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

Discussion - First Principles Generally

Issue #1: Do we really need "First Principles of Project Management"?

Most people seem to have managed very well without them, that is, until the trouble starts. Most projects take place in a corporate environment but the approach to corporate management and to project management are very different. Indeed, the reality is that many managements place obstacles in the way of project progress, perhaps unwittingly because of management's functional heritage.

Marie Scotto has provided a compelling list of differences. [27] Perhaps the most significant is that "The business community believes in understaffing which it can prove is generally good business most of the time." In contrast, projects are especially risky by their nature and need a margin of surplus if for no other reason than to take care of contingencies. For a project to be under-resourced is a recipe for failure. Consequently, a set of credible First Principles is not only needed to provide a robust underpinning for project management learning, but also for making a convincing case to corporate management for providing the necessary support.

Issue #2: Management of the Project versus the Technology

Can we really separate project management from technology management? This is an issue for most people who suggest that it cannot be done, even though they may agree that there are differences. The reason is that in practice, decisions made in the technology management domain and decisions made in the business domain shape decisions made in the project management domain due to contextual dependencies. Similarly, project management decisions also shape decisions in the other two domains.

But consider the analogy of the human body. The human body cannot function without, say, the brain or the heart. Conversely, the brain or heart have no use without the rest of the body that they serve. All bodily components must be fully integrated for a properly functional unit. Nevertheless, that does not stop us from studying the brain and heart organs in great detail as distinct functions and, in particular, comparing them across a variety of types of people!

Issue #3: What should be included as a First Principle and what excluded?

The key criterion is taken to be whether or not the principle is universally fundamental to project success as defined. For example, without some form of commitment there can be no project and hence no possibility of success. On the other hand, there are many major tools and techniques the application of which might be considered as essential to success.

For example, a formal work breakdown structure, schedule network, earned value analysis, change control process and so on might be included. However, projects in many application areas are run successfully without applying these tools. So, while they may be considered good practice, they are not necessarily essential. Each such tool undoubtedly relies on its own set of principles that may be considered as secondary to the First Principles.

First Principles of Project Management  First Principles of Project Management

27. Scotto, Marie, Project Resource Planning, in Project Management Handbook, Jossey-Bass, 1998, Chapter 13.
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