One size does not fit them all
Organisations often apply international standards such as the ISO 21500 “Guidance on project management” on all projects irrespective of their size, complexity or situation-specific characteristics. This is dangerous and may cause more threats than opportunities. Standards are generic. Typically they cover a wide range of project types, sectors and situations. They are not intended to be used one to one for all projects, because one size does not fit them all!
Standards for project management require the user to tailor processes, methods and tools to the requirements of the individual project. What a project manager needs to do in this respect is described in the competence element “project design” of IPMA ICB 4.0:“Design describes how the demands, wishes and influences of the organisation(s) are interpreted and weighed by the individual, and translated into a high-level design of the project to ensure the highest probability of success. Derived from this outer context, design drafts how resources, funds, stakeholders’ objectives, benefits and organisational change, risks and opportunities, governance, delivery, and priorities and urgency are all considered in the way the project is set up and laid out in a ‘charcoal sketch’, a blueprint or an overall architecture; and how the project should be managed. Because all outer factors and success criteria (and/or the perceived relevance of these) often change over time, this design needs to be evaluated periodically and, if necessary, adjusted.” An organisation should provide guidance for project managers how to make use of the existing standards, tailor them to the needs of an individual project or a certain category of projects and describe its tolerance for the tailoring. An organisation may – for example – have three different project categories, building on a complexity scale from “non-complex”, “medium complex” to “highly complex”. The latter certainly requires more project management than the “non-complex” category. The project management standard should reflect the complexity of each project category and offer a tailored approach for the management, guiding the project manager in the application of project-related strategies, structures, processes, methods, tools, leadership and communication.
The specific design of a project should aim at balancing cost with benefits related to the approach chosen. For example, by choosing all processes of ISO 21500 for a small and non-complex project, the cost would be higher than the benefits. In addition, the people involved in the project would perceive project management rather negative, bureaucratic and time-consuming. The image of project management might suffer in that organisation and the application of professional project management may deteriorate. Thus, clear guidance for project managers on how to tailor existing (internal or external) standards to the specific requirements of the project helps to achieve strategic goals and increase effectiveness as well as efficiency. Through a systematic feedback the ideal way of application of the project management standards could be found to be “fit for purpose”. Top management could impose a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) an thus monitor and control the utilisation of project management, e.g. the cost of project management per project or the reduction of non-conformance cost in projects.
One of the key issues in this regard is the way we educate and train project managers. Unfortunately, many education and training providers provide only one solution for managing projects. One reason could be, that they only know one approach or showing several or a situation-specific approaches is too difficult for them. Another reason could be that they do not believe in the ability of a project manager to flexibly align the presented approach to the requirements of a project. Therefore, we strongly recommend to show various approaches and to demonstrate the needs and ways for a project-specific design through examples, case studies or real project work experience. It empowers the project managers to better cope with future challenges and balance cost and benefits better.