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Book review: The Principles of Project Management

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“Delivering value is the only real reason to undertake a project.”

‘The Principles of Project Management is part of the Sitepoint stable so, as you would expect, web projects feature heavily.  However, it’s not about a web project management.  I read it on a slow train to the Kent countryside (and back) and Meri Williams writes fluently which makes it easy to absorb and not at all technical.  I actually found it more readable than Project Management for Dummies, and it is aimed at a similar audience – those beginning project management – which means that what little jargon she uses is very well explained.

The focus is very much on the real world, measured, application of project management tools and Williams uses examples to illustrate how things get done in project-land.  The beginning is particularly interesting as there is a chapter dedicated to ‘project discovery’: justifying why you are doing what you are doing.  I haven’t seen that approach in many texts but it’s very helpful, especially as Williams’ core audience is techie people who are moving into project management.  Asking the right questions up front will make it a lot easier to get the project moving in the right direction and be sure that you are working on the right thing, as she explains.  She also points out that this level of understanding can alleviate people issues on the project and explains what to do if you are given a project that isn’t thought through or wanted.  It takes until page 53 before any ‘real work’ (as she calls it) is done – and this is excellent as it is so important to get the foundations right.

The book isn’t going to teach you how to manage multi-million pound projects, but it’s not designed to.  It does have some useful, practical tips that you can apply today. I particularly like adding photos and phone numbers to the project organisation chart, which is a good idea for a dispersed or virtual team.  Although it doesn’t cover the non-project topics in much depth, Principles is wide-ranging in its coverage and also touches on Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model, the RASCI collaboration matrix and Tuckman’s model of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing, adjouring).

Williams talks about SMAC objectives:

Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Consistent.

What does a consistent objective look like?  Consistent with what? I prefer SMART objectives:

Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Timebound.

There is also a chunk on moving to operations, which is essential for software projects, especially the small kind where the developers could well end up doing day-to-day support as well.  However, I disagree with the idea that all operational queries will be resolved by reading the Project Initiation Document, change log or other project documentation.  These will explain why a decision was taken but not what should be changed to meet the new operational need, or how best to use a particular function.  The missing piece is technical documentation: code specs etc which are part of a work package, not the project documentation.  Williams does talk about handover and training documents which could be the kind of thing required to resolve operational issues.  But if there is a query, it’s likely to be something you haven’t thought of during the project, so it could be missing from your documentation anyway.  It is definitely better to have something – and Williams advocates a full handover to support and detailed documentation – than nothing, but you can’t fix everyone’s problems before they happen.  And sometimes, people who have to manage and support the project in operations just have to get on with it.

Appendix A is a summary of the main pointers and it would be a good idea to photocopy them as a desk reference – or better still, print out the poster and pin that up in your workspace.

Appendix B has a list of resources including some planning tools.  A whole book could be written on planning tools and Williams only covers three, with not-very-detailed reviews.  It’s hard to write about software in this kind of book, especially as the market changes so frequently and things get updated or discontinued so often. The advice, though, is sound: do your research and choose one that meets your needs and that has the functionality to export for sharing.  She also lists other books, blogs and websites to help the newbie project manager.

This is a very practical, down-to-earth book that I enjoyed reading.  If you are fed up with being swamped by overly complex methodologies and people trying to make project management too complicated, then get this: proof that project management isn’t rocket science!

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