The Best Project Management Systems

As a project manager, one of the things we always ask is "What is the best project management system" out there? Is there a single system that works best?

I've thought about this long and hard.

And my answer is no. There is no one best system that works in all cases. Rather, I'm tempted to think, like leadership, there is no "one system to rule them all".

I'd say a combination of systems, some of which work better in some circumstances compared to others, would be the best way to approach project management.

And for the project management purists among you, let's forget about the standard project management techniques - Prince2, Agile, RUP, waterfall, etc. for now.

Think of "project management system" from another perspective.

Look at the little sketch I have below. This sketch summarizes my thoughts on the best project management systems out there.

best project management systems My model for the best project management systems out there

Hear me out on this one.

On one axis, I have "Structured". Here, "Structured" represents a project management system that is reliant on templates, software, automation or some form of framework and toolkit. It is "mechanical project management".

A project manager who subscribes to the "Structured" approach likes to rely on these tools to get the job done. Ask him or her how to deal with a project issue, and he or she will whip out the PMBOK and start explaining how you can "monitor and control" the project and resolve the issue.

On the other axis, you have "Emotive". I think of "Emotive" as representing a project management system that is adhoc or "do it as you go". Some might even call it a "cowboy" or "go with your gut" approach.

This kind of PM system is adopted by project managers who are driven by emotional elements. If a project issue arises, he or she will jump and maybe walk straight to the perpetrator and get it resolved. No need for instruction manuals, the PMBOK, templates or guidelines. Just go with your gut.

What's interesting here is that if we combine the "Structured" and "Emotive" elements of project management, we see four distinct types of project management systems:

1. Go With Your Gut

The "Go With Your Gut" project management system relies a lot on emotion and initiative. It is high on the "Emotive" element and low on "Structured". If you see something wrong, you correct it. If you sense something is wrong, you follow up. If you have a thousand things to do, you do everything in your people to marshall your resources, stakeholders and so forth to get it done.

However, you seldom have templates or metrics to guide the project. If someone asks you what is the expected end date of a particular task, or the ROI of a programme of work, you might have trouble answering the question.

Case Study: I once had a project manager who ran an insurance core system replacement project for an insurer in Singapore and Malaysia. This lady was a very strong project manager from an emotive point of view.

If there were issues, she would (sometimes aggressively) walk over to the person who caused the problem and negotiate the problem away. She usually got her way.

However, she lacked structure. She did not have templates or guidelines or a repository of reusable project assets. Hence, it was very difficult for her to ensure consistency and tight documentation in the project. The project was eventually called off (not due to her) but I did get a sense that things could have been better if she adopted a more structured project management system.

2. The Robot

To me, a project management system that is low on the "Emotive" element and high on "Structured" is considered "The Robot" system.

I don't like this kind of system. Why? Because the project manager tends to get caught up in structure - worrying about templates, tools, checklists, guidelines, etc. But he or she forgets about the external and the emotive.

He or she forgets to regularly talk to stakeholders and watch the horizon for project risks because he or she is so caught up in analyzing the repository of project management assets. Or tweaking the colors on the next project status report. Or exploring different ways of presenting project financials when the information is already all there.

That being said, there ARE situations which call for more structure in a project. If the stakeholders are IT trained and prefer to see logic and structure in your project, then it may in fact be good to pull out a toolkit to lead the way.

Tip: Don't be too much of a robot. In project management, it is very easy to become engrossed in structure. This happened to me when I was first starting out as a PM. And you're especially prone to it if you come from a technical or IT background. Tinkering with your project toolkits will NOT deliver the project. You need to "sense", to think, and to nip issues in the bud. To do that, you need to be more emotive and do more things by feel.

3. The Lazy Way

This is the worst place to be. The lazy project manager has neither high marks on the "Emotive" or "Structured" axes. He or she is basically a lazy bum! If project issues arise, he or she will neither dig out templates or toolkits, nor reach out to speak to the stakeholders. They'll just wish the problem would go away. Honestly, this kind of PM does not last in the job for very long. And I've seen a fair share of these folks too.

4. The Superstar

The best project management system out there is the "Superstar" system. This means that the project manager is both high on emotive elements and structure. If you have a project manager like this, thank your lucky stars - because your project will have a high chance of success.

This system will allow the PM to be as emotive, generating buy-in through regular interaction with stakeholders, but yet flexible enough to rely on established techniques and tools if needed.

5. Which System To Use?

What is the project management system to apply given a certain situation? Well, let's see.

My feel is that: If you have stakeholders who are technical or IT trained, using the "Robot" project management system may be a good idea. Structured people like to hear about logic, frameworks, toolkits and guidance.

If you have stakeholders who are more creative or tend to "go by feel", using the "Go With Your Gut" project management system may be the best way to proceed. Creative people like to hear emotion, tend to go by feel and prefer frequent collaboration.

And in either case, the "Superstar" project management system should work equally well.

6. Try This Exercise

So here's what you should do to apply the above concept to your projects.

Write down on paper what is your current project management system. Is it "Go With Your Gut", "The Robot", "The Lazy Way" or "Superstar"?

If you're employing either a "Go With Your Gut" or "The Robot" project management system, think about how you can balance your capabilities out so you lean more towards being a "Superstar".

My suspicion is that you won't fall under the "Lazy Way" category since you should be pretty forward looking and want to improve your PM skills.

If you're applying the "Superstar" system, then I say, good for you! But watch out for symptoms where you may slide into other quadrants.

Some PMs who are used to the "Go With Your Gut" system of project management may also choose to compensate for their lack of structure by finding an Assistant PM or Lead BA person to create the structure they need.

Case Study: In the core insurance system project I mentioned above, the project manager was employing the "Go With Your Gut" system, since she was a very emotive person. What she lacked in structure, she did (sometimes) try to outsource it to a Lead BA person who could create templates, minutes, checklists and so forth.

Wrapping Up ...

I hope the above has helped you understand a bit more about project management systems. There is no one "best project management system" - rather, depending on what environment you're in, different systems, or a combination of systems can yield superior results.

So do take note of whether you're more emotive or structured, and find a way of balancing your capabilities out. By doing so, you'll eventually stay in the "Superstar" PM system more and have higher chances of successful project delivery.

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