Project prospects: Three rules for action

This is a 4-minute read, first of a three-part discussion on the Basic Rules of Project Management. You might be surprised that a management activity has rules, but they have been discovered; and I am not just parroting clichés like ‘make a plan’. They cover action, judgment and alignment.

When I started teaching project management (PM), a very popular student question was to ask what they should do in a particular situation they were involved in. PM being more an art than a science, my answer was invariably “it depends!” A very unsatisfactory response, especially for today’s learners who would like a precise answer to every question. But it did prompt some serious thinking on my part, concerning situational rules for the PM game which could be universally applied. If so, this would make the art of PM just a little more straight-forward for the neophyte. This thinking actually led to my first book Ten Commandments of Project Management: A brief guide to the art of righteous project management. I have separated those ten rules into three areas of PM leadership: when and how to commit to difficult but necessary action (today’s topic), learning to recognize and choose the right path (judgment), and building project direction and momentum (alignment).

The three rules for action

A good leader must occasionally take unpleasant actions that go beyond business-as-usual project management. Specifically, three very difficult issues can weigh upon a project with negative results, and require action. A trusted confidant or experienced coach can share the burden, but often the PM is left to act alone and unsupported. This summary of the three rules hopefully reinforces confidence in the need to act. They are, in terms that Moses might have used: 1 Thou Shalt Rid Thyself of Incompetence, 2 Thou Shalt Not Avoid Conflict, and 3 Thou Shalt Pay for Quality, Just as Surely as Thou Payest for Thy Errors.


Deal with incompetence

I know what you’re thinking – easier said than done. Teams are always assembled under constraints, and the best are in short supply. The team may include the inexperienced, the quirky, and the plain mediocre. But the PM’s job is to deal with it.

Incompetence is not a matter for debate, so the first step is to evaluate the observed productivity failure and make sure incompetence truly is the root cause – not always the case. When present, there are negative consequences that cascade. Poor work from one team member always impacts the work of others. A serious one-on-one with the individual is obviously the first step, but if no improvement occurs, further action must be taken.

This is a serious matter for the PM, usually complicated and difficult to resolve. It’s worth remembering that the PM’s first duty is to the project. But if the actions yield no resolution, and senior authority’s advice is to “live with it”, then so be it. Make sure resolution efforts are on the record, and modify effort and schedule estimates as necessary.

Confront conflict

There are many sources of conflict in a typical project. The challenge is to remain sensitive to the environment and act before behaviour becomes destructive. Personal conflict, more than business conflict, is the issue most managers choose to ignore in the hope that it goes away. Don’t – it won’t!

Business conflict can arise from many different causes: different beliefs or prejudices, contrary technical opinions, constraints not accepted, overlapping management authorities, and different business interests or hidden objectives.

But sometimes conflict is just another plain old people-issue which raises stress levels, undermines teamwork, involves the PM in “he said, she said” arguments, finger-pointing, non-cooperation, and eventual degeneration of the PM’s authority. Diagnoses might include a poor personality fit with the team, cultural blind spots, resentments, or minimal alignment with project objectives and assigned responsibilities. Self-knowledge is also important here – are you part of the problem?

For resolution, the PM needs those most cited skills of communication and negotiation, plus a useful understanding of conflict theory.

Understand, transmit, and enforce your quality requirements

Somewhere along the line, quality has lost its way. Very few projects enjoy the benefit of a clear set of quality goals and a budget to match. Most sponsors are happy to ignore the issue or, if pressed, say they want high quality, of course, and leave the PM to figure it out. The answer is to understand the realistic quality goals that could be achieved, and open up a meaningful discussion that pinpoints quality factors before delivery, rather than after.  A recent post, Project Prospects: Put quality in its placeaddressed this with a number of useful models.

According to Commercial Project Management, aside from establishing a model for quality, the single most beneficial effort for a PM who takes quality seriously is to create a quality plan that is compliant with the quality model, and to agree it with all stakeholders. Such a plan might include quality objectives and factors, commercial or technical standards, responsibilities, training needs, mandatory documentation, metrics, and probably more.

Leadership on quality means not only acting to enforce the plan, but accepting the onus to build quality methods into personal work and interactions. Rethink impetuous email, don’t issue documents without an external review, always manage meetings with an agenda, minute actions and decisions, use proper procedures for PM decision-making, and so forth. This is leadership by example.


These three rules require specific and potentially difficult action from the PM, but they are most influential in building and maintaining a positive work environment. They represent advice that is always applicable. In conclusion:

  • Political awareness is always a factor when resolving team issues, but is especially important when dealing with an incompetent team member. The wise PM will establish good communications with senior authorities as there is every chance that aggrieved individuals will go over the PM’s head.
  • If confronting a conflict situation is uncomfortable it might be helpful to study behavioral guides such as the Social Style Profile. In any event, strive to keep conversations non-accusative and as impersonal as possible. For example, don’t say “Your comment to Joe was offensive and you should apologize”, but something like “I noticed that Joe reacted negatively to your remark. It’s important to me, and all of us, to work in a positive environment. Could we discuss how best to handle this in the future?”
  • Bring quality out of the closet and gain the skill to deal with it explicitly. Using models is recommended, such as those described in the earlier post. Embed the agreed requirements in a quality plan and enforce those requirements during execution.

My position is that the PM must accept responsibility for team competence, for resolving conflict, and for quality. The reader may feel this is overdemanding, but if the PM does not do this then costs from unscheduled rework and assistance arise, morale starts to nosedive, and your project rapidly assumes a reputation as a failure in waiting. Certainly, in some cases the responsibility is shared and the constraints may be unsurmountable, but like it or not the PM remains answerable for the success of the project.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Robin Hornby
Robin Hornby
Robin Hornby PMP is President of Tempest Management in Calgary. Robin’s career began in the UK as a systems engineer. He moved to Canada in 1977, and worked in the telecommunications sector before embarking on a 30-year project and delivery management career in the IT professional services business. Robin set up his consulting company in 1997, taught at Mount Royal University for ten years, and is the author of three books. He is a long-time member of PMI, has presented frequently at PMI symposia, ProjectWorld, and at client conferences. Robin now writes, consults, and conducts seminars that focus on aspects of project management he believes are neglected – commercial practice, project business management, and PM leadership to achieve project quality.

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