The Seven Pillars of Project Management

There’s always been a debate over whether project management training can produce great project managers, or whether great PMs are born rather than made. What is not debated though is that all great project managers follow a number of key principles laid down in one of several established project management methodologies. In the UK, PRINCE2 is amongst the most widely practiced, but there are also several other methodologies, such as Critical Path Methodology, Agile project management and Six Sigma.

Certainly, some people feel that soft skills such as communication can’t be taught and are under-emphasised in the various project methodologies. Others would counter by pointing out that a PM is going to have trouble communicating with a team unless they have a shared vocabulary and understand the same concepts and that this common understanding is provided by a common methodology.

Even among non-project employees, a basic understanding of project management methodologies and concepts, can provide the means to negotiate and manage change and instability in a business. In other words, these are universal rules of thumb that have a multitude of applications.

In this article, I want to look in detail at PRINCE2’s seven project management principles, because not only is it the most widely practiced project management methodologies in the world, but it is one of the only ones that also included established training and certification.


Continued justification of business case

It can happen with long-running projects that events eclipse the project and make it either entirely redundant or less valuable than it was originally. The project itself is then scrapped, or is left to fizzle out.

It’s essential that the business case for the project is clearly stated and continues to be referenced throughout the project. It should be summarized in the project initiation document and the business objectives should form the basis of highlight reporting. Even at the end of the project, benefits should be assessed against the business case.

It’s easy to stray from this and long-running projects can take on a life of their own, veering way off the original strategic aim and getting side-tracked into work with little business benefit. So project checkpoints that assess progress against the original business case are an essential part of keeping the project aligned with the business.


Learn from prior projects

Every PM should start their project by looking at the learnings from previous, similar projects. The benefits of learning from past failures are widely acknowledged, yet few companies do this.

If the previous project has done a thorough job of collecting the learnings, these can be pure gold. For example, if suppliers have been asked to comment, it can be illuminating to read the good and bad things they experienced when working with your organization.

It’s best practice to open the learnings log immediately after the project starts, because some of the most valuable lessons learned happen as the project progresses, and they can be lost or forgotten, if they’re not noted until the end.


Clearly defined roles and responsibilities

These are the project equivalent of job descriptions. Even if you are not strictly following a Prince2 timetable, it’s clear that they need to be agreed early on. The project administrator can be tasked with issuing draft roles for review, adding amendments and versioning the document and then checking that each individual has agreed the final version.

Seeing the full set of roles and responsibilities gives the project board a chance to identify gaps and overlaps and to ensure that the team is capable of delivering the project.


Manage the project in stages

Most project methodologies recommend breaking the project into phases or stages. The analysis of the work in this way provides a high level overview of the project’s structure. This is invaluable, because once detailed planning gets under way, it is easy to get bogged down in detail and dependencies and lose sight of the big picture. This approach also allows you to better calculate duration, requirements and therefore the priority of each individual stage.


Manage by exception

There can be a temptation to pad out highlight reports with a lot of bland statements about satisfactory progress. Exception reports can focus the Board’s attention where it is most needed and where they are more likely to be able to bring influence to bear. A lack of exception reports may mean that the project is running well, but may also indicate a reluctance to discuss problems.


Apply a product focused methodology

In project management methodologies, the term ‘product’ refers to the outcome or deliverables of a project (ie building and launching a new corporate website, increasing attendance rates through the integration of new appointment booking system, etc). Product focus is important and so is focusing on defining and delivering these products, in particular their quality requirements. Poor product definition can lead to misunderstanding, poor or insufficient quality and, ultimately, an end product that is not fit for purpose.


Tailor the methodology to the project

Recent editions of the Prince2 manual have emphasized scalability. We’ve all come across PMs who have implemented a full scale Prince2 structure, suitable for a major software team, and used it to manage a minor business change project. On the other hand, there are PMs whose “light touch” has a tendency to turn into “out of touch”.

A good PM will consider the scale of the project, as well as its specific requirements and parameters and then define the appropriate degree of documentation, governance and stakeholder involvement. In other words, they use their experience and expertise, as well as an applied methodology, to take decisions that will work in practice.


This guest post is courtesy of David Baker. He has worked within the training industry for many years with PRINCE2 Training. Working on courses such as PRINCE2, ITIL, PMP, Agile, Scrum, Lean Six Sigma. PRINCE2 Training delivers world-class accredited training solutions to thousands of organizations and individuals throughout the world. You can connect with PRINCE2 Training on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.


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