Avoid the most expensive words in business when it comes to project management

screen shot of Jeff Russell's blog on project management

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” may well be the most expensive words in business. While it’s important to build on past success, every organization must remain open to new ideas and accepting of change in today’s rapidly evolving environment.
There is no doubt that current practices affect all other practices. And they should. However, successful project managers deviate from the common “one best way” approach and adjust their actions to the context of the project. Avoiding the “one best way” approach does not imply that there are no “wrong ways,” that “anything goes,” or that you must always “start from scratch.” The best approach is to strike a balance that relies on accumulated organizational knowledge while fostering flexibility and creativity among all those involved.
Most successful project managers understand that context is king, and thus, they spend much time adjusting their practices to the context of the project. At the same time, however, in projects sharing common characteristics and challenges, project managers used many practices in a like manner.
Compare, for example, the use of procedures in a product development project with their use in a repeated tasks project.
New product development: The Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) program was established to replace the cancelled Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile program, which had exceeded its budget estimates by record levels. The US Air Force told the contractor, Lockheed Martin: “We don’t have the time, we don’t have the funds, and we don’t have the answers. We want a missile in half the time for half the price.” Thus, it became clear quickly that the only way to produce an affordable missile was to stop doing ‘business as usual’.
Repeated and risky tasks: The Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology program, established by NASA, was charged with converting Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into research platforms. The know-how required to overcome and manage risk put most companies off. AeroVironment, one company that was brave enough to embark on the adventure with NASA, found that it faced a daunting technological challenge: to operate an aircraft that was light enough to fly and large enough to be powered by the sun and carry meaningful payloads.1
In the JASSM project, Larry Lawson, the project manager for Lockheed Martin, was instructed to throw out all the military standards and was given the freedom to devise his own approach as long as it met the project’s three key performance parameters. In sharp contrast, the team at the Pathfinder project was expected to strictly adhere to the extremely detailed flight procedures. Moreover, there was even an extremely rigorous process for preparing and refining these flight procedures.
The call for judgment
The classical model of project management, in which standards are developed for virtually all situations, expects the project manager to serve primarily as a controller: to ensure that team members adhere to the established standard. This role entails only a minimal requirement for judgment and no requirement for adaptation. In reality, the project manager must constantly engage in making sense of the ambiguous and changing situation, as well as adjusting common practices to the situation.
This process requires a great deal of interpretation and judgment based on rich experience.
Quinn, Mintzberg, and James concluded that judgment is the most indispensable attribute of managers: “It is simply our conclusion that among all other attributes of managers, the most indispensable is judgment because it is the integrator which guides and controls all the others… most judgment calls are not simple selections between black and white, but are between subtle shades of gray… Don’t expect everything to work out well the first time…Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.”2
The judgment needed in specific context situations cannot depend on the use of general rules and therefore cannot be developed solely on the basis of reading books or participating in training seminars. Rather, it requires extensive experience. Stories, like those presented here, which present a variety of contexts and solutions, are an excellent source for enriching your experience base.
Originally posted at http://living-order.blogspot.com

  1. Laufer, A. (2012).Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management: Practices that Deliver Remarkable Results. Upper Saddle River, NJ:  FT Press.
  2. Quinn, J., Mintzberg H., and James, R. (1988).  The Strategy Process: Concepts, Contexts, and Cases.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, xi, 956-60.