I was invited to give a 20 minute talk in the Project Management Association event (Verkefnastjórnunarfélag Íslands, yes I know it is a mouthful)today. Here is the presentation. I wanted to talk about Startup Thinking in Project Management. I think it is important that I give some context and background. I started my career in a startup in Pune, India. It was a great learning experience and met some of my very good friends while I was working there. Fast forward to 1999, I was recruited to work at Ernst and Young in their Management Consulting practise and the first project that I started working on implementing bleeding edge technologies, we were taking the entire business process of a large gas pipeline company in the US online. It was a massive project, more than 100 people, and I think the project cost was north of $100m! yep, it costed that much to take a business online. I moved on to other projects before the project went live. It took the project team more than 8 years to complete and go live. Since that project I was involved in various roles in various projects while I was working as a consultant.

Every consulting company has a methodology to manage projects, as every project is time and resource bound, read people, tools and money. I always felt that Project Management as a practice focused too much on the process i.e updating the GANTT chart, building dependencies, generating status update and reports, creating deliverables to the steering committee, to other project managers, merging and updating the Project Plans, dealing with Microsoft Project and all the challenges of managing with emails the tasks that had to get done. The Project Managers and the office of Project Management became an organization in its own right. Don’t get me wrong some of my best friends are project managers and I have played the role of a project manager. I see the value and discipline of following a process. I was even contemplating getting my Project Management Institute Certification, I studies the PMI book etc I think Project Management is a perfect example of cart driving the horse. Planning is important, but plans are useless because plans only work in a world that is not changing. If there is one thing that we all know is that change is the constant. In addition, traditional project management practices do not align with the new workflow. The principles are still relevant but the tools and methods that is traditionally followed is outdated… IMHO.

What is the Startup thinking in Project Management? Startups are always running with very little resource, ie time, funding or team or talent or strategy, so when they are desperate all the time, I believe this is a good thing. We tend to think creatively when our backs are against the wall. Startups, even the successful ones are desperately trying to swim to the next milestone. Desperation brings a sense of urgency, adrenalin kicks in and you really start executing. I see a sense of lethargy when that desperation vanishes. Here are some modest suggestions, it is in the slide before last in the presentation.

  1. Put first things first i.e Prioritize
  2. Focus less on the process and more on the substance
  3. Bring Design thinking, Rapid Prototyping and Scoping into plans
  4. Do not run your project based on massive plans with huge dependencies (they are mostly wrong)
  5. But have a Plan
  6. Think Agile, Iterative and Smaller milestones

Nothing earth shattering about these suggestions, but I always find common sense is never common practise. This is very true for anyone who thinks process before substance. I have seen so many startups going through the motions of doing something without stopping and asking themselves Why they are doing whatever they are doing. This is even a bigger problem in larger organizations, where pretending to work and politicking takes over doing actual work. When you find this in your project or company, stop immediately and fix the root cause or quit. Yes, it is difficult to throw the baby with the bathwater but I believe it is really not a baby we tell lies to ourselves that it is our baby because we have created this monster of a project plan or excel spreadsheet and going back and starting over seems like such a daunting task… do me a favor, just pull the plug and start over. It is liberating.