Project Management Foundations – Implementing Project Management Best Practices
By Steve Hart
My company’s project management services are built around the idea that project management is a very mature competency with many available sources of knowledge, and yet companies still struggle with challenged or failed projects. We firmly believe that the implementation and consistent application of project management best practices is what differentiates successful projects from challenged projects. The more ingrained these best practices are in the project management culture, the lower the dependency on the talents and heroic efforts of individual team members.
What Do Best Practices Look Like?
Best practices represent the practical application of the concepts, processes, and tools defined in the PMBOK® and other sources of knowledge. To better explain best practices, below I have broken down the elements of a successful project management best practice implementation.
- People – Best practices start with hiring good people – people that have the desire, capabilities, and core knowledge to be a professional project leader. When mentoring potential project leaders, I usually recommend pursuing the PMP certification path to validate that they have the base knowledge associated with the project management competency.
Concepts/Approach, Processes & Tools – Represents the components of the project management knowledge base utilized to define your best practices, including the knowledge created within your company’s project environment. This knowledge establishes approaches, processes, and tools associated with solving project management problems. The key is to leverage existing sources, and not spend too much time creating new content. This content should be upgraded on a frequent basis through on-going continuous improvement, in the context of completing work in your project environment (e.g., actions from a lessons learned process).
Critical Few – Best practices focus on the “critical few” areas that if performed well on a project significantly improve project outcomes. Organizations often “get lost” in building out elaborate processes and tools, when a limited set of best practices is what is required to deliver a project successfully.
Practical Application – Best practices are not theoretical or text book solutions. They represent approaches, concepts, and tools that have been consistently and effectively utilized in “actual” situations to delivery positive results on projects. If you cannot provide examples of the best practice in use then maybe you should consider dropping it from your arsenal of best practices.
Appropriate Situation – The best practices define the situations that specific approaches, processes, and tools are most effective. “One size does not always fit all” when it comes to use of best practices. The appropriate situation is learned over time, and through collaboration with colleagues and mentors.
Artifacts – Creating artifacts within the project office’s knowledge base converts something “done well” on a project into something that can be leveraged for future project efforts. Process documentation and templates are required to ensure that best practices can be implemented in a consistent and effective manner across all projects. I also find it helpful to maintain a library of examples (reference stories) of best practices applied to solve specific problems on projects.
Are These Really the “Best” Practices?
One of the notions often challenged around the topic of best practices is that it may be a bit arrogant to propose that your practices are the “best”. There is generally more than one way to solve most project management problems, and very often one way is not significantly better than another. The goal is to consistently utilize project management practices that deliver positive project outcomes. Whether or not the practices are the “best” is irrelevant if they consistently drive the desired results. I use the term “best” practices because it is a term that seems to be understood across the industry, and represents an aspirational goal for the project office (vs. a factual statement).
What Are the Benefits of Best Practices?
A thoughtful implementation and diligent application of best practices will drive tangible benefits realized immediately within individual projects, but more importantly by creating a project management culture and competency that consistently meets or exceeds customer expectations. The following represent specific benefits you can expect by implementing and re-enforcing project management best practices:
- Results – The cornerstone of project management best practices is driving positive project outcomes. These best practices are utilized to ensure that quality products are delivered when they are supposed to be delivered, and based upon the estimated effort / cost to deliver it.
Ramp-up – Project managers will become productive leaders on new projects quicker, because they understand the key areas to focus on during the on-boarding process.
Productivity – An effective project manager will use and tailor existing approaches, processes, and tools, vs. building and inventing processes “on the fly”. Use of best practices increases the project manager’s capacity to take on more work (increasing their role on the project, or assigning them responsibilities on other projects).
Consistency – Consistency unto itself is not a tangible benefit. However, if projects are managed in a consistent manner it is easier for team members to engage in project work because project managers “speak the same language” (utilizing the same processes and tools) across the portfolio of projects. This consistency also improves the ability to integrate projects in a multi-project environment.
Continuous Improvement – Placing emphasis on best practices establishes a “baseline” for continuous improvement in your project environment. As teams identify new practices, or enhance existing practices (in the context of completing project work) it becomes natural for the project office to capture the improvement and incorporate it into the best practices utilized across all projects.
How Do You Implement Best Practices?
Below are the steps required (not necessarily in this order) to implement a strong best practices centric project management culture in your project office.
- Identify / Define – Identify the “critical few” best practices that if applied effectively in your organization drive positive project outcomes. Leverage existing resources (within the project management industry, and within your organization) to define these best practices. These best practices are defined in the form of approaches, processes, and tools.
Assemble Team – Build a project management team that has the capability and desire to effectively apply the best practices in the context of completing “real” project work. I find that having a core of experienced and skilled project managers is a requirement to a strong best practice centric project management culture. Less experienced project managers can “lean on” the core of experienced project managers for professional development counseling, and advice on specific project situations.
Train – On-going training on the best practices is a must. I recommend focusing the training on how to apply the best practices when performing project work. Therefore it is logical to organize the training around the project life cycle. I also recommend that ALL project managers (even senior level project managers) participate in the training – you will not achieve the desired results without getting “everyone on the same page”.
Re-enforce – How many times have you attended a training course that you thought was pretty good, and then you did nothing different when you got back to your “real” job? The best practice implementation must involve re-enforcement of the best practices. Our training involves a case study that requires team members to apply the practice in a real situation. Mentors are assigned to the participants to help coach them on the application of the practice, and ensure they really “got it” for effective use on future projects.
Steve Hart, PMP is the Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. He has 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, and has developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. Steve recently transferred to the North Carolina Chapter of PMI from the Dayton Ohio PMI Chapter, where he was active as the editor of the chapter newsletter, and PMP certification instructor. You can read more from Steve Hart on his blog.