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

Marie Scotto has provided a compelling list of differences.[16] 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 'fundamentals' is sorely needed for making an adequate case to corporate management for providing the required support.

Issue #2: What should be included as a First Principle and what excluded? The key criterion is thought 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. 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 which may be considered as secondary to the First Principles.

Commitment Principle:

Issue #3: It has been suggested that there should be a 'Business Principle' which states that the project must be in alignment with the sponsoring organization's goals. This is a valid comment, but on balance this should be corporate management's responsibility to determine that before embarking on the project. Nevertheless, a prudent project manager will satisfy him/herself that the project is indeed so aligned, and justified.

Issue #4: Similar to Issue #3, it has been suggested that there should be a separate 'Technical Principle' which states that the project leader and team members must be knowledgeable in the technology of the product. This is certainly true, but is deemed to be covered by the Commitment Principle in that an 'Equitable Commitment' is not possible without an understanding of the risks involved including those associated with the technology.

Issue #5: It must be recognized that every project 'evolves' through its life cycle and the commitment and tradeoffs will similarly evolve. On most projects the players will also change, as it moves through its life cycle, simply to meet the changing level of effort and skills required in each phase. Nevertheless, an 'equitable commitment' can and should exist for every phase of the project if the project is to remain viable.

Once again, in the real world, many projects are not set up this way. Resources are short changed or reprioritized and unattainable deadlines are set, often for the reasons described by Marie Scotto (see Issue #1 above.) Thus, the absence of this and the following principle simply means that the probability of success is greatly diminished if not impossible.

Success Principle:

Issue #6: It has been suggested that the issue of success is so obvious as to be unworthy of a first principle. However, 'success' for a project and how it will be measured after completion does need to be defined at the beginning of the project. The most important reason is to provide an on-going basis for management decision making during the course of the project. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there have been many projects that have been "On time and within budget" but the product has not been successful, and similarly many that have not been "On time and within budget" yet by other measures the product has been very successful. Motorola's Iridium is a good example of the former while the movie 'Titanic' is a good example of the latter.

We believe that project success is much more than just "Doing what you set out to do". It is also about whether what you are doing is in fact the right thing to do. We believe that the ultimate goal of a project, and therefore its measure of 'success', should be satisfaction with the product on the part of the customer. As noted earlier, the assumption is that the 'customer' is clearly identified.

However obvious and sensible the setting of project success criteria at the beginning of a project may seem, regretfully, it is not currently a common practice. Without defining these success criteria, how can agreement be reached on a particular project's priorities, trade-offs, the significance of changes, and the overall effectiveness and efficiency of project management post-project? For this reason, a lot of conclusions drawn from experiential material could also be very questionable.

As Gerald Neal points out, the reality of life on many projects is that everyone on or associated with it does not have the same aspirations and goals. As a result "the project gets pulled in many different directions ... [by] ... status, pride, power, greed... " In most cases, this may be a little exaggerated, but even at the most elementary level, the project owner will be interested in benefiting from the product while the workers on the project will be interested in benefiting from the process. This makes the definition of a project's success even more important - to provide a reference baseline for the correction of divergent progress.

Tetrad Trade-off Principle:

Issue #7: Although the term 'Tetrad Trade-off' has been in the literature for some years,[17] objection has been raised because the term is unfamiliar. Perhaps this is the very value of the term to emphasize that there are four separate but interactive variables (scope, quality, time and cost) rather than just three as in the old view of 'Triple Constraint' (time, cost and performance.) Thus, quality, the most enduring variable of the four when it comes to project success, is given new prominence. It should be stressed here again that quality means 'Quality Grade', i.e. the measure of level or class (utility to world-class) as distinct from 'Quality Conformance', i.e. "conformance to specified requirements".

Cultural Environment Principle

Issue #8: Once again, the reality is that many managements place obstacles in the way of project progress, perhaps unwittingly because of management's functional heritage. Yet another reason for a solid set of Project Management First Principles.


I am indebted to the many people who have contributed to this discussion. In particular I should like to thank Bill Duncan, Project Management Partners, Chris Quaife, Symmetric Resources, and Eric Jenett, FPMI, for their extensive, very valuable and insightful comments.

© October 20, 2000


16.  Scotto, Marie, Project Resource Planning, in Project Management Handbook, Jossey-Bass, 1998, Chapter 13.
17.  A Framework for Project and Program Management, Editor R. Max Wideman, Project Management Institute, PA, 1991, pV-4.

Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page