First Principles of Project Management

(Revision 16, Nov-03-00)
The original version of this paper was first presented on the PM Forum web site in the March, 2000, issue of Project Management World Today

[Editor's note: This paper generated some vigorous exchanges. It sets out a philosophical discussion of the fundamentals of project management and tries to address some of the issues raised. It is expected to be neither definitive nor final.]

Published here November 2003

Introduction | Definitions | Criteria | Principles | Discussion


Project management is a composite 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' form of the common garden snail's shell. That is to say, the same approach can be applied at every level of the management hierarchy and only the size and branch of the activity changes. For example: on a very large project, it may well be subdivided into 'sub-projects' each of which is managed as a project in its own right.

Strictly speaking, such a "large project" should be referred to as a program, but the analogy is not limited to large projects. The pieces of any sized project that are parceled out to otherwise independent operators can be considered, from their point of view, as a project which they own and manage. Similarly, the principles of project management can be applied to any level or branch of a project that falls under a different area of responsibility in the overall project organization. Under these circumstances, it is not too difficult to see that the problem of different agendas can arise and the overall goals of the project can become obscured as a result.

We should also be clear on what we mean by project management, not in terms of the traditional definitions but in terms of the scope of this management activity. For purposes of this paper, we see a distinction between technical management and project management. Technical management is the business of managing the technology of the project whereas project management is the business of managing the entire endeavor through its project life cycle process. While we draw this distinction, in the real world the two must be fully integrated.

In the literature, there is a wealth of information describing projects in all areas of project management 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.[1,2,3] 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 contrast, there appears to be very little content establishing basic 'principles' and 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 which provide a universal reference basis for a set of generally acceptable 'practices'.

To emphasize that we wish to focus on the founding principles of project management, we will use the term 'First Principles'.

It may be asked "Do we really need a set of 'First Principles of Project Management'"? The problem is that within a corporate environment, understaffing is generally considered good business practice. However, projects require contingency allowances to accommodate the inevitable uncertainty involved so that the practice of under-resourcing is a recipe for failure. Hence the need to promulgate a set of generally agreed fundamentals.

So what should be included as a 'First Principle'? The key appears to be whether or not the principle is universally fundamental to project success. (See additional comments under Discussion: First Principles Generally.) However, the meaning of project success, like a number of other key terms, is debatable. So, in order to lay a foundation for this discussion, we commence with definitions for the leading terminology we use in this paper.


1.  A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Project Management Institute, USA, 1996.
2.  IPMA Competence Baseline, International Project Management Association, Germany, 1998.
3.  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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