Five ‘First Principles Thinking’ Contributions to Project Management

‘First principles thinking’ requires us to test our assumptions.

So often in project work, I see teams fail to even identify assumptions. To be successful as a project team, we need to question everything. We need to know ‘why?’ we are doing the project, what constitutes success and failure, what our assumptions and constraints are, and how we plan to tackle the project. That means that we don’t start project planning by entering the gazillions of needed activities into a Gantt chart tool, we instead start by exploring the why.

‘First principles thinking’ can re-shape our understanding of what a project is.

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates that a project has a definite beginning and end.” (PMBOK Guide 5th edition)

  • Design and execute a bug fix for a software solution — again, it’s temporary and will create a unique result. It may or may not require a team approach, and it certainly doesn’t need a Gantt chart schedule. And, for a software design company, it may just be a part of operations.
  • Review and revise the medical benefits policy and packages for IBM Corporation, following legislative changes to health care laws — let’s hope it’s temporary and creates a new and improved solution. This will definitely take a team. Good luck creating a Gantt chart schedule.
  • Design and build a rocket that can go to Mars and back — yes, it’s a temporary endeavor to create a unique solution. But it’s such a long-term vision that it really can’t be managed as a project, but rather a series of interconnected projects, within a portfolio.

‘First principles thinking’ can help us reexamine executive dashboard metrics.

Construction projects, technology projects, and change projects have some common components. However, using Scrum to manage technology projects, Primavera to manage construction projects, and Excel to manage change projects, results in little common language from which anyone can create executive metrics.

‘First principles thinking’ should challenge us to rethink project schedules.

This internal conversation might sound familiar:

We should consider ‘first principles thinking’ when we plan our project strategy.

So often, I see people solving their project challenges without digging deep or really probing the various options. This is particularly true in non-profit fundraisers when the non-profit just follows the plan from last year. Digging deep will allow the team to re-energize the event with some new and different ideas.

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