Exploding the Myth of PM Best Practices

PM ChangeAgent Commentary by Stacy Goff; ProjectExperts CEO.
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—despite my belief that the phrase is an oxymoron—that our discipline is not yet mature enough to have universal best practices. This article is a recap of many discussions on best practices over my years as a PM practitioner, then as a consultant.

My opinions about PM Best Practices go back to the early 1980s, when, as a PPM consultant, I frequently encountered executives, line managers, project managers, and other consultants, who 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 them 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.

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 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 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 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. One could even say this standard is the lowest common denominator, as agreed to by those who served on the standards development teams. That 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 1. Win More Bids and 2. Make More Profit on Bids Won, we found, highlighted, and institutionalized the hidden practices of their most effective teams. Why? Their practices had the greatest chance of transferability to similar groups in the same organization—even when rolled out over hundreds of offices around the World.

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

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

This is a great win-win-win for all—except for the competition—who 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?