Beginners Mind: Back to PM Basics
Project management fads and fashions like entrepreneurial PM, Agile PM, earned value, and critical chain PM, come and go. Often they get folded into the overall knowledge base as skillful techniques. What they all have in common is the ability to wake us up a bit, focus our attention on our process and get us out of a rut.
People tend to get into a pattern of thinking and behavior, sticking with it even when it no longer works. We seek stability and certainty. We find it hard to break old habits and to break new ground. We tend to spend 100% of our time and energy on performing and not enough on the evaluation and refinement of our process. When we apply beginner’s mind, we are likely to come to performance with a fresh view, unencumbered by habits and preconceived ideas that are not relevant to the situation at hand.
When we recognize our unproductive tendencies and make a commitment to optimal performance, we choose to first become aware of our habits and blind spots, then to assess whether they need to be broken and then to doing something about it. We commit to being present and mindful and to creatively adapt to the needs of the moment. We commit to the courage to own up to our short comings and to do something about them.
In project management we need to go continuously back to basic principles and apply them, using appropriate tools and techniques, in a way that suits the need of the current situation.
What are the principles? I boil them down to:
- Prepare – make sure your process is effective and that it suits your environment and project needs. Refine it over time based on past experience and best practice expertise.
- Set Objectives – Know what you want to accomplish and why you want to accomplish it
- Plan – Decide how you will go about accomplishing and managing the project, given the expected resources, environment, objectives, risks and uncertainties.
- Set rational expectations and manage them throughout the project
- Execute – Do the work
- Adjust performance to meet the needs of the current situation,
- Control – Observe the way the work is being done, deliverables are being delivered, schedule and budget constraints are being met, relationships are healthy and happy, etc.
- Continuously refine the plan so that it increasingly reflects how the project will turn out
- Close – end the project and release the product, review your performance and learn from it
This maps to Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling and Closing processes in the PMI model. Take note of the fact that while the process seems linear, it is not. It is an iterative refinement process in which planning, executing and controlling overlap and influence one another. Even aspects of closing occur while the project is being executed – why wait until it is all over to learn from experience and adjust the process.
These principles and the process they represent tell us what to do, but not how to do it. While the principles have stayed pretty much the same for many years, even they should be questioned. Don’t do anything by rote or because you have always done if that way. Question everything and adapt your process to the situation at hand.
The how to’s are many. For example you can control a project with earned value management using a sophisticated PM toolset or by a combination of scope, schedule and budget monitoring using Excel. The problem arises when you get to a point at which you completely identify the principles with the techniques. You use a technique habitually without thinking about alternatives. As soon as that happens, performance is likely to suffer.
The way to avoid this is to continuously manage your process.
Your process has multiple levels. On the surface is the day to day performance with its use of tools and techniques, at the next level is the management of that work, on a level underlying both of these is the interpersonal process of our relationships and our communication, and underpinning them all is the intrapersonal process, the way our mind works.
First, focus on the intrapersonal level, on yourself and your ability to mindfully perform your work, undistracted. At this level you train yourself to become responsive as opposed to reactive; to be accepting of your coworkers, managers, clients and other stakeholders, even when they behave irrationally. You give up the expectation that everything should be simple and divided into neat black and white compartments, and instead open to uncertainty, conflicting objectives, paradox and continuous change. You cultivate the courage to do what needs to be done to satisfy your needs and the needs of your organization or project.
This sets the stage for you to perform at the communication and relationship level, the most critical aspect of the entire process. It is here that we collaborate, manage expectations, issues and conflicts, make decisions, assess and improve performance. Without communication and healthy relationships performing and managing become dysfunctional and sub optimal.
Imagine an environment in which there is little or no formal process for managing requirements, project schedules are dictated from above, with little regard for the actual capacity of performers to hit their mandated targets and where products are released for sale or use before they are ready, just to meet an arbitrary deadline.
Sounds awful doesn’t it? Almost unbelievable that such an environment could exist in this day and age. But if it did, then the ability to apply your intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, would be the way to handle the situation. Even if your environment wasn’t quite that bad, you might find opportunities to improve your process applying these same skills.
You would be mindful of your position in the organization, the need to find a champion to drive interest and commitment to continue improvement. You would address issues with the right people in a way that made it clear that you were not blaming and complaining but we’re collaboratively seeking improvement. You would patiently do what you can to optimize the process within your scope of control, accepting the things outside of that scope that you cannot change. At some point you might recognize that working in a dysfunctional environment that is not changing is not for you, here is where the courage to make a radical change comes into play.
Note that we haven’t addressed the performance and management levels. These require far more time and space. They require courses or, at least, a series of articles. With attention to the intrapersonal and interpersonal process levels, there is a solid foundation for optimal performance at the other process levels.
In summary, make sure that you and those around you
- Are aware of the basic principles of project management in a practical way, focusing on how the principles eliminate problems and promote success.
- Understand your process and its complexity so you can all focus on the foundation skills at the intrapersonal and interpersonal levels
- Commit to continuous improvement, not just paying lip service to it but actually spending the time and effort to hold performance reviews and translating findings into changes to the way the work is performed and managed.
For yourself, cultivate mindfulness, concentration and open minded thinking to set the foundation for optimal performance.
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