What Can You Do to Push Your Organization Back to Basics
(or "Why Advanced Critical Chain Human Resource Integration programs are a work of fiction")

by Carl Pritchard, Pritchard Management Associates

I was looking over one of the myriad catalogs I receive in the mail and noticed what appears to be a trend in project management. We're steering away from the basics. In the quest to explore project management, organizations are drifting away from the fundamentals. I spoke with a potential client recently, and they asked about the "advanced training" that I offer. I explained that I really don't believe in "advanced" training, as I believe a lot is lost in the quest to escape the rudiments of best practice. I stressed that by really delving into the nuances and effective practices associated with the fundamentals, organizations see higher yield. I think they went with another vendor.

The trend is alarming. People don't seem to want fundamentals. If they do, they want them packaged in a tight, short package to "get them over with" before they launch into the "advanced" stuff. That's a tragedy. The fundamentals are the most engaging elements of project management. They're also the place where many organizations tend to trip in their quest for effective implementation. One of my clients is currently wrestling with an upgrade to one of the high-end project management software packages. Never mind that they have never built schedules well with the basic tools, or recorded costs before, they want to make the step up to something more advanced. Another client, still reeling through the maze of trying to create an infrastructure for human resource management, has decided to abandon the standalone versions of MS Project® for the higher end Project Server® version. They are operating under the assumption that as they learn the new tool, they'll learn the best practices that go with it.

That's not a great assumption. Best practices are generally built from the basics. Great athletes start by learning the fundamentals, rather than the nuances of their craft. Great bakers don't start by learning how to create a complicated souffl´┐Ż, but by learning how to crack an egg.

One might argue that the emphasis on certification has solved a significant part of this problem. In order to pass the certification exams (e.g., the Project Management Professional® exam, the Earned Value Professional exam), a clear understanding of the basics is required. That's not necessarily so. With the proliferation of five-days-and you're-loaded-for-bear pre-certification programs, organizations are finding ways to again circumvent the basics.

What to Do About It
At the individual level, it sometimes seems that there isn't a great deal that we can do about these types of situations. They are cultural in nature and require some senior level support in order to ensure that we start with the ABCs, rather than complex sentence structure. In reality, the level of influence that we can exert may be surprising. We exert influence in a variety of ways—by language, by practice, and by rote.

Language is something that the PMI PMP® Certification exam drills on hard. It emphasizes the criticality of speaking PMI-ese and ensuring that all project managers share a common understanding of what the terms and terminology mean. We have the opportunity to drive home fundamentals by stopping the abuse of the terms of art in project management. Some terms inherently invite abuse and confusion. Risk versus issue. Plan versus Gantt. Requirements versus scope. If not addressed specifically, these terms can be misused and abused. What can you do about it? When someone misuses a term, ask them their intent. It's not inappropriate to seek clarification by saying, "Do you see that as an issue that's already in play, or a risk that hasn't happened yet?" We get a better understanding of individual intent through that line of questioning. By simply seeking clarification on what people mean when they say something, we advance the practice.

In our day-to-day practice, we can also reinforce the best practice that is effective PM. We can ensure that schedules are built using networked activities, rather than fixed dates. We can build our WBS with consistently sized work packages and well-crafted WBS dictionaries. We can ensure that project charters are signed and readily available to all team members. Those don't generally require high-level authorization or approval. They require diligence and consistency.

If we really want to win hearts over time, we can ensure that these kinds of practices become rote behaviors. Rote behaviors are those that inherently become ingrained and almost natural. One project manager I have worked with ensures that every meeting he hosts has a thorough agenda. If someone in his group or on his team suggests a meeting to him, they don't even make the pitch without submitting an agenda. It's part of his mantra, his creed, his fundamental belief system in the way project management should be done right. It may be (or seem) excessively anal-retentive, but through the years, he has brought others along to his behavior simply out of sheer deference to the way he does business.

What are the Warning Signs that we're Skipping the Basics?
There are things to watch for organizationally. And the checklist is as easy as looking at the outline of any project management "essentials" program:
  • Do we have a charter?
  • Do we have a clear scope statement?
  • Do we have management signatures on both?
  • Do we have thorough functional and technical requirements, signed off by all the appropriate parties?
  • Has the work been broken down into a consistently structured WBS?
  • Did the team participate in defining the work?
  • Have we estimated and budgeted based on a thorough analysis of the work to be performed (rather than just the estimated total project duration and number of resources)?
  • Have we built the schedule from a list of mutually understood activities, defined, estimated and networked with team input?
  • Have we built a list of risks, identified the major concerns, and developed and communicated strategies to deal with them?
  • Have we established the type of team we'll work with and created an environment that will support them?
  • Have we set down the parameters for quality and established how we'll monitor and ensure them?
  • Have we identified any outside procurements or vendors we may need and how we'll procure them?

Any place there's a missing "yes" answer, there's a sign a basic PM practice has been missed. And in case you're wondering where the checklist came from, it's largely a quick list generated from the knowledge areas of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Amazingly, even when organizations are answering no to as many as half of these questions, some of their personnel suggest the need for "advanced" project management. That's not where the greatest yield lies in our profession. The greatest productivity improvements, practical applications and insights come from sticking to the essentials. It's not glamorous, but it works. And there are decades of evidence from organizations that have implemented the fundamentals well.

Granted, "advanced" project practices have the allure of being new, exciting and challenging. And they may hold out great promise! But getting the basics down cold is generally a powerful first step in getting to "advanced."

Copyright ©2005, Carl Pritchard. Published on ProjectConnections by permission of the author.

Carl Pritchard is the Principal of Pritchard Management Associates. He is a Project Management Professional® as certified by the Project Management Institute, and a member of the board of directors of ProjectConnections.com. He is the author of The Project Communications Toolkit (Artech House, 2004). His newest book, Risk Management: Concepts & Guidance, 3rd Edition will be released in the fall, and focuses on the FUNDAMENTALS of building a good risk management practice. He lectures, presents and entertains in the field of project management. His personal website is www.carlpritchard.com. His e-mail is carl@carlpritchard.com.

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