Better Project Management

How to Build Your Own Project Management Methodology

** Please email me for a copy of the card deck that you can print out to start brainstorming your own methodology

As a project management consultant I have often been asked to provide clients with an off-the-shelf, or readymade, project management methodology. In one sense this is good thing as it shows a commitment to increasing project management maturity within an organization. However, I have come to see it as a liability and in fact counterproductive and very rarely contributing to an increase in organizational project management maturity.

Too many organizations view an off-the-shelf, or readymade, project management methodology as the easy answer to all their project management problems. They assume that if the pay the licensing fee, send people to get accredited and put up colorful posters around the workplace that people will actually use the methodology, that the methodology is right for them and that as a result they will have a huge increase in successful delivery of projects.

They seem genuinely surprised when no one uses the project management methodology and there is still a lack of consistency and maturity. This also does a huge disservice to many fine off-the-shelf, or readymade, methodologies that are available. They are really quite good but they aren’t as good as your own tailored methodology and the process of developing it yourself.

The alternative to an off-the-shelf, or readymade, methodology is to instead spend the time and money set aside for licensing and accreditation fees to develop your own tailored project management methodology. The results will be better suited to your organization and longer lasting because you developed it yourself, using your own language and created your own champions.

What Exactly is a Methodology?

A methodology is an appropriate, professional, repeatable, standardized, discoverable and documented collection of processes, tools, technique and template for managing projects. The methodology is what you use to deliver your projects.

It should reflect the size, complexity and industry of your projects. It should be based on best practice such as a body of knowledge like the PMBOK® Guide or standard such as ISO21500. It should be easily located and understood by all project team members. It should also be subject to the process of continuous improvement to make sure it is kept up to date with any changes.

A methodology is your organizations’ particular collection of processes, tools and techniques and templates that you choose to use. Tailoring is the processes of choosing which of these are appropriate to use on any given project. One size doesn’t fit all. Your methodology doesn’t suit my projects, additionally your methodology also doesn’t suit all your projects. Therefore, it should also be flexible and scalable enough to be able to be used on all your projects.

This must be kept in mind when developing or changing your project management methodology.

You may in fact have several versions of your methodology and choose the particular version to use based on factors such as project size and complexity. The following matrix shows how you might start your projects by choosing which version of your methodology to use.

Methodology Selection Matrix

Within your organization it is the project management office (PMO) that is responsible for developing, monitoring and improving your project management methodology. However, it is the individual users of the methodology that must agree to adopt, use and improve it so having them onside and involved during the creation of your methodology will improve it.

Agile vs. Traditional

When looking at what style of methodology you should choose there are lots to choose from and it can be quite confusing. Do you want what is often called a traditional methodology that slowly winds its way through well-defined stages and phases, or do you want a fast moving Agile methodology that can handle a constantly changing scope?

The main difference between the two ends of the spectrum, and all points in between, is the speed of iterations and the amount of certainty in the project. Traditional methodologies move through their iterations slowly and usually have very well defined project. Agile methodologies move through their iterations extremely rapidly in comparison and deal with much less certainty. Apart from that the methodologies actually have a lot in common. Have a look again at the diagram on page 49 of this book. It outlines a broad framework for the project lifecycle and also for a methodology regardless of whether it is traditional or an Agile one.

They each feature an initiation process, they each have a formal authorization, they each estimate time and cost albeit in often vastly different increments and they each control changes and formally close a project. They also share a focus on quality, risk, managing people, procurement and good communications.

So, don’t get too caught up in labeling your methodology as one or the other. Simply be inspired by the right style of methodology for your projects.

However, in saying that, I have found that there are plenty of great things that Agile methodologies do that people using traditional methodologies could learn from, and conversely, there are many elements of traditional methodologies that proponents of Agile methodologies could incorporate. It’s not a case of one or the other. A truly successful tailored methodology will draw whatever elements it needs from any part of the traditional/Agile spectrum

Why is Having a Methodology Important?

In the absence of a defined and appropriate project management methodology you will be doing projects by the seat of your pants, constantly making things up as you go and each project managers will do things their own way. This leads to many negative things including inefficiencies, decreased morale, less repeat business, financial losses and lower chances of delivering successful projects.

Having a defined and appropriate methodology will allow you to extract the most efficiency from your project management activities. Greater efficiencies contribute to increased chances of project success. Project managers and project team members have defined and appropriate processes, templates, documents and guidelines to refer to, to assist their planning, execution and monitoring of the project. Program and portfolio managers have access to standardized information for reporting and assessment purposes. So overall, having a methodology means a great chance of project success.

The existence of a project management methodology and a commitment to continual review and improvement is also a sign of higher levels of project management maturity.

Off-the-shelf or Customized Methodology?

When it comes to the process of developing, or changing, your project management methodology you have two main options available to you. You can choose to develop your own methodology or to use an already developed one available as an off-the-shelf solution usually for a fee.

If you choose to develop your own one, the most important part for getting this right is to have people with the right level of experience, passion and commitment to make sure the development doesn’t stop half way through. Developing your own methodology is not a single event, it takes time and iterations to ensure it is correct. It also requires a champion who will commit to seeing the initial process to completion. Too many good initiatives have been left to flounder due to the absence of a champion.

The benefits of developing your own methodology is that you can leverage off existing intellectual property, accommodate the organizational culture and get by in from the project management team by seeking their input on what constitutes an appropriately tailored methodology. A disadvantage to making your own methodology is the time and effort it takes to get it from initiation to working methodology with processes, tools and templates.

There are many off-the-shelf solutions for a project management methodology and of the ones I have seen, most claim they can be customized to suit.

However, most people don’t see this and assume that simply by taking an off-the-shelf, or readymade, solution that it will solve all their problems. The benefit of getting an off-the-shelf solution is that it is available right away and it is a known methodology. The drawbacks are that people assume that because it works for someone else that it will work for them when this is not always the case. The instant methodology does not reflect the organizational culture or industry. Also, there is no control over intellectual property and there can be a lack of buy in and support from project team members.

The Process of Tailoring

Tailoring, or customizing, your project management methodology is an important step in organizational project management maturity, and also in getting people to use and improve your particular methodology. In the absence of an appropriately tailored project management methodology, people will tailor their own solutions. Here are some signs that your project management methodology is not tailored correctly:

  • Project team members are not using the methodology
  • Project team members are independently modifying the methodology
  • Your methodology features process for the sake of process
  • Your methodology is one-size-fits-all approach to projects of differing sizes and complexity

The benefits of a tailored approach to your project management methodology are:

  • Creates buy in from team members
  • Has a customer oriented focus
  • Maintains a focus on best-for-project approach
  • Is a more efficient use of project resources

There are three stages to tailoring your project management methodology.

The first is the initial tailoring you do to select those elements that will form your project management methodology. Here, you select from a body of knowledge such as the PMBOK® Guide, all those processes, tool and techniques that are appropriate to the styles of projects you are doing based on their complexity and size. I believe that the factors which influence the choices you make in developing a project management methodology are project size, complexity, organization and team culture, and internal and external constraints.

Once this initial process is complete you will have a methodology that is able to be used for your projects. If your projects are all largely similar then the methodology will be a fairly standardized one used without much change between projects. If however, the size and complexity of your projects varies considerably, then this first stage in tailoring your methodology will result in a scalable and flexible methodology that can be adapted to be used on all your projects. Some specific examples of scalability and flexibility include the type and size of any project charter, the range of scope definition and extent of planning completed and, the effort put into risk management and communications management.

The second stage is the tailoring done before starting a project to determine what elements of your project management methodology you are going to us for this particular project. This process should involve both the project manager and the PMO in deciding which elements of the organizations’ project management methodology are appropriate for this particular project. An easy way to do this is simply to divide projects into small, medium and large projects and have a different set of processes, tools and templates for each category. There are other, more complex ways of making these decisions as well.

The third stage of tailoring is completed during the execution of the project where you are checking that the particular combination of elements you have selected is still appropriate and you are not over cooking or undercooking a project. Tailoring is an iterative process done throughout the entire project lifecycle. The PMO should have an input into this review process, and oversee and approve any changes. Adding your lessons learned about the application of your selected methodology to your lesson learned process helps other project managers in the future.

Developing Your Own Project Management Methodology

Developing your own project management methodology isn’t rocket science. With a little bit of knowledge, perseverance and the internet you can quickly put together a fully fleshed out project management methodology featuring templates, user guides, processes and checklists.

Here are the key steps to successfully developing your own methodology:

  1. Assess current and optimal level of project management maturity (see the exercise on page 25 of The Professional Project Manager or use another commercially available model), the purpose of this exercise is twofold. First to get a picture of where you are now and where you should be in relation to project management maturity and capability. The second reason is to provide benchmark against which we can measure future change (hopefully improvements) in the level of project management maturity bought about by the newly introduced project management methodology.
  2. Gather and document all of your existing templates, software, processes, user manuals and other supporting material. Complete an inventory of what you already have so you don’t reinvent the wheel. Note any duplicate templates, processes or other elements. As part of developing your own methodology you are going to have to choose which one best suits your purposes. This may mean building a new one with the best bits of each.
  3. Get your project team members together and spend some time mapping out the process for how projects should work. Make note of the milestones, documents, processes and other elements that occur at different stages.
  4. Now, fill in the blanks of what is missing. Visit websites and download lots of free templates, processes, user manuals and guides – see pages 54 -55 of The Professional Project Manager for handy hints of websites giving away free, or nearly free, document, user guides, process description and templates.
  5. Build your methodology iteratively by using your team to document a process flow chart, user guides, standardize templates and other aspects of your methodology. Don’t worry about building everything straight away; focus on the most important aspects first. Then take into account the size of your organization and projects, your organizational and project team culture, the complexity or your projects, the duration of the project and the level of organizational project management maturity.

By including your team you get their input and their commitment. Make sure you store all aspects of the methodology where everyone can find it. As a broad overview you can start by developing an outline or process flow chart using the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, or the PMBOK® Guide process groups of initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing to define major parts of your process. See the diagram on page 49 for an idea on how to structure your methodology. After all the only real difference between traditional project management methodologies in construction and agile methodologies used in IT is the speed at which you go through these process and the amount of effort in each stage or phase. Don’t forget to appoint, and encourage, a champion (or two or three) from your team to develop and implement the new methodology and then commit to continuous improvement.

Make sure that everyone knows where to find the elements of the new methodology. I am seen instances of organizations with methodologies stored away that nobody knew existed.

  1. Go ahead and use your methodology as planned. Note whether it is working as expected and be prepared to make changes to it to improve its suitability.
  2. Conduct audits to see if the methodology is being used as expected. The audits will reveal opportunities for continuous improvement as well. Update your methodology as required.

Perhaps the most important aspect in this process is to acknowledge the role of time. All good things take time and you simply won’t achieve all of your planned project management methodology overnight. It will take time as your prioritize those things that must be done sooner rather than later. Of course you still need to continue with business as usual and deliver projects.

Here is a checklist to help you decide what elements your project management methodology needs. Pick and choose those things that are useful to you by answering whether or not your project management methodology need a template, process or user manual to describe:

  1. Portfolio Management
  2. Project Selection
  3. Charter Approval
  4. Scope Definition
  5. Schedule Development
  6. Phasing
  7. Quality Management
  8. People Management
  9. Team Development
  10. Risk Management
  11. Procurement
  12. Communications
  13. Monitoring
  14. Reporting
  15. Change Control
  16. Delegated Authority
  17. Process Improvement
  18. Acceptance Criteria
  19. Project Closure
  20. Benefits Realization
  21. Lessons Learned
  22. Environmental Management
  23. Contracts
  24. Health & Safety
  25. Cost & Time Estimation
  26. Budget Development
  27. Training
  28. Stakeholder Management

The Role of the Consultant

Amongst all these good intentions and commitment to developing you own customized and tailored project management methodology it is important to discuss what role, if any, the project management consultant should have during this process. A typical relationship involves bringing in a skilled project management consultant who then proceeds over a short period of time to instruct or tell you what you should do. They then leave and you are expected to have listened to everything they have said and adopted it overnight. Of course this isn’t the best process for a long lasting outcome and improvement in your project management methodology.

The key role that a consultant can play during the process of developing your own tailored project management methodology is one of empowering employees to develop their own appropriate methodology. In this role the consultant acts as supporter, subject matter guide, and mentor and change agent. At the end of the day it is the role of the consultant to put themselves out of a job as fast as possible because in doing so you have ensured that there is increased professional capability within the organization which is much longer lasting than a typical transaction with a consultant.