No Dogma

The Responsive Project Manager


I’m going to claim in this blog, until I, or someone else, changes my mind, that project management methodologies are malleable. For some reason, this is a controversial claim, because project management has become a sectarian religion. And that’s one of the reasons many projects still fail. In most human activities, we can rarely follow a prescribed path from problem to solution.


Mathematics is a great example. Mathematics is a pursuit of absolutes, with explicit problems and outcomes. But to solve math problems, we employ strategies. You can’t prove a theorem by following a set of known steps. For problems with specific solutions, such as integrating complex equations, where procedures can be effective, we still use judgement to determine which available approach is most likely to work. In a mathematical proof, the steps are the outcome, not the approach.


Project management resembles hiking or mountaineering. You plan your route, and adjust as necessary. Strategy and tactics.


Over the past few decades, project managers have developed and tested many strategies. And the reason some PMs swear by their own approaches, is because they work for them on their projects. That’s understandable, because many PMs work in specific industries on particular kinds of problems. But take that PM and drop her into a new company and a new project with different constraints, and her reliable methods may fail. In service to strategy, we shun tactics, unwilling to waver from the path of righteousness. Holy cow. As sales people like to say, it’s a process not a procedure. Project management may not be as technically complex as writing code or as risky as traversing a glacier, but it still takes practice and problem solving skills.


This is most obvious across industries, where Scrum, for example would not work well for shipbuilding. It’s a trite example, but why is it so difficult to imagine that within the boundaries of the so-called software industry, the same techniques will not work, unmodified, for all projects?


Your experience may be different than mine, but I’ve found I need to be flexible. To me, agility is the skill of approaching each project with an open mind. I’ve accumulated tools, from which I pick and choose according to the specific demands.


Some of the things I’ll say about specific elements of Scrum or Waterfall may rub you the wrong way. I hope not. It’s nothing personal. I occasionally read an article or blog post that sets me off on a rant, but it’s a waste of energy. I’ve learned I can’t tell someone that a method that works for them doesn’t work for them. It may not work for me. That’s fine. But then again, maybe I haven’t run into the same needs. If I seem to reject a useful approach or my experience contradicts yours, call me out. I don’t intend to dismiss useful techniques, but to identify criteria for their best application. In any discipline, conformity leads to stagnation. Innovation is based on challenging assumptions.