Better Thinking About Project Management Practices and Tools

Better Thinking ImageThis is the first of a series of blogs I’ll be posting on the subject of Project Management Practices and Tools. In this post I offer my thoughts on how better thinking about Project Management (PM) Practices by Project Managers can make the selection and use more effective.

You may have noted that in introducing the subject matter I’ve avoided using the term “Best “, which is commonly used by organizations when describing their suite of mandated practices and tools. One of the many things I’ve learned over 40 years of working in the field of project and knowledge management, is that the pursuit of “better” provides more value and less risk than the pursuit that “best.” It isn’t that I have a hang up over grammar, or semantics, or dictionary definitions. To me, using “Better”, thinking induces a psychological state, which opens up the conventional limits that typically constrain our understanding and creativity and enables us to be better problem solvers, decision-makers and leaders.

“Best” type limited thinking about PM Practices brings with it, three serious risks for Project Managers:
The risk that past practices may not be relevant to current situations. Project management actions that were successful in the past typically get documented and mandated for future use in the same situations. The problem of course is, that for complex and dynamic projects, even if situations appear similar they aren’t exactly the same as those of the past nor are the capabilities, experience and personalities of the people involved in those situations. I’m not saying we should ignore what has worked in the past, but I am saying that thought and care must be used in assessing the relevancy of past practices to current situations in order to manage the risk.
The risk that valuable new knowledge will be ignored. A bias for learning is a critical competency for both individuals and organizations. A reliance on “Best Practices” may limit individual or organization motivation to search for new knowledge, which might provide better decision or problem-solving alternatives. Again, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to learn from the past, but we must also seek out relevant knowledge from all sources. Project Managers can handle this risk by demanding of themselves an on-going search for knowledge and setting those same expectations for their people.
The risk that past practices are applied in a “one size fits all” fashion. There is a tendency in many organizations to take a full-scale approach to the application of “Best Practices.” By that I mean that if the rigor, or maturity or level of sophistication of a practice can be described on a 1 to 5 scale with 5 being “best”, then the organizational expectation is that 5 is the required level of application for the project. Although some practices and some projects may indeed require level 5 PM Practice rigor, such effort is costly and requires significant management attention. My experience is that most practices on most projects do not require level 5 application rigor, and may be effectively scaled down to lower, less costly levels. Project Managers, in collaboration with their Sponsors, Customers and Teams should define the practices and tools to be used on the project and agree on an application rigor level that is commensurate to the needs and means of the project.

So, my recommendation to Project Managers is to take a “Better Thinking About Project Management Practices and Tools” approach when looking for the suite of PM Practices and tools to be used on their projects.

If you are interested in learning more about the subject of better thinking about thinking, I recommend that you take a look at the LinkedIn group In2:InThinking Network , led by Dr. William “Bill” Bellows. One of the excellent activities sponsored by this group is an on-going series of free Webinars on “Better Thinking About …”. I had the privilege of conducting a webinar with this group in September 2012, on Better Thinking about Project, Risk, and Knowledge Management.” I’m sure you’ll find that your engagement with the people in this as both a teacher and a student will be very fulfilling.

About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as a Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise are in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning in a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. I'm an Aerospace Industry Consultant. I serve my community as a Rotarian. My hobby is playing as a jazz keyboard.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Better Thinking About Project Management Practices and Tools

  1. Michelle says:

    Great blog, I will definitely continue to follow you and will check out the “In Thinking” group you referenced. I am a newer Sr PM for a small division of a very large organization. The majority of staff in this small division are under 30, including my boss. I, on the other hand am a little more mature and experienced. I believe there is a lot of opportunity to mentor these young people. I often share articles and books I come across and will share this one as well.

  2. Tim says:


    Since intentional behavior is preceeded by thinking, better thinking has the opportunity to lead to better behavior, better actions, and better results.

    If one thinks the earth is flat, one will not behave by going west from Italy to get to China and will not reap any associated results.

    If I think, I have the “best” practice in hand, I will not seek a differernt practice, and alternative that might provide better results. I’ll become trapped in the current practices rather than free to generate newer better practices.

  3. Lance says:

    Don, the third point is a very good one – a tendency for best practices to lead to a “one size fits all” set of tools that all programs must utilize. I have been involved in programs in which program tools which are well suited for large scale production programs are forced onto development programs, which face more uncertainty and require more flexibiltiy, because they are a best practice. In the end, we were able to implement simpler tools (e.g., risk management, mrp, etc.) which were a better fit with the development program’s complexity and maturity in order to manage the program successfully.

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