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7 simple rules of good project management

7 simple rules of good project management

These seven principles will help you increase your chances of delivering a successful project. They come from the latest revision of PRINCE2.

Published on
December 2016

These seven principles will help you increase your chances of delivering a successful project. They come from the latest revision of PRINCE2™.

PRINCE2 is the leading project management framework today. It developed from PRINCE, originally published by a UK government agency in 1989. The framework was thoroughly updated in 2009, when these principles were introduced. PRINCE2 has its critics, but these seven principles hold true even in today’s agile business environment.

1. Don’t miss the point.

The point of any project is to achieve something, to create something. Try to focus on what the project will produce – its deliverables. Depending on the project, this could be anything from an advertising campaign to a website, from an airport runway to a new zoo.

PRINCE2 calls these deliverables “products”. These products are the ‘things’ made during the project that can be described in advance, created and tested. They are not necessarily tangible.

Make sure everyone’s expectations for these products are documented clearly. Do the business, the suppliers and the end users all agree on what will be delivered? What will it look like? What characteristics will it display? Don’t wait until the end of the project to find out! Document it clearly from the outset. Knowing what products are required, and to what quality, will help you to plan and set appropriate budgets.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual tasks required to complete a project. But this can be counterproductive. Focus on delivering the products that everyone has agreed to, not marking off individual tasks. You will then have a better chance that all parties leave happy!

2. Know your place.

In fact, make sure that everyone involved in the project knows their place. PRINCE2 defines the role of Project Manager, Project Executive, Senior User, Senior Supplier and a few other roles. Make sure that all parties (the business, the suppliers, the end users) are fairly represented. This goes beyond ensuring that someone nominally has the title of “Senior User”. Make sure that everyone knows what is expected of them! Ensure that team members also have the skills, authority and availability to fulfil their roles.

If you do not have individuals with the right skills, or the time necessary to devote to the project, then consider hiring a professional project manager for the duration of the project.

Getting the team structure right helps avoid problems further down the line. If the end users are not properly represented, for example, how will you know if your project will actually meet their needs? If suppliers are not included, how will you know if your project is workable?

3. Set boundaries.

Delegate authority by setting boundaries at each level of management.

For example, the board delegate responsibility for managing the project to the Project Manager. The Project Manager’s power is not absolute though. The board will set the limit of his authority to within certain tolerances. They may set tolerances against time, cost, quality etc. Within these boundaries, the Project Manager is empowered to proceed without interference. If it looks like these tolerances will be breached, then the Project Manager defers to the board for a decision on how to proceed.

This allows senior management to remain in control, but without creating a burden on their time. This also avoids wasting the project manager's time with unnecessary bureaucracy.

This, of course, is exactly how businesses should work all the time. But this is certainly not always the case!

4. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.

The project may seem huge. Insurmountable. Break it down into stages. Manage each stage as a separate mini-project. Have a high-level plan for the entire elephant (project), but plan each stage in detail one at a time. At the end of one bite (stage), start to plan the next.

If you try to plan the entire project in detail from the beginning, you will waste an enormous amount of effort. Plans change as projects progress. This is inevitable. You will have to amend your plans as you go. If you have already written a detailed plan for two years or even only three months into the future, you will undoubtedly waste time rewriting it.

5. Don’t be a maverick… or a robot.

Don’t ever think that your project is too small to need proper project management. Don’t think you haven’t got the time to use a project management method. Don’t be a maverick or try to ‘wing it’!

At the other extreme, you don’t need to robotically follow the same set of procedures for every project. Every project is different. Tailor your method to suit the project and your business. Think about the size of the project, the complexity, and the risks involved. Then decide on the right level of control needed for this project.

For example, do you really need to meet once a week? Does the End Stage Report really need to be a 20-page report? For smaller projects, it could just be a 5-minute phone call.

The important thing is that the project is controlled, decisions are made at the right level and that stakeholders are kept informed. The nature of the control, the mode of the decision and the format of the information can be flexible.

Final tip(s) on this subject; Don’t confuse meetings with decisions. Don’t confuse ‘keep me informed’ with ‘prepare a written report on’.

6. The end justifies the means.

As we’ve already said, the purpose of any project is to create something. The project is just a means of achieving that end. The benefits of achieving that “end” should justify the expenditure needed to create it. PRINCE2 calls this “Continued business justification”. If the expected results of the project are not worth the effort, then stop the project. It is not always simple to apply this one.

During your project, you should set specific times to re-evaluate your business goals. Each time you evaluate your goals, ensure they are still achievable. Will they bring the benefits you envisioned? Will these benefits outweigh the cost of the project?

This evaluation can be difficult. Our pride is involved. Many people may have a vested interest in your project. You don’t want to let them down. You may feel that to stop is to fail. But we must be honest, most of all with ourselves. Concentrate on facts. Start by formally reviewing and updating the business case. Look carefully at the project budgets. These cold facts help you put some of this emotional response to one side. This makes it easier to come to the right conclusion.

7. Keep improving.

PRINCE2 encourages users to learn from experience. Learn from other people’s experiences, as well as your own. Before starting your project try talking to other managers who have had similar projects. Pick their brains for anything relevant to your project. What worked for them? What didn’t work?

Does your company have a procedure to document these lessons? If not, start one!

As you work through your project, think about things you would do differently if you had the chance. Write these things down. Consult this list before you engage on your next project. Don’t make the same mistakes twice. Refine your own process. Keep improving.


Of course, we couldn’t discuss every facet of good project management in less than 2,000 words. The PRINCE2 manual is itself over 300 pages long! But these 7 principles are the fundamental elements that define a PRINCE2 project. If you apply these principles you are managing a PRINCE2 project, regardless of the individual tools you use. You also greatly increase your chances of delivering a successful project. Here are those seven points again:

  • Focus on products (“Don’t miss the point”)
  • Defined roles and responsibilities (“Know your place”)
  • Manage by exception (“Set boundaries”)
  • Manage by stages (“Eat the elephant one bite at a time”)
  • Tailor to suit the project environment (“Don’t be a maverick…or a robot”)
  • Continued business justification (“The end justifies the means”)
  • Learn from experience (“Keep improving”)

We wish you all the best with your projects! And of course, we are here to help if you need us.

This article represents my own experiences, interpretation and opinions – and isn’t professional advice. If you would like help managing your project, please contact me for a consultation. If you have had a good or bad experience with a project you have managed, or you have any tips to share, please do tell us about them in the comments section below.

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