PM-Foundations – Sizing Your Project Management Processes

On more than one occasion I have mentioned that project management processes should be sized appropriately for your project. I truly believe that “one size fits all” is not an effective approach to implementing project management processes. It is important to strike the right balance between establishing “heavy” processes that constraint progress, and running your project with little or no focus on how the work will be managed. As I recently discussed in my post on project churn, process churn is a perfect example of “one step forward, and two steps back” – either it is way harder to get things done than it needs to be (too heavy), or there are wildly different outcomes depending on the person performing the process (too light). With the right balance, project management processes enable project work to be completed in a repeatable and efficient manner.

I am not a fan of having two sets of process – one for big projects, and one for small projects. The preferred approach is for the project office to establish project management processes that are appropriate for the organization and the project environment. As a project is launched, these processes are tailored to meet the needs of the specific project scope and complexity. In this blog I discuss the key characteristics of project management processes (what makes them too “heavy” or too “light”), the “critical” few processes to focus on, and how to adapt these processes to the specific needs of your project.

Key Characteristics of Project Management Processes

The characteristics associated with the project management processes really define how appropriately they are sized to deliver your project in an effective and efficient manner. Below are the characteristics that I generally focus on when tailoring the project management process during the launch of a new project.

  • Time – This one is kind of obvious. How long does it take to complete the process (in terms of both duration and effort)? Is the time invested in the process appropriate based upon size of the project and the potential impact of the process on the project? Many teams inadvertently build time into the process. Examples of time built into the process include forms that take hours to complete, or approvals that only happen once a week.
  • People –Who is responsible for initiating the process? How many times does the process move from one person to another? How many people are involved in the review and approval process? Involving more people in a process mitigates the risk associated with errors or bad decisions, but also adds time and overhead to the process.
  • Documentation – Is the process documented? Is process documentation leveraged to perform the process in a repeatable and efficient manner? Process documentation maintained by the project office is helpful as a starting point, and adjustments to size the process for your project (tailoring) should be the focus in the project management plan.
  • Artifacts – What artifacts are created through execution of the project management process (e.g., spreadsheets/lists, forms)? Are the artifacts a by-product of executing the process, or do they represent additional steps/work? Artifacts are not free, therefore it is important to assess whether or not they add value to your process.
  • Tools / automation – When you talk about tools and automation, by default you think “faster” and “less effort”. In reality, introduction of tools and automation is where project teams have a tendency to add the most overhead to their processes. I have seen many examples of tools that are “over-engineered” for the problem they are trying to solve, and add overhead to the process (vs. streamline it).

The “Critical Few” Project Management Processes

Establishing, implementing, and re-enforcing best practices around the “critical few” project management competency areas will represent the difference between a successful and challenged project. The “critical few” competency areas is also where you should focus to appropriately size your project management processes.

  • Change management – How are change requests initiated? Who assesses the impact of the changes? Who reviews and approves the changes? How are changes implemented? How is project change measured and reported?
  • Issue & Risk Management – How is project risk assessed at the beginning of the project? How are risks updated throughout the project? How are issues identified and tracked? Who is accountable for mitigating risks and closing issues? How often are risks and issues reviewed as a team? How are issues and risks measured and reported?
  • Schedule Management – How and when is the schedule regularly updated to reflect progress? How is the progress communicated to the team? How are corrective actions identified and communicated?
  • Cost Management – How are actual costs captured? How are project purchases initiated? Who approves project purchases and payments? How are budget variances and corrective actions identified?
  • Project Communications – What is the format and content of project status reports? What is the process for preparing, reviewing and distributing project status reports? Is relevant project information available to stakeholders? How does the project team interact on a regular basis? Does the team have regular team meetings? How is the project sponsor updated throughout the project life cycle?

The table below provides some indications that project management process may be “too heavy” or “too light” for each of the “critical few” competency areas.

Process Area

Too Heavy

Too Light

Change Management

  • The change request takes a significant effort to complete due to all of the information required
  • A lot of people are involved in the assessment and approval of the change request
  • Changes get lost in the approval workflow
  • It seems like it takes forever to implement change, even when everyone thinks it is the right thing to do
  • Change is not documented or communicated
  • The impact of change is not assessed before it is approved or implemented
  • The actual impact of change is not measured or managed

Issue & Risk Management

  • It takes significant effort to document an issues due to all of the information required
  • Issues and risks are reviewed more frequently than the pace of actions to mitigate or close issues and risks
  • The number of issues and risks tracked is overwhelming to the project team
  • Issues get lost in the resolution workflow
  • Risks are not assessed at the beginning of the project, or routinely reviewed throughout project execution
  • There is no clear accountability established to manage an issue or risk
  • Risks and issues are not documented or updated in a central repository accessible to the team

Schedule Management

  • It takes significant effort to complete project progress updates because it tracked in so much detail
  • There are multiple layers of management involved in capturing progress
  • By the time the schedule is fully updated, it is time to start the next reporting cycle
  • So many reports are produced that it is difficult to understand what to focus on to understand where the project is at
  • The project schedule is not updated after project planning is completed
  • Schedule slippage is identified and reported after the fact (or not at all)
  • The team is not tracking or managing to key project milestones

Cost Management

  • Financial tracking and reporting tools are cumbersome and time consuming
  • Creating purchase orders and statements of work frequently delay project work
  • Multiple layers of management are required to approve invoices for work that has been acknowledged as delivered by the project team
  • Actual effort is not captured
  • Vendor invoices are approved and paid without confirmation that the required work was performed
  • Vendor invoices are approved and paid outside the scope of the project management processes
  • Variances are discovered after the cost has been incurred
  • There is no accountability for actual effort or cost compared to the amount budgeted

Project Communications

  • The project status report is more than 2 pages
  • Multiple project status reports are prepared (for different stakeholder groups)
  • Team meetings consume more than 10% of the time spent on a project
  • Team meetings are redundant in nature (same topics discussed with multiple audiences)
  • Stakeholders are not sure how to obtain the latest project status
  • The core team does not regularly communicate as a group
  • The project sponsors are not provided project updates on a routine basis


How to strike the right balance

Striking the right balance to implement effective and efficient processes for your project involves a combination of leveraging the process assets of the project office, and tailoring the processes to meet the specific needs of the project. The specific needs of the project area determined based upon the size (people, costs, duration) and complexity (internal and external dependencies) of the project. The investment in each of the process areas should be appropriate based upon the potential impact on the project. Does the process add value to the project execution, or add unnecessary overhead?

Striking the right balance from project to project becomes more effective within the project organization when critical processes are documented in a usable and accessible format, and consistently leveraged by project managers to create the “right” processes for each project. The tailoring of project management processes represents a key component of the practical application of best practices for successful project delivery. The more ingrained these best practices are in the project management culture, the lower the dependency on the talents and heroic efforts of individual project managers.

About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

3 Responses to PM-Foundations – Sizing Your Project Management Processes

  1. Pingback: PM-Foundations – Sizing Your Project Management Processes « PMChat

  2. Ken Mutchell says:

    Sensible and coherent – the challenge always is getting PMs who appreciate the need to tune a process rather than have a set of instructions to follow by role.

    • Steve Hart says:

      Thanks Ken! Good project managers should be able to tailor the processes to the project needs, just like a chef will tweak a recipe based upon past experiences.

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