome the natural tendency for rejection (this happens medical immune system) by introducing the practices from within. Internally, we most-often study project histories for Risks; Issues; Success and Failure stories from Lessons Learned. Lessons Learned reflect the Project Intelligence (captured and re-used Knowledge) that we have mined for years. We do so to help organizations achieve higher levels of PM Performance (Personal, Project, Program and Portfolio Management Performance).

This process of re-using project intelligence also helps smart project teams get even more support from their management chain. When teams’ achievements are recognized across the organization, the leadership skills of their managers (one-to-four levels above them) also gain recognition. This recognition perpetuates these smart practices. This experience, repeated many times in organizations, demonstrates our clients’ true grasp of Organizational Change Management.

This re-use of project intelligence is a great win-win-win for all—except for the competition. They only discover competitive practices in project management after it is too late for them to catch up.

What are the best PM practices in your organization, and how do you recognize and spread them? Whose responsibility is it to do so?

Your Comments?