The great debate




I was reading an online discussion board where two project managers were arguing about whether a particular project management approach could be described as “a methodology.” The discussion had 37 replies. On the surface, it seemed like a waste of time and energy. We shouldn't be arguing over what methodology is or is not, or fretting over which process standard to choose.

The real debate should be how to ensure project results. Are projects best managed by rigidly enforcing every detail of all the processes, or by drafting a completely custom process for each and every project?

As is often the case, the truth is in the middle. The most effective approach is tailoring established best practices to fit the unique traits of a given organization and the specific project at hand.


When we started discussing the creation of the PMI Agile Community of Practice, agile practitioners were excited by the notion of sharing their techniques with PMI's large community, but also told stories of project managers rejecting true business value in the name of compliance. Meanwhile, several PMI members expressed deep concern that the Institute would endorse “no planning and no documents” as legitimate project management.

As we talked through these concerns, we discovered they were ill-founded. It turns out that Project Management Practitioner (PMP)® credential holders endorse process tailoring and improvement, while agile practitioners embed planning in all their meetings.

This all leads me to a rather firm conviction: Methodology doesn't matter.

With that bold declaration, I offer a three-step approach to effective process tailoring:

  1. Start with what's easiest. If your organization has been using a process standard for years, it makes sense to use that as a baseline. But if you've just launched a new division or a start-up, choosing an industry-accepted standard will give you access to more training and coaching options. Whatever route you take, don't make any dramatic moves. If you start with something that doesn't fit your culture, you'll find resistance to all the ideas—even the good ones.
  2. Deliver early, deliver often. Use your process standard to deliver completed work as soon as possible, rather than all at once. After a work package is delivered, you no longer need to manage the project risk associated with it. Furthermore, it gives your sponsors a track record.
  3. Inspect and adapt. What if half of your communications team caught the flu in the middle of a project, at the same time your subject matter expert suffered a death in the family? Your methodology may tell you to crash the schedule or reallocate staff, but the team will know how that would impact high-priority items. Good project managers schedule recurring project reviews, where they can foster a commitment to process improvement.

All of this is easier said than done. In the last several months, for example, I've been working for one project sponsor who is anxious about changes in the project plan, especially as the final delivery date comes closer. She has made significant commitments to her stakeholders, and to her, change represents risk. My role as a project manager is to explain that we merely started with the process standard and that success is based on how well we adapt.

So stop debating methodologies. No methodology by itself will have all the answers. Project managers are looked upon to steer the ship through the roughest waters—which means knowing where you are, where you're going and the best maneuvers to keep from sinking. PM

Jesse Fewell, CST, PMP, is a technology management consultant for Excella Consulting and founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice. He can be reached at [email protected].





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