12 Project Management Principles Explained by Experts
Something big is happening in the world of project management, have you realized? A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Seventh Edition is shifting from being process-led to becoming more principle-based.
A principle-based approach isn’t exactly a new concept. We've had guiding principles of project management guiding our practice for many years. The current shift is simply putting the spotlight on the broader roles and approaches to conducting the work, while processes take a back seat.
What is the Meaning of Principle-Driven Project Management?
Principle-driven project management is a way of working that follows fundamental rules or guidelines for leading a project.
It’s different from process-driven project management because there is more emphasis on making your own choices. You lead the project following a set of core concepts which guide and shape the work.
This shift has happened because it’s no longer possible to mandate processes and expect them to work for all projects. Processes need to be drawn from both agile, hybrid, and predictive ways of working, so project managers should be free to choose the best processes for their projects.
As a result, learners can expect to see a change in the structure and emphasis of project management training materials. We are likely to see more about principles and how to use them and less about memorizing processes in a rigid way.
The PM PrepCast course is always updated to the latest version of the relevant exam content outline for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam, so you can rest assured that your learning will always prepare you for the current version.
The PMP 2021 Framework
It used to be the case that the PMBOK® Guide focused solely on the processes, process groups, and knowledge areas of waterfall delivery, but that is no longer true.
The shift is a good thing: in the workplace, many teams are using agile and hybrid methodologies, and it’s natural that the guides, templates, and books we use to inform how projects are run reflect that variety. When you study for your PMP exam and do your job, you need an awareness of all the things that affect success - and the principles are part of that.
As a result, the way projects are delivered can no longer be determined by a set of defined processes. Project teams need greater flexibility in how they do their work. The project management principles enable that.
They provide a framework for teams to operate within, and they sit alongside any delivery approach of your choice. Whether you are working in a predictive, iterative, or agile environment, the principles discussed below will be relevant for you. Are you ready to find out what they are?
There are 12 project delivery principles - yes, 12! These are the things that guide project execution and that every project manager should know about.
That’s a lot to take in. However, you might notice there are some themes that come up time and time again in PMP exam questions. Suppose you have been working in project management for some time. In that case, topics like leadership, quality management, risk management, stakeholder management, and working with a team will not be new ideas for you.
Even if this list of principles is new to you, don’t worry: we’re going to give you an overview of what each of those principles means in practice.
Let’s dive into the first one now.
1. Stewardship: Be a diligent, respectful, and caring steward
“Being a steward means to take care of something,” says Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, and Founder of The Project Management Podcast. “In a project environment, that means to look after your project and to act with its best intentions in mind at all times.”
Stewardship should be part of your project management practice. “It matters because the project manager is the person who knows the project better than anyone else,” says Cornelius. “You can steer the project in the right direction and make sure decisions are made that are beneficial to the organization. It’s a way of ensuring that personal politics do not interfere with whatever is the right thing to do.”
An effective steward should demonstrate the following values:
“In a stewardship role, project managers need to act with integrity so their decisions are above reproach,” says Cornelius. “Honesty goes without saying. It’s important that stakeholders can trust what you do and that they have confidence they are hearing the truth from you.”
Cornelius also believes that fairness and responsibility are essential values for a project manager taking a stewardship role for his or her project. “As a leader, you need to step up and make sure ethical practices are the norm for the team, however tricky that might be from time to time,” he adds.
In practice, stewardship looks a lot like careful thinking, negotiating conflicting requirements, and considering ethics in your dealings.
- Standing up for what is right, even if that is the more challenging route to follow;
- Following the PMI Code of Ethics, and;
- Paying attention to small details and diligently following through on requests to ensure a quality result.
Use this principle to guide your activities throughout the work. It doesn’t matter what methodology you are following, what processes you use, or how big the project, being a good steward will help your organization get the results it deserves.
2. Team: Build a culture of accountability and respect
Projects are delivered through teams. So as leaders, it’s important to understand how to make the team work as effectively as possible. That starts with a culture of accountability and respect.
“Team accountability isn't about a single person, leader, project manager, or otherwise, holding every other team member accountable. Team accountability is about every team member holding every other team member accountable. It's a culture of accountability."
Great teams have a positive work culture, and that helps the project progress with less disruption. "Lack of team accountability leads to misalignment,” says Michael. “A misaligned team may eventually achieve their goals, but never as efficiently and effectively as a well-aligned, accountable team."
Michael has a few tips to share that you can easily put into practice to adopt this project management principle. “Hold yourself accountable as the leader,” he says. “Your team must see you doing what you say you will do. Be willing to give and receive constructive criticism that holds team members to a higher standard.”
He also recommends the book The Four Disciplines of Execution (Chesney & Covey) as it defines a couple of extra ideas that are useful for team leaders, including using a compelling scoreboard that indicates if the team is winning or losing and conducting regular commitment meetings where each team member reports on prior commitments and makes new commitments to achieve the team goal.
Other than that, accountability also fosters a culture of trust and efficiency. When you hold all members accountable, team members trust one another, as they share an understanding that each one is fulfilling the roles assigned to them.
Aside from this, as a project manager, you’re able to ensure that no energy or time is spent on activities that won’t benefit the project. As a group, you achieve deliverables more efficiently. You probably work in a team already, so you can imagine what a culture of accountability and respect should look like. Here are some examples:
- Making sure all voices are heard and all opinions considered.
- Embracing conflict as a positive force that helps you get a better result.
- Respecting others and calling out moments where that respect is not given to ensure everyone’s experience of the workplace is a positive one.
- Make it a regular habit to provide constructive feedback about your team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement.
Unsurprisingly, this is a principle you should stick to throughout the life cycle. It’s something you apply from the moment you are assigned to lead the work through to when you hand over the deliverables to the client or customer.
3. Stakeholders: Engage stakeholders to understand their interests and needs
A stakeholder is someone who is interested in or impacted by the project. Each stakeholder expects something from the project, and it’s important to fully understand their needs so you can tailor the engagement to be most effective.
Your stakeholders will have an active part to play in the work, and you probably want them to take some kind of action. That’s why engagement is important: if you understand their motivations, it is easier to deliver successfully as a team.
Elizabeth Harrin, author of Engaging Stakeholders on Projects: How to Harness People Power, says there are many ways that you can engage stakeholders. “From simple newsletters to gamification, there are many tools you can use to create engagement with the project,” she says. “First, you want to gain clarity on stakeholder involvement and why the project matters to them. Then you can better understand their perspective and build a trusted relationship.”
Elizabeth has a few tips to share. “Make sure you know what you are engaging them in,” she says. “Is it the project management process or the deliverables, or both? Once you know that, you can make sure your communication and interactions share your message in the most appropriate way.”
In practice, engaging stakeholders looks a lot like talking and communicating, but with specific goals in mind that drive the project closer to a successful outcome.
For example, stakeholder engagement in a practical situation could be:
- Initiating dialogue early during project planning avoids misses that could drain your resources.
- Facilitating a workshop and making sure all voices are heard.
- Resolving a conflict between stakeholders who don’t share the same view about what should be in scope.
- Working with a team to reduce resistance to change.
This principle applies the whole way through the project, from the initial idea through to project close. “Your stakeholder community may change as you go through the project,” Elizabeth says, “so make sure you are continually reviewing your plans and engaging the right people.”
4. Value: Focus on value
Value, in project management, is the balance between benefits gained and resources spent.
The perception of ‘value’ differs between stakeholders, so it’s important to understand what value means to your community. For example, if you are creating a PMP study plan, you’ll put on there the topics that would have the most value for your learning.
Let’s say I’m creating a study plan too: what I include would be different to you. I would get value out of different topics because my past experience is different to yours. We both have different views of what would be most valuable for us to learn in order to pass the exam.
“From an Agile perspective, one of the best ways to focus on value is the benefit,” says Jennie Fowler, MPM, CSM, CSPO. “Don’t overthink this! I’m not talking about a ton of math,” she adds. “It’s simple really. For the program or product roadmap that you are working on, the goal should be one sentence.”
Jennie suggests putting together a sentence in the following format:
"We are moving from X to Y by [date] with a projected benefit of [financial value/other benefit]."
“Pick items from your backlog that help you move the needle toward that benefit -the goal - with a shortest path mindset,” Jennie explains. “All backlog items can be assigned a simple financial benefit.”
As you work on the project, focusing on value means making sure that you take into account what is important for the customer at any given time.
For example, being value-driven could look like:
- Holding regular meetings with stakeholders to ensure the project will continue to meet their needs.
- Backlog grooming to prioritize the highest value items for delivery in early iterations.
- Regularly reviewing the business case to ensure the benefits are going to be delivered.
- Collaborating with team members to help determine the status of the project, making accurate estimates, and instilling in them the value of looking at these metrics when reaching project milestones.
This principle is something that applies more during the planning and execution phases than other phases because that’s when you will be aligning what you deliver to the customer’s goals. However, agile principles encourage you to be value-driven at all times, so it’s definitely a principle to keep in mind throughout the project.
5. Holistic Thinking: Recognize and respond to systems’ interactions
Systems thinking is the ability to think of the entire system, the individual parts, behavior of the system, and relationships over time, according to Shane Drumm, PMP, PMI-ACP, CSM, CSPO.
“The benefit of utilizing system thinking is it provides a holistic view of the system which can help understand the dynamics within the system,” Shane says. “The opposite of system thinking is approaching a problem from a single point of view, by looking at the individual part instead of the whole.”
Because you're looking from a bird's eye view, you'll be able to raise questions and see opportunities that aren't typically seen when elements of your project are viewed individually. This new perspective ultimately leads to better-designed products, services, and policies.
You can see why that might cause issues on projects: the team could miss essential integration points and data flows.
“Thinking in systems will help project managers reduce waste and save money by foreseeing the impact of decisions on the entire system,” Shane explains. “They can utilize different system thinking techniques depending on the issue at hand.”
Here is a collection of techniques that help solve complex problems during the design phase, according to Shane.
- Rich Pictures
- Causal Loop Diagrams
- Visible Systems
- CATWOE (which stands for Customers, Actors, Transformation, World view, Owner, and Environment - a technique for stakeholder analysis).
“Methods such as System Mapping, Action Learning, and Systems Dynamics help forecast and identify risks to the plan during the delivery,” adds Shane.
“Next time the team is stuck on a complex problem, try to help them view it from a holistic point of view. Start with positioning themselves as the individual stakeholders to help the team understand the context of the problem they are trying to solve. Then let them be creative by encouraging them to create a rich picture of the problem, so they can visualize the individual parts and how they behave together as a whole. This [method] should help get [everyone’s] creative juices flowing and help the team deliver a solution that has taken the entire system into consideration.”
Here are some situational examples of what holistic systems thinking looks like in practice:
- Using analysis skills to accurately map business processes.
- Drawing on technical expertise to understand IT system interactions. Mapping data flows so that everyone is clear on how information moves through the whole system.
- Listening to your team and accounting for perspectives on how each job is accomplished or each concern is raised about the entire project delivery process.
This principle is something that’s really important during solution design because unless you understand how the business systems link together, you might miss something that could make the solution better.
6. Leadership: Motivate, influence, coach, and learn
“Leadership is absolutely key for project managers,” says Dr Penny Pullan, author of ‘Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time’ and the bestseller ‘Virtual Leadership’.
“As project managers don’t typically have line management authority over the people in their teams, leadership is different. We need to get things done without line authority, and that means people following our lead of their own volition.”
Leadership in the context of project management is different from leadership in other domains because of the relationship the manager has with the team.
“Effective leaders in this space are much more facilitative, with more use of a servant leadership style than the traditional ‘leader on a pedestal’ style,” Penny says. “It’s much more about influencing and inspiring people. Personally, I think that a facilitative leadership style works really well, especially now in our mix of virtual, hybrid, and in person.”
Leadership in project management is something you do as well as something you experience.
Here are some examples of what leadership in a project context might look like:
- Helping team members understand the vision and goals and their role in delivery.
- Leading by example: being the organizational culture you want to see.
- Mentoring colleagues.
As a project leader, you’ll be ‘doing leadership’ most of the time as you work on the project. From picking up the project to making sure the customer gets what they need as you close it out, leadership is a principle to apply at every step.
Facilitative leadership is a style you can learn and get better at with practice and project management leadership training. “A good thing about more facilitative styles of leadership in project management is that the PM models how the rest of the team can step up,” Penny adds. “With each team member serving each other, success becomes more likely and the project journey more enjoyable, with learning along the way.”
7. Tailoring: Tailor the delivery approach based on context
Tailoring means choosing the right delivery approach based on organizational context, team culture, and maturity, and what you are delivering.
“When we consider an organization and their project management methodology, we usually see an internal evolution or adaptation of a broadly known methodology,” says Bruno Morgante, Head of Digital Transformation Project Performance at ALSTOM. “This adaptation of a ‘ready-made’ system of practices, techniques, procedures, and rules to be used by those working on projects, is already a first step, and an important step, of tailoring.”
However, Bruno believes there is often more an organization could and should do to bring about a tailored solution for project delivery.
“Even when a methodology is tailored to fit the organization’s needs, peculiarities, culture, and maturity, it is important to take a further step and tailor the project management approaches for each project,” he says. “Each project is unique, and not all projects require every process, deliverables, and governance.”
Bruno believes that teams in organizations that prevent tailoring will tailor their projects anyway, but without any control. “What worked well for us at BOMBARDIER was creating a fast-track approach with a simplified governance for particular types of projects with low complexity and low budgets,” he says. The team identified a set of adaptive deliverables that were applicable only to specific projects. “This lowered the burden on project managers and teams, allowing them to focus on delivering and not on creating paperwork,” he explains.
Tailoring is something you do naturally as you gain more experience because it is easier to make those decisions, especially if there is a corporate framework in place that gives you guidance.
If you are just starting out, or haven’t had the opportunity to tailor your processes yet, here are some ways you might do that:
- Reviewing the change management process to ensure it is fit for purpose for your project and making tweaks to the approach as necessary.
- Ensuring everyone understands the approach, processes, and methodology in use.
- Making sure there are regular discussions about how the work is going and listening to improvements for how processes could be improved.
- Taking note of the lessons learned for the reference of future project managers who may revisit your template.
At the beginning of your project, you will make some tailoring choices about how to do the work, with input from the team. However, that’s not the only time that tailoring is important in practice. As you work through the project, you may learn more about how to improve performance and productivity. That’s when you’d want to do a little more tailoring, switching things up, so the team can continue to perform to the very best of their ability.
8. Quality: Build quality into processes and results
Quality should be built into processes and results because stakeholders expect to get an end result that is fit for purpose and meets their needs.
“Project management is about creating value, and without quality, the project team effort is wasted, and no value is created,” says Gabriele Maussner-Schouten, PMP, MBA, BCAP. “In the most basic sense, quality means that the end product or service meets the customer's needs: not more and not less.”
Gabriele says that, typically, quality standards are defined in the Initiation or latest in the Planning Stage. “Together with the customer, the project team contracts quality standards and discusses how to measure quality throughout the project management process,” she says. “I like to make the quality discussion part of my regular team meetings and use various retrospectives to dig deeper if a quality challenge exists.”
Gabriele recommends measuring in-process quality. “This is critical,” she says, “since it allows the project team to correct course early and avoid a finished product or service that does not meet the customer's quality expectations.”
She has seen first-hand how a focus on the principle of quality makes a difference to project success. “In our fast-moving world, I have also witnessed that quality standards evolve throughout the project life cycle,” she says. “This can be part of a project scope refinement by the customer, key stakeholders, and the project team.”
The other consideration for quality is that it is important to understand how quality is defined. “The notion of quality is becoming more multifaceted and incorporates more often on HOW we achieve project outcomes,” Gabriele explains. “There is more emphasis on team effectiveness and an inclusive team and paying attention to our environmental footprint.”
But what does it look like to act on the principle of quality?
Here are somethings you could look out for or adopt in your own environment:
- Robust approaches to how quality management will be undertaken and following through on that.
- Conversing with stakeholders and the team about what quality work is and how it is measured.
- Ensuring team members have the sufficient tools and resources needed to do the job well and avoid cutting corners.
Quality should be ‘baked in’ to the project from the beginning by making sure ways of working encourage quality results. However, there is typically more of an emphasis on quality as soon as you start producing deliverables, because often for stakeholders, ‘quality’ equates to them being happy with what you are doing for them. Make sure that you plan time to do quality activities and don’t try to deliver earlier by skimping on quality.
9. Complexity: Address complexity using knowledge, experience, and learning
“Complexity is the state or quality of being intricate or complicated,” says Mohit Jain, PgMP, PMP, CSM. “There are many factors which influence the project’s complexity.”
Mohit says the following factors influence the complexity, so these are important areas to understand for your project:
- Uncertainty about the scope of the project
- Newer technologies
- Multiple stakeholders’ involvement
- Multiple partners involved
- Inter-dependency on multi-systems
- New territory or new market
“Understanding complexity helps make a proposal or contract comprehensive with adequate consideration for possible risks and their mitigation, as well as for deciding on the contract type,” says Mohit, who is also a PMI volunteer. “When you address complexity, you can decide on the proper project management methodology, and make the decision to choose waterfall, agile or hybrid.”
Bringing together knowledge of the project, the team’s experience, and any other learning will help you minimize the impact of complex issues. “It helps in deciding the proper governance framework,” says Mohit, “and in identifying the right service providers.”
Here are some situational examples of what the complexity principle of project management looks like in practice.
- Making sure the right people with good levels of expertise are invited to participate
- Creating a culture of continuous learning.
- Looking for and expecting complexity and then making a plan to address it head-on when you find a complex problem.
- Breaking down a massive project that feels overwhelming into micro-projects that feel manageable.
- Prioritizing regular team huddles and using collaboration software to ensure smooth communication.
Not all projects are complex, but most organizations are, so it’s highly likely that you will work in a complex environment at some point in your career. Understanding the complexity principle will help you apply it in practice. Take a step back and review the situation as a whole, looking for things that might help you understand the project better.
10. Risk: Optimize risk responses
According to Dr David Hillson, risk is ‘uncertainty that matters.’ There’s typically a lot of uncertainty on a project, so it’s important for project managers to be aware of and actively manage project risk to bring a little bit more certainty to the work.
“Project managers typically manage multiple projects containing numerous and diverse stakeholders,” says Harry Hall, creator of ProjectRiskCoach.com. Project risk management helps managers and their teams deal with competing demands and stay focused on the things that matter most.
Optimizing risk responses can also prepare you for the worst-case scenario. When you’re well aware of the risks ahead, you can take steps now to reduce the possibility of encountering threats in the future. Risk analysis essentially helps in the planning stage.
Where do you get started with optimizing risk responses? Harry has this suggestion.
“One powerful priority-setting method for risk analysis is the Probability/Impact Assessment,” he says.
Here is how to use it:
- Rate the probability of your identified risks using a scale such as 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.
- Rate the impact of your identified risks using the same scale.
- Calculate the risk score by multiplying probability times impact (i.e., 4 x 3 = 12).
- Sort the risks in descending order using the risk score as your primary sort.
- Use your risk threshold to determine which risks merit a response. For example, all risks with a risk score of 20 or greater are urgent risks that require a risk owner and response plan.
“When developing the habit of concentrating on the risks that matter most, you will start getting more done than any two or three project managers around you,” Harry adds.
You might feel comfortable with the principle of risk because that has been a common theme in project management for many years. This is what it looks like in practice:
- Carrying out risk analyses using Harry’s process above and making decisions based on the risk profile of the project overall.
- Helping the team and executives understand what risk is and what risky situations might come upon this particular project.
- Making smart choices about risk responses to get the best possible results for both positive and negative risks.
Optimizing risk responses are core to this principle. Make sure you understand what options are available to you for risk response and have a process for choosing the best way forward.
11. Adaptability & Resilience: Be adaptable and resilient
The pandemic events of 2020 made many organizations put adaptability and resilience front and center. For project teams, being able to switch paths, deliver faster and bounce back after a setback are crucial for ensuring projects are completed to customer satisfaction.
“PPM practice is evolving all the time,” says Emma-Ruth Arnaz-Pemberton, PMI volunteer and UK-based PMO expert. “Whether you are in delivery or enabling functions, you should be ready to change alongside the organization to continue to add value and deliver successful beneficial change.”
A huge part of being able to adapt to any circumstance comes from resilience: resilience of the individual, the team, and the organization.
If you think you need to work on your team’s ability to respond to change, where should you start? Emma-Ruth has some suggestions. “Developing and fostering resilience and an adaptable mindset takes input from everyone in the team,” she says. “Developed in isolation, values, and culture won’t stick, so ensure that this kind of work is taken seriously, developed in a safe environment, and in a collaborative way. Once it is developed, foster a culture of innovation through events where community members can engage and share, as well as commit to the plan!”
This principle is all about being able to flex with the situation and bounce back when things are tough. These are great skills to have, but what do they actually look like?
Here are a few examples of how you could use these skills in practice:
- Creating a learning plan for the team, so they have the technical skills required to deliver this project and the next one.
- Listening to stakeholders and being prepared to change the approach or outcomes if that is the best solution for the client or the organization.
- Leading by example and modeling resilient behaviors such as taking a lunch break and finishing work on time.
- Reiterating the value of the project to always remind your team about the value you are trying to build.
Building resilience is quite a personal thing, so the best advice is to consider how well-equipped you feel at the moment with regards to your personal resilience levels and then brainstorm some steps to implement to help you bolster your resilience.
Adaptability is the same: the easiest way to apply this in practice is to be open to change. While change is tough, it is often in the best interest of the project. If you can adapt to changing business needs, you can improve the chances of success.
“Resilience can be taught and should be considered a key skill for the PPM practice of the future,” says Emma-Ruth.
12. Change Management: Enable change to achieve the envisioned future state
“Change management is about setting up people to succeed,” says Bushra Nur, CAPM, “especially those who are going to be impacted by the change.”
Bushra says that project management is all about delivering change, whether that is to a service, product, technology, or process. People are at the heart of these, and that’s why this principle is important to the practice of project management.
“To ensure the change is able to be absorbed and embedded long after the project has completed delivery, change management should be incorporated from the beginning of the project,” Bushra says. “A tip to integrate change management into your project planning activities is to have well-defined responses to common questions at the beginning of your project.”
Bushra recommends answering the following questions at the pre-business case stage and then incorporating them into the business case:
- What is the change?
- Why is the change required?
- How will it impact those affected?
- What will be the consequences if the change does not go ahead?
It’s also important to consider how people will be supported through the change and after the change? Bushra recommends communications, training, user guides, and change champions as options for making sure your changes ‘stick’.
Let’s look at some situational examples of where change management is an important principle to use in your project. For example:
- During a time of organizational change or transition, including mergers and acquisitions or office closures.
- Helping teams understand new processes and software to improve adoption and use of the new ways of working.
- When your organization is changing something that affects that outside of it, e.g., construction projects near residential housing.
- Helping team members to easily voice their concerns about the change to give the team reassurance that you’re for and with them through the transition process.
The principle of change management is something you will find useful over and over again. As projects deliver change, you probably are changing something - however small - on your projects. Keep this one of the basic principles of project management in mind, and you’ll find it easier to encourage others to use whatever it was your team delivered.
Drawing it all together
These 12 principles are shifting the practice of project management. It’s becoming more important that teams focus on broad principles and less on the process - although, of course, using the right processes is always going to be essential for smooth delivery. These principles provide another way to frame what is critical for success.
Think about how you use these principles in your work at the moment. If you don’t think you are doing the best job, focus on choosing one principle to work on and adopt. Then go from there and continue to build your skills, layering on the principles as you go.
Note: For now, please do not tie to the PMP exam, exam content outline, or 7th edition PMBOK directly since the latest PMP exam still uses 6th edition PMBOK as one of the primary references.