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The true why of project management

The true “WHY” of project management: it is not about delivering on time, on cost and on specification!

I was a member of the Core Leadership Team responsible for the development of the PMI new standards released in the spring of 2006: The Standard for Portfolio Management and The Standard for Program Management. Actually, as one of the main co-authors of the portfolio standard, I had not spent much time looking at the Program standard. I was, however, receiving occasional emails on the Program Management standard development. I remember seeing an email trail including heated arguments about stating or not stating that projects had to do with generating benefits. PMI’s official position at the time was naturally coherent with the latest PMBOK version! The final word on these arguments was to include in the Program Management standard an artificial distinction between managing projects and programs, stating that (extracted from what I call the infamous Table 1.1, page 8 of the Standard for Program Management):

  • In projects, success is measured by budget, on time and products delivered to specification.
  • In programs, success is measured by Return on Investment (ROI), new capabilities, and benefit delivery

I realized what was written, too far into the development process. It was too late then to show indignation (mea culpa!). Too bad since, in my opinion, this “disctinction” is not only in the blatant contradiction of PMBOK’s own definitions of:

  • project quality – quality is about meeting requirements, not about meeting specifications; and of
  • project success – meeting or exceeding project stakeholders’ needs and expectations

It also perpetuates bad project management practices. No wonder we can’t get clear ROI from project management when we deliver stuff for the sake of stuff, while our main focus is to respect time and budget constraints. No wonder programs do not deliver expected benefits, when we don’t bother to track the benefits materialisation potential of the project deliverables associated with these programs.

Projects are not only about “What, When and How Much”. They are, first and above all, about meeting “Why” questions, about meeting expectations. And expectations are not well represented by ill-defined specifications, but rather by generating benefits for stakeholders. Last spring, during a project management workshop, where I discussed at length the real purpose of projects, one project manager told me that, after close to 30 years working on projects, he was realising for the first time that projects had to answer why questions before answering what, when and how much questions. What a revelation for him! What a shame for project management best practices!

Answering WHY questions is for me THE major issue in projects. Many project personnel would gain a lot of useful insight in this matter by reading Product Centric Project Management: The Missing Link to Business Results a very interesting article by Curt Raschke, PhD, PMP that appears in the last issue of the e-zine PM World Today ( What he calls Product-Centric Project Management, I call Benefits-based Project Delivery, but we are really telling project managers the same thing: “Next time you start or take over a project, make sure you have a project charter. You ought to have one; if not, write one and get it approved by your stakeholders and make sure that that it includes in its first sentence: This is WHY we are undertaking this project. And make sure this WHY does not state a solution but rather the benefits anticipated from this project.

If you don’t do that, you will not only be wasting your efforts on this project, you will waste your stakeholders’ time and money and fail to meet their expectations. Do that and you will promote good project management and achieve project success by improving your customers’ ability to materialise benefits faster and more economically. And THIS is the true” WHY” of project management.

This is what I say! And you? What do you say?

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