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The Essence of Project Management



Prof. Dr. Ulrich Anders

There exist a vast number of books, articles and certification programs on project management.

They all agree more or less on the definition, that projects are one-time endeavours, that have a unique objective — often formulated as scope and quality targets — and which are usually constrained by budget, time and resources. By the way, this holds true, whether or not the chosen project management methodology is classical waterfall or agile.

Often projects are already complex enough by themselves but matters are not seldom complicated even further by a number of stakeholders who all have a significant (sometimes even conflicting) interest in the project success.

In this difficult context, project management is the skill, experience and art of making the project successful despite all these constraints and complications.

When situations are overly complex, it is important to understand what is the essence of project management. This essence of project management is the anchor point for every project manager and the thread that runs through the whole of the project. Everything develops from there, both in terms of management but also in terms of controlling and giving the necessary transparency to all the stakeholders.

So, what is the Essence of Project Management?

  • A project is a set of deliverables that build on each other. So the deliverable is at the heart of the project.

  • Each deliverable needs a clear and unique owner otherwise it remains open who puts the deliverable in place. Ownership does not mean that the person needs to produce the deliverable all by him- or herself. The person is just the responsible and can engage others.

  • Every deliverable needs a recipient — a person who takes over the deliverable once it is delivered and builds on it. This person also needs to sign-off on the quality of the deliverable received. If the quality is poor the deliverable cannot be built upon.

  • Projects are constrained in time. This means that each deliverable also inherits a time constraint. Therefore, is must not only be clear what is delivered, but also by when.

  • All projects need to have an instrument that helps to steer them and that give all the necessary information. Without such information a project is doomed to fail. One simple cannot manage complex situations without structural and reliable information. This information usually sits in a project status report. As a bare minimum the report must report on the items above. This means the report needs to show the status for each deliverable and the quality evaluation once the deliverable has been delivered. It makes perfect sense, to comment on all issues that show any form of criticality or deviation from the plan.

So, if you take all of the above, then you have it. The Essence of Project Management is:


This Essence of Project Management has the further advantage that it also implements the Golden Rule of Project Management: Always focus on output.

Many project planning sheets or software products start from the input side by naming TODOs. Instead, they should rather start from the end focus on deliverables. Starting from the input side tries to push the project forward rather then to pull the project from the end. Research from the areas of production, process and (agile) project management have all more or less come to the same conclusion, that pull processes have a much higher likelihood to succeed than push processes.

© Prof. Dr. Ulrich Anders

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Last change: 2022-01-02|00:58

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