First Principles of Project Management
Introduction | Definitions | Criteria | Principles | Discussion


We are well aware of the many and varying nuances arising from different definition wordings, but it is the intent, rather than the detail, that we are concerned with here. (For more on this topic, please see the PM Glossary.)

First 'Principles'

In general usage, there appears to be some ambiguity when it comes to the use of the words "principles and practices", Moreover, in the marketplace, the term 'principle' appears to be used indiscriminately to mean either.

Webster defines a 'Principle' as "a general truth, a law on which others are founded or from which others are derived; provides a guide to conduct or procedure".[4]

Cleland and Kerzner go further in defining 'Principle' as follows:[5]

1. A fundamental rule or law of action based upon desirable ends or objectives. A principle is more basic than a policy or a procedure and generally governs both.

2. A fundamental truth, or what is believed to be truth at a given time, explaining relationships between two or more sets of variables, usually an independent variable and a dependent variable; may be descriptive, explaining what will happen, or prescriptive (or normative), indicating what a person should do. In the latter case, principles reflect some scale of values, such as efficiency, and therefore imply value judgments.

Webster defines 'Practice', on the other hand, as "customary use, method or art of doing anything...". Cleland and Kerzner do not include a definition for this term.

Thus, 'Practice' is a way of doing things and 'Principles' and 'Practices' may be distinguished by the difference between 'What' and 'How'. In Cleland and Kerzner's second definition there appears to be some overlap perhaps reflecting the confusion evident in the marketplace.

At first glance it would appear that the use of the qualifier 'First' with 'Principle' is redundant. However, in scientific circles, the idea of 'First Principles' is a common concept describing root or axiomatic ideas that provide the absolutely essential foundations for further thought and analysis. Since we are interested here in the very origin of project management, we use the term 'First Principle' advisedly.


There are many and varying definitions of the term 'project'. For our purposes: "A project is a novel undertaking to create a new product or service the delivery of which signals completion. Projects are typically constrained by limited resources." Also for our purpose, such a project is viewed from the perspective of the 'owner' or 'sponsor' and begins when resources are dedicated to its specific goal, commencing with activities such as 'Concept Exploration', 'Initiation' or 'Inception', etc.

Product Scope

Product Scope, typically but loosely just referred to as 'scope', is used in the narrower sense of "The definition that describes the project's product deliverables."[6] This is not the same as the 'Scope of Work' which describes "The work involved in the design, fabrication and assembly of the components of a project's deliverable into a working product."[7] The term 'product' includes the delivery of a 'service'.

Quality Grade

We use the term 'Quality Grade' to distinguish it from the term 'Quality' which is typically taken to mean "The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs."[8] Quality Grade on the other hand is "A particular attribute of an item, product or service, which meets all minimum project requirements but which may be delivered according to a class ranging from 'utility' (purely functional) to 'world class' (equal to the best of the best)."[9] As such, Quality Grade is a separate variable. It is also the most enduring in terms of project success.

Project Success

Project success is a multi-dimensional construct[10] that inevitably means different things to different people. It is best expressed at the beginning of a project in terms of key and measurable criteria upon which the relative success or failure of the project may be judged. For example, those that:[11]

  • Meet key objectives of the project such as the business objectives of the sponsoring organization, owner or user, and
  • Elicit satisfaction with the project management process, i.e. that the deliverable is complete, up to standard, is on time and within budget, and
  • Reflect general acceptance and satisfaction with the project's deliverable on the part of the project's customer and the majority of the project's community at some time in the future.

Project success is closely linked to opportunity and risk. Projects by their nature are risky endeavors and some project hazards cannot be entirely avoided or mitigated even when identified. Since project success may be impacted by risk events, it follows that both opportunity and risk are necessarily shared amongst the participants.

It is also important to note that success criteria can change with time. That certain objectives were not achieved does not necessarily mean that the project was a failure.

Project Customer and Project Community

Rather than project stakeholders and constituents, we prefer the more focused terms 'customer' and 'community'. Project Customer is the immediate recipient of the product of the project, who will use it and is in the best position to evaluate its acceptability after a suitable period of learning. The 'customer' may be more than one person. Project Community includes anyone who is impacted by project activities or its product, either directly or indirectly and for better or worse.


4.  The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.
5.  Cleland, David, & H. Kerzner, A Project Management Dictionary of Terms, Van Nostrand, New York, 1985, p187.
6.  Centre for Research in the Management of Projects (CRMP), University of Manchester, UK, 1999.
7.  Turner, R. Interpreted from the Gower Handbook of Project Management, 3rd. Edn, Ch 1.
8.  ISO 8402, International Organization for Standardization, Geneva 20, Switzerland.
9.  Project Management Guidelines (Private BC Corporation), 1995.
10.  Shenhar, Aaron J., Dov Dvir and Ofer Levy, Project Success: A multidimensional Strategic Concept, Research paper, University of Minnesota, MN, June 1995.
11.  This is a composite of ideas reflected in various success factors and indicators quoted in the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Common Project Management Terms

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