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Effective Project Management: Five Laws that Determine Success

~ By Howard Vaughan

Tick on a target

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So said Albert Einstein. Yet every year countless projects hit trouble for the same reasons, again and again. Why? Because the fundamental principles that determine project success are not being respected. These principles can be distilled into five laws, realities that always hold true irrespective of the nature or complexity of project. Here they are:

Law #1: Ambiguity Kills Projects

Ambiguity is the enemy of project success. Clarity is what is needed.

Without clarity there is confusion. Confusion is not hard to find in projects. Look for ambiguities in roles and responsibilities, goals, objectives, requirements, scope, estimates, status reports and more. Each ambiguity is a potential source of conflict, rework and failure.

Make it a priority to seek out and remove ambiguity from every element of your project. Thoroughly. Start by reviewing project scope. Is this as unambiguous as possible? Is everyone clear on what is in scope and what is out of scope? Do not rely on assumptions or memory. Insist on clear communication. Document every important decision. Clarity is everything.

Law #2: Credibility Requires Detail

Detail is the basis for accuracy in all projects. Plans that lack detail cannot be believed.

Most projects are under-planned. They are already late before they start. Project teams that claim not to have time for detailed planning, typically end up working all hours to meet deadlines. Insufficient detail in the plan means time and effort requirements will be underestimated. Only when we get to the detail is the full extent of work revealed.

If you do not know the detail then you will not have credibility in front of your team or your boss. Define what completion specifically means for each task and deliverable. If it is at too high a level, break it down. Avoid surprises. Get to the detail.

Law #3: No Truth, No Trust

Projects are performed by people. And people work together best when there is mutual trust.

But trust does not come free. It is tied to truth. You cannot have one without the other. So trust but verify. Assigning tasks demonstrates trust, but what are sometimes missing are the accountability for results and adequate checks to verify status. Without ownership and truth, we cannot trust ourselves to be focused on the right things.

When you know the truth, good or bad, recognise it, openly. Be honest about the challenges ahead. Reward outstanding commitment and performance. Acknowledge the reality of delays and tough decisions. Do not hide bad news. Tell the truth or face the consequences.

Law #4: Uncertainty is Certain

Plans are not crystal balls. Plans are incomplete views of the future, which means they are at least slightly wrong.

Most project managers ignore most risks. Yet as sure as the sunrise, sudden events and changes will occur, triggering changes to the plan. But sudden does not necessarily mean unpredictable. Experience and a little insight will always expose risks that we can plan ahead for.

Ignoring project risks is the first and biggest risk to the project. There is no such thing as a risk free project. Prevent risks where you can and have contingencies ready where you cannot. Expect the unexpected!

Law #5: Satisfaction is not Guaranteed

Projects do not carry guarantees, whatever the customer was told. Satisfaction depends on competence, commitment and communication.

Respecting all the preceding laws will count for nothing if this trio is lacking. Project management is a discipline that has to be worked at. Learn as much as you can on each project, then use that knowledge to energise yourself and others on the next project.

Communicate with focus and sensitivity, to align the varying interests of stakeholders and team with the needs of the project, repeatedly, throughout the ups and downs of its life. This is no simple task! So if you want to be a great project manager then you will need to be an outstanding communicator. Period.

Stop the Insanity!

I do not claim that observing these five laws alone are a panacea for all project ills. But they are the strongest forces for shaping success or failure on most projects, most of the time. Stop the insanity. Respect the laws!


Howard Vaughan is an accomplished project management consultant, trainer, coach and speaker. He has created and delivered high impact solutions for dozens of companies seeking excellence in project planning and execution worldwide. Find out more and reach Howard through his website at www.howardvaughan.com.au


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