So what’s in your company’s project management dictionary?

dictionaryWe often joke that the only correct answer to a project management question is “It depends!“. Many of us would also agree that the right approach to deliver a project is one which is tailored to fit its context, complexity and the culture in which it will be managed.

But there is still value in establishing some standards for project management. One component of such standards is a set of operational definitions. Such definitions might constrain the degree of flexibility which a project team possesses but will support governance and oversight through increased consistency and predictability.

Like everything else, operational definitions need to be established selectively.

Let’s consider a team’s degree of confidence in its estimates. A project funding policy might require that team submitting detailed estimates should have a confidence of ±5% but what does that really mean? Until the project is over, we won’t know and punishing the team for being of that range will be a Pyrhhic victory. If a sponsor is putting undue pressure on a team to deliver, they are going to be hesitant to declare that they have a low degree of confidence and will value short term peace over long term pain.

But what happens if we don’t develop operational definitions for the following terms?


PMI and other associations have provided criteria for differentiating projects from other activities (e.g. unique endeavor, start and finish) but these criteria are insufficient for implementation purposes. Without establishing some quantitative measures (e.g. effort, cost) to accompany the qualitative ones, the risk of significant changes being managed in an undisciplined manner increases as does the likelihood of financial and resource capacity erosion to stealth work.


Many companies will identify programs the way Alan Novak spoke of pornography: “Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it.“.  In the absence of an operational definition, the risk increases that an initiative which would have been better managed as an integrated set of projects with appropriate governance will be undermanaged resulting in reduced business outcomes.

Issue or risk severity and probability

What does “High” mean? Individual biases skew the analysis and perception of risks or issues so providing quantitative thresholds can reduce the potential for critical risks or issues being ignored or unwarranted effort being spent on low value ones. But simply translating risk probability from words to percentage values won’t help as our biases would continue to influence our assessments.

Project manager

There is no simple litmus test for what makes a competent project manager. However this should not deter organizations from establishing a minimum set of qualifications to prevent this scenario from a 2011 Dilbert comic. Without this, there is a greater likelihood of project failure and reduced credibility in the profession.

Companies need to establish reasonable operational definitions for project management – adaptability should never be confused with anarchy!



Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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