The original version of this paper was first presented in Project Management World Today in the March 2000 issue.
It was subsequently updated and reproduced on this web site in November 2000.
This is Revision 17, March 2009.

Republished here October 2022.

Introduction | Meaning of Project Management | Definitions
Project Management Success | Criteria for Establishing a First Principle | PART 2

First Principles of Project Management Revisited

The following paper was originally published on this site in April 2009. We feel that it is well worth repeating because the information presented is basic and has not changed since then. It provides a realistic picture of what project management is really all about. Therefore it is well worth while re‑committing to memory.

Editor's Note:

This paper sets out a philosophical discussion of the fundamentals of project management and earlier versions of this paper generated some vigorous discussion eight years ago. Unfortunately, some of these concepts that emerged appear to have got lost in the mists of time since then. So, we feel it is time to bring the paper back out into the open, dust it off so to speak, bring it up to date, and re-expose The First Principles of Project Management.


"Principles that are established should be viewed as flexible, capable of adaptation to every need. It is the manager's job to know how to make use of them, which is a difficult art requiring intelligence, experience, decisiveness and, most important, a sense of proportion."
Henri Fayol, General & Industrial Management

Project management is a complex activity with multiple dimensions. Depending on the type and class of project this management activity can be very complex, not least because the typical project environment echoes the "fractal"[1] form of the common garden snail's shell, see Figures 1 and 2. That is to say, the same approach can be applied at every level of the process hierarchy and only the size and branch of the activity changes.

Figure 1: Sea shell
Figure 1: Sea shell[2]
Figure 2: Project management
Figure 2: Project management[3]

For example, a "very large project" may well be subdivided into "sub-projects" each of which is managed as a project in its own right. Such a project may be identified as a program (of projects), in which case the distinction is clear, but the fractal analogy is not limited to large projects. The elements of any sized project that are parceled out to separate areas of responsibility can be considered, from the point of view of each area, as an obligation that is separately owned and managed as a project. Under these conditions, it is not too difficult to see that the problem of different agendas can arise and, as a result, the true objectives of the project can become obscured.

In the literature, there is a wealth of information describing projects in all areas of application, what was achieved, how it was achieved and how successful were the results. Similarly, there is a wealth of literature providing advice on how to do project management - and presumably do it better. Based on this experiential material, various attempts have been made to assemble bodies of knowledge and thereby articulate the role and content of project management.[4][5][6] Such documents have been used in several countries for the development of individual certification and competence testing, and/or by enterprises for establishing corporate standards of practice.

In explaining "project management", the term principle[7] is sometimes bandied about, but there appears to be very little content establishing fundamental principles with corresponding theories to support them. This absence suggests that the building of a project management discipline is presently based only on experiential records and opinion and not on any reasonably logical or theoretical foundation. Ideally, what is needed is a generally agreed and testable set of elemental principles of project management that provide a universal reference basis for a set of "generally acceptable practices" with a view to creating a successful product.


1. See the definition in the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms: fractal
2. Wideman, R. M., A Management Framework for Project, Program and Portfolio Integration, Trafford, Figure 5-4: Sea shell showing fractal geometry, p52
3. Ibid, Figure 5-3: The fractal nature of project management, p52
4. CRMP Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Centre for Research in the Management of Projects, University of Manchester, 1999
5. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Project Management Institute, USA, 2008
6. IPMA Competence Baseline, International Project Management Association, Germany, 1998
7. See the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms: principle
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