Is There One Simple Thing to Improve Project Management?

After juggling a particularly busy week, my mind drifted back to a conversation I had with a project management colleague.  This is a republication of a post I wrote that contemplates an insightful question that he posed. 

Michael Greer, project management expert and author (“The Project Management Minimalist”, among other offerings) poses a very interesting question, “What is one simple thing that can improve projects and/or project management?”

He just had to include that one, small, troublesome word: simple. If he had only been so kind to omit it, then this would be a far simpler article to write.

One Simple ThingI could easily list tools, techniques, best practices, lessons learned, and so on and so forth that can improve project delivery and management. But the phrasing of the question, and the focus on deconstructing the seemingly complex project world into something sensible and attainable, made me pause.

Another challenging, and therefore interesting, aspect of the question is that it strives to achieve community. The question is not confined to specific types of projects (IT, organizational change, process improvement, etc), nor is it focused on specific types of organizations (consulting, insurance, retail, construction, health-care, financial, etc). So Michael is basically asking, of all of the types and size of projects and initiatives possible, in all of the types and sizes of businesses and organizations out there, what is the one simple thing that could make them better? Not asking for much, are you Michael?

What Projects Are All About

In all seriousness, I love this question. I love it because it forces us to think about what projects are all about; what they require; what makes them work; what makes them flop; and what absolutely essential ingredients are at the heart of every single one. Because isn’t knowing the recipe half of the battle?

Every project, no matter how large or small, exists to achieve a goal; often, they seek to achieve many goals, but always with an overreaching objective. And work needs to happen in order to reach that goal. So we bundle up the work, call it a project, and begin a journey. I’ve taken many of these journeys over the course of my career, and I spend a large portion of every day thinking about them. What are the “keys” to making them successful? Why and how do they get tangled up? How do we begin a journey down a straightforward well-lit path, only to sometimes find ourselves lost in a dark and confusing forest?

My One Simple Thing

And so now I offer my meager contribution to “one simple thing”. Alas, it is not an out-of-the-box tool; nor is it a perfectly acceptable copy-and-paste template. My one simple thing that would improve every project, for everyone involved, is really a perspective or philosophy which asks you to think of time as currency. Stop viewing time as an infinite resource, and begin seeing it for the precious, non-renewable resource that it is. Once you begin thinking in terms of time diamonds, your project journey and the actions you need to take to reach it are given a shimmering light of clarity.

In reviewing some of my personal experiences, and some stories I’ve heard from colleagues, one resounding theme emerged – the preciousness of time. Not in the most obvious sense, in terms of the project’s deadline, or “we need to achieve X and only have so much time to do so”. Those pressures certainly underlie every project, whether professional or personal. But beyond the obvious, the concept of time valuation pops up again and again throughout project work.

“We wasted so much time going down a path that turned out to be the wrong one”

“If only we’d spent more time understanding our requirements and objectives up front”

“I spend so much time in meetings, I never get anything done”

“I’m already working 12 hours a day, how much more time can I be expected to give?”

Now imagine if the project manager, or project owner, or project executive began thinking in terms of time diamonds. Time as a precious commodity. Not just their time; but your time; your team’s time; everybody’s time. Imagine the impact to assumptions, actions, and requests. Understanding the precious value of time, and always keeping it top of mind of everyone involved in the project could change the above statements to:

“Let’s invest X number of time diamonds qualifying whether we should take that path”

“If we spend X number of time diamonds now understanding our objectives, it should save us this many time diamonds overall”

“Will this meeting produce an outcome of equal or greater value than the number of time diamonds it’s spending?”

“I need to spend my time diamonds more wisely. My investment isn’t paying off”

Viewing every aspect of a project through a filter which constantly evaluates it’s time value helps steer you towards the items that matter. Those that keep you close to that straight-and-narrow and well-lit path that you stepped onto when you began your journey. That journey of a project, that bundle of work that needs to get done to reach your goals.

Because at the end of day, it’s as simple as that.