Not a day goes by without a new whitepaper, book, or conference article published heralding a new delivery approach that is absolutely the only possible way that all projects should be delivered from hereon. How fortunate then that experienced project managers and PMO professionals don’t follow fads. Instead, they follow project management principles. Underpinning the project activities such as project planning, creating a  Gantt chart, and developing a communication plan, there are uncompromising truths that can help project managers recognize what is right and help steer projects on the right path.

What are Project Management Principles?

Principles are usually defined as self-evident truths or underlying fundamental laws. Unlike frameworks, fads, and even values, principles have longevity. Organizations and individuals who hold to a set of principles use them as a compass. They check them whenever they doubt when they need to evaluate a particular decision, situation, or scenario and use them to assess the right path to follow. They also refer to them when defining smart goals, project scope, and when they define milestones.

The Principles of Successful Projects

Curiously, the Project Management Institute, PMI, does not include a set of Project Management Principles in its Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide (PMBoK). When swotting up on PMO certifications training, the emphasis is on knowledge rather than principles. The same is true of publications from the Chartered Association of Project Management (APM). Does this mean project management does not have principles? Well, no. Both bodies spend time ensuring certified project managers understand project management’s conceptual basis and common standards. Both also stress the importance of ethics and professionalism within project management. Project Managers with a good understanding of these standards and ethics should be well-positioned to form their own set of principles that they hold true to as they deliver projects.

In 1994, John A Bing from the Orange County PMI Chapter proposed eight Principles of Successful Projects. His list was developed over several years, and Bing asserted that virtually all project failures he observed could be traced to non-adherence to one or more of his principles. Bing’s Project Management Principles are as follows:

  1. There must be a project as defined in the PMBOK, and not just a task or an ongoing activity.
  2. There must be a single leader (project manager), one who is experienced and willing to take responsibility for the work.
  3. There must be an informed and supportive management that delegates appropriate authority to the project manager.
  4. There must be a dedicated team of qualified people to do the work of the project.
  5. The project goal must be clearly defined along with the priorities of the “shareholders.”
  6. There must be an integrated plan that outlines the action required in order to reach the goal.
  7. There must be a schedule establishing the time goals of the project.
  8. There must be a budget of costs and/or resources required for the project.

This list of basic principles is likely to resonate with some Project Managers. It certainly algins to what is taught to students attending project management training, such as that undertaken for the PMP certification. But this does feel like more of a list of responsibilities of the project manager rather than a guiding set of principles.

These are certainly not the only sets of principles that project managers should consider. Bing is not the only person to have attempted to articulate a set of project management principles. In his paper on Theory-W software project management, Barry Boehm argued that software projects should be bound by a fundamental principle, “Make everyone a winner.” Project management can often be considered a complex field littered with complex and even contradictory techniques, processes, and frameworks. It is easy to see how having such a high-level principle for a software project manager to strive towards could have a positive outcome on project delivery.

PRINCE2 principles

PRINCE2 logo

Certifications training provider Axelos defines seven core principles in its PRINCE2 project management methodology. They are set out as follows:

  1. Continued Business Justification – A project must make good business sense.
  2. Learn from Experience – project teams should take learning from previous projects into account.
  3. Define Roles and Responsibilities – everyone on the project should understand their role, what others are doing, and who the decision-makers are.
  4. Manage by Stages – break the project down into manageable stages.
  5. Manage by Exception – Inform the project board only if there is – or there might be – a problem.
  6. Focus on Products – requirements determine the work activity, not vice-versa.
  7. Tailor to the Environment – Scale and tailor the method to succeed.

These key project principles are heavily aligned to the methodology itself and do not necessarily hold true for all projects. Terminology such as ‘manage by stages’ makes sense to those who have a PRINCE2 project management certificate but may not mean much to project managers who have studied different life cycles. Like Bing’s principles though, it is easy to see how following these principles would reduce the risk of projects failure.

Agile Project Management Principles

Project Managers working with teams who adhere to agile approaches and frameworks will undoubtedly be familiar with the Agile Manifesto. Most will recite the values that include valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. But behind those four values are twelve principles:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

These principles are focused more on product development teams – little of the agile manifesto is focused on project management principles and practices. But there is much of value here for PMs, as the principles can be used to test decisions ranging from talent management, the setting of goals and objectives, the management of project risk, and even organizational alignment.

Other sets of delivery principles

Depending on the delivery frameworks being used, there are other sets of principles that may give the project manager cause to reflect.

The Kanban Method provides four foundational principles:

  1. Start from where you are now.
  2. Agree to pursue evolutionary change.
  3. Initially, respect current processes, roles, responsibilities, and job titles.
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at every level in your organization – from individual contributor to senior management.

Those using scaled agile may find the 10 SAFe principles relevant. Outside of the world of business, there are self-help and well-being guides filled with principles that focus on helping you live your best life.

Principles in the PMO

PMO Principles

Principles are not just for delivery, which is why Eileen Roden from PMO Learning worked with AIPMOs Dr. Robert Joslin and Dr. Ralf Muller to develop seven PMO Principles. They draw heavily on Contingency Theory and promote the understanding that no one size fits all when it comes to PMOs. Each PMO is contingent on the environment it operates in, and regardless of the services that the PMO offers, it should hold true to underpinning truths – PMO Principles. You can review the seven PMO principles here:

Principles of Learning

We explored the principle of project management and other management principles and practices. But let’s turn our attention now to a different set of principles – the principles of learning. Learning is something that happens throughout people’s lives and throughout their careers. It can start with a basic introduction to project management and key management concepts, but project management skills are learned and honed over time. Learning is a self-active process – meaning it is something we do rather than something that is done to us. Principles of learning govern it. Arguably these are as important as those directly attributable to project management principles and practices because learning is an essential part of project management. The principles of learning are:

  1. Readiness – individuals learn best when they are physically, mentally, and emotionally willing to learn.
  2. Exercise – things that are most often repeated are the ones that are best remembered.
  3. Effect – a pleasant or satisfying feeling strengthens learning.
  4. Primacy – the thing taught first creates a strong impression and is often difficult to change. This is why it is often important to get the basics of project management understood before moving on to advanced topics.
  5. Recency – the things most recently taught are the things best remembered.
  6. Intensity – the more intense the material taught, the more likely it is to be retained.
  7. Freedom – things freely learned are best learned – we learn better when we chose to learn rather than when we are being forced to.

Your Principles

Everyone has principles. They evolve from the moment we are born and are shaped by culture, environment, and social structures. These principles affect how we manage projects and deliver change. We check ourselves against them regularly. Every time we ask ourselves whether we are doing the ‘right thing’, we are actually taking a moment to check against our internal compass. Perhaps it makes sense that the Project Management Institute focuses more on knowledge than principles. Every project manager will already have their own unique set of principles, codified and hard-wired within them. Those principles will affect how they shape project activities, define roles and responsibilities, detail a Gantt chart, and respond to project risk. Does this mean the lists of principles above are redundant?

Aristotle - painted by Francesco Paolo Hayez
Aristotle | Francesco Paolo Hayez

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, wrote that we are all born with the potential to become ‘ethically virtuous’ and ‘practically wise.’ He believed this was a two-stage process: acquiring the proper habits during childhood, then going on to acquire practical wisdom. He noted that ethical virtue could only be fully developed when combined with practical wisdom. The same can be said of what we refer to as basic principles. Our hard-wired ethics and habits need to be combined with practical wisdom if we are to grow and improve. Project delivery managers can and should reflect on the collective principles that have been derived and shared above and treat them as practical wisdom to be learned. Through experience and the application of principles to different project scenarios, they will become better managers and better people. Wisdom combined with ethics are what truly define us, and ultimately, the principles we hold the dearest are the ones we hold deep within ourselves.

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