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 February 2023.

PART 1 | First Principles of Project Management
Discussion - First Principles Generally | Discussion - Success Principle
Discussion - Commitment Principle | Discussion - Tetrad Trade-off Principle

First Principles of Project Management

Based on the criteria described in PART 1 of this paper, the following First Principles of Project Management have been articulated. These principles build extensively on the work of John Bing.[22] All the principles presume certain assumptions about the cultural ambience in which the project takes place, which leads to our first principle.

1. The Cultural Environment Principle

Management must provide an informed and supportive cultural environment that is suited to project-type work to ensure that the project delivery team are able to work to the limits of their capacity.

The ability of a project delivery team to produce results both effectively and efficiently is highly dependent upon the cultural environment. This cultural environment[23] encompasses both internal and external project relations and values. Internally, the management style of the team leader must be suited to the type of project and its phase in the project life span. Externally, the management of the organization in which the project takes place must be supportive, the project sufficiently resourced, and the environment must be free of obstacles.

The resulting ambience is one that encourages and sustains teamwork and honesty and demonstrates that:[24]

  1. Everyone is clear on the project's ultimate goals and is working towards those same goals, whatever those might be.
  2. Everyone is clear and agrees on who the customer is
  3. Appropriate levels of skill or experience are available as needed, and
  4. Everyone wants the project to be a success.

2. The Project System Principle

A well-managed project is a complex system in which the management process proceeds through an orderly timeframe that relies heavily on doing the right thing in the right way and at the right time.

A well-managed project is one that is optimized for effectiveness in its planning phases but emphasizes efficiency in its implementation phases. Implementation includes the transfer of the product to the care, custody and control of the customer.[25] In reality, the complex system referred to consists of an intricate collection of interacting balancing and non-balancing mental feedback processes, each with their own cause, effect and side effect patterns. This complicated, often random, arrangement is enough to defeat many minds. In other words, "an inability to see the forest for the trees" is a problem for many individuals. But for the project manager, "an ability to see the forest as well as the trees" is an imperative for running a successful project.

Thus, project management is dominated by high levels of decision-making activities that absorb a considerable amount of effort since decisions on one part of the system can have significant repercussions on other parts of the system. This is why establishing and maintaining a robust and up-to-date Business Case is an essential prerequisite for "doing the right thing in the right way and at the right time". We introduced the idea of a Business Case earlier in Part 1 of this paper under the heading Project Life Span.

3. The Strategy Principle

A strategy encompassing first planning then doing, in a focused set of sequential and progressive phases, must be in place.

The genesis of the project life span, in its most basic form, is to be found in the very term "project management" itself. A project has, by definition, a start and a finish with some activity in the middle. The essence of management is to "plan before doing". Hence the most fundamental project life span process consists of four sequential periods of Start, Plan, Do and Finish. Of course these four periods can be expanded into separate phases each with their own interim deliverables and Executive Control Points (or Gates) that can also be viewed as Emergency Exit Ramps. These can be designed to suit the control requirements of every type of project in every area of project management application and are particularly important from the perspective of project portfolio management. Indeed, this sequence is, in effect, equally applicable at every level and branch of the project structure as suggested by Figure 2 in Part 1 of this paper. It is also just as relevant where a fast-track strategy or an iterative approach is adopted.

The importance of this life span process and its influence on the management of the project cannot be over emphasized. This relatively short-term life-to-death environment, and the consequences that flow, is probably the only thing that uniquely distinguishes projects from non-projects.[26]

4. The Success Principle

The measures of project success, in terms of both process and product, must be defined at the beginning of the project as a basis for project management decision-making and post-project evaluation.

It is axiomatic that the goal of project management is to deliver a successful product, otherwise the incurring of this management overhead is a valueless exercise. First and foremost, the project's proponents must define project success in terms of the acceptability of the project's deliverables, e.g. scope, quality, relevance to client needs, effectiveness, profitability, general benefits to the organization and so on.

Secondly, success should be defined in terms of the project's internal processes, e.g. time, cost, execution efficiency, etc. The timing of the measurement of success itself may also need specifying. Moreover, the proponents must be in general agreement on the definition of these success criteria, for without agreement, it will not be possible to evaluate the success of the project overall.

It goes without saying that these measures of project success should be verified and reinforced throughout the project life span. As a corollary, if the success measures are no longer in alignment with the organization's business goals at any point, it should be perfectly acceptable to abort the project or at least halt it pending re-evaluation. (See also Discussion - Success Principle, below.)

5. The Commitment Principle

An equitable commitment between the provider of resources and the project delivery team must exist before a viable project exists.

The provider of resources (money, and/or goods and services, and general direction) is typically called the project's owner or sponsor. The project delivery team is responsible for developing appropriate tactics, plans and controls for applying the necessary skills and work to convert those resources into the required deliverables or product. An equitable commitment means that both parties are sufficiently knowledgeable of the undertaking, i.e. the overall objectives, the technology, the processes involved and their associated risks, and that both parties willingly undertake the challenge.

The attributes of both parties should encompass relevant skills, including those of the technology involved, experience, dedication, commitment, tenacity and authority to ensure the project's success. The owner of the project must understand that even with appropriate management controls in place, there must be a sharing of the risks involved. (See also Discussion - Commitment Principle below.)

6. The Management Principle

Policies and procedures that are effective and efficient must be in place for the proper conduct and control of the project commitment.

This principle is an extension of the strategy principle. The Strategy Principle determines what is going to be done and when. The Management Principle establishes how it is going to be done and by whom. The attributes of this management control encompass the project's assumptions, its justification and a reference baseline in each of the core variables as a basis for progress measurement, comparison and course adjustment. The attributes of good policies and procedures encompass clear roles and responsibilities, delegation of authority, and processes for maintaining quality, time and cost, etc. as well as managing changes in the product scope and/or scope of work.

7. The Single-Point Responsibility Principle

A single channel of communication must exist between the project sponsor and the project manager (or otherwise the team leader) for all decisions affecting the product scope, quality, delivery date or total cost.

This principle is an extension of the management principle and is necessary for effective and efficient administration of the project commitment. For example, the owner of the eventual product, if represented by more than one person, must nevertheless speak with one voice through a primary representative with access to the sponsor's resources. Similarly, the project's delivery team must always have a primary representative.

However, this only applies to the decisions affecting the product scope and quality and hence the project's overall cost and delivery. In all other respects, free and transparent communication is indispensable for the coordination of a complex set of project activities. Therefore, this principle must not in any way inhibit the proper exchange of information through the network of project communication channels that is required to integrate all aspects of the project.

8. The Tetrad Trade-off Principle

The core variables of the project management process, namely: product scope, quality grade, time-to-produce and total cost-at-completion must all be mutually consistent and attainable.

This principle is an extension of both the Commitment Principle and the Success Principle. The core variables of product scope, quality grade, time-to-produce and total cost-at-completion collectively, often loosely referred to as scope, quality, time and cost, respectively, are measures of internal project management efficiency. If these variables prove not to be mutually consistent and attainable, the commitment is neither equitable nor are Key Success Indicators likely to be met. The interrelationships of these four separate variables are somewhat similar to a four-sided frame with flexible joints. One side can be secured and another moved, but not without affecting the remaining two.

Criteria for Establishing a First Principle  Criteria for Establishing a First Principle

22. Bing, John, A. Principles of Project Management, PMNETwork, PMI, January 1994, p40
23. For definitions of culture and environment in the project context, in the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Common Project Management Terms
24. Contributed by Gerald Neal by Email dated 9/23/99.
25. See the definition of Care, Custody and Control in the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Common Project Management Terms
26. Section 60 Life Cycle Design and Management, CRMP Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Centre for Research in the Management of Projects, University of Manchester, 1999.
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