What are the 3 Essentials of Project Management?

Suppose you want to do something sizeable, which requires the collaboration of several people over a period of time.  Something like a Start-up, a software project, a process improvement or building a house. You will be creating something new. You get something from the status quo A to a new state B.

You need to start a Project. So let’s get out the toolbox of project managers!


The danger with these tools – reinforced by the classical training of project managers – is that they tend to imply a”one size fits all” perspective. A good tool, like a work breakdown structure (a list of the activities that make up a project) used in an innovative, start-up context is likely to suppress creativity if it forces the project team to take the route to the solution prescribed in the work breakdown structure instead of giving them the freedom to choose their own path.

Tools used without wisdom are dangerous.

A “Fool with a Tool is still a Fool” (Bill Gates) – but that Fool that is now armed.

3 Types of Projects

To be treated as robots is a major part of the reason why some people really hate projects. They are forced by “fools armed with tools” into administrative nightmares,  while they long for the freedom to get creative.

So before you start “hitting away at a screw with your new Hammer”consider the project type you are facing:

  • Explorative: Start activities right away and deal with issues as they come up
  • Control: Plan ahead in detail, communicate and start once plans have been made
  • Loose/Tight: Start some activities right away and add a certain degree of planning along the way


The middle ground between control heavy projects (e.g. building a bridge) or explorative projects (e.g. finding a minimal viable product in a start-up) is occupied by typical business projects.


In a project falling into the “loose/tight” category there are a lot of tradeoffs that need to be made: Adding too much control to a supposedly agile software project will be as counterproductive as to forego any structure, reporting, and standards.

So the message is: Tune your approach to the type of project you are facing.

But isn’t there a set of common factors driving the success of any kind of project? I believe there is.

3 Essentials for any type of Project

All the complexities of a targeted business change and all the perceptions of what a project should be obscure the true essence of what it takes to get anything from A to B. There are really just 3 things that matter, everything else follows from that: A Just Cause, Alignment of People on the Target and Commitment to the Cause.



1. A Just Cause

With a “Just Cause” the project team and other stakeholders have something they desire to achieve. A “Just Cause” gives the project team the very reason for being, the reason why their efforts and dedication to the project is making sense for the organization and themselves. It provides the “true North” to orientate all decisions.

The word “just” has a moral implication. After all, people aspire to do good and the Inspiration gained by a “Just Cause” is invaluable to a project. What is deemed to be “good” is, of course, depending on the values a person hold dear to herself. But as long as the project team and most stakeholders share the conviction of the Just Cause, the project is driven forward by it.

So how is one to shape a “Just Cause” out of a dry mission objective like “implement that system”? The key is to answer the question “Why?” for multiple times until you are at the essence of the project. Finally, a project is there to make something better, to help someone getting things right, to make the world “just” a little bit better. Identify what your project contributes. If there is really nothing, then just don’t start the project at all.

2. Alignment

Alignment has a strategic and a tactical side.

Let’s start with the strategic element. It’s not enough to have identified a Just Cause for a project, it needs to be shared by others. So get project members and stakeholders to think of the just cause, discuss it with them. Sharpen the mission. Put it in writing, visualize it, display it, give your project a name. Make sure that the “Just Cause” provides true North for the lifetime of a project for everyone involved.

But Alignment is more than just strategic. It is, on a tactical level, the day to day synchronization of activities: The avoidance of waste, the clearness of areas of responsibility, the awareness of datelines, the knowledge of what the other team members are doing, the knowledge of dependencies and risks, the setting of standards, even the provision of templates.

By aligning the team on a day to day level everyone works in the same direction, towards the true north without any unnecessary waste of efforts – and therefore with speed.

3. Commitment

Even if people share a certain sense of the “Just Cause” of the project and work in an aligned, concerted manner towards the goal, that is not enough to ensure project success: They need to be as deeply committed to the project as possible on a personal level.

A Just Cause might make a good reason for the company to do something, but Commitment can only be gained by addressing the individual needs of each project team member individually. The project leader needs to understand what make the person tick, what are his strength, his interest, his desires, his fears, his passions. The more he understands, the better. The only way to find this out is to spend time with the team member, listening and asking probing questions.

To gain Commitment, Emotional Intelligence is what is needed, rather than technocratic skill.

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Perceiving, understanding, using and managing emotions is key to gain and keep the commitment of team members. A committed project team working in an aligned manner is a fast and efficient project team.

Masterful Project Management

If a project manager is able to…

  • Conjure and uphold a Just Cause that is shared by team members and most Stakeholders
  • to align the team in detail on a day to day basis without interfering into their preferred individual work styles
  • and to commit each team member emotionally to the project

…she may consider herself a masterful Manager, as she gains the maximum of the contribution of the team. And all that performance comes by using unobtrusive nudges instead of strict orders.

After all, Management is the art to get people to do things. And creative things can not be ordered.

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