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Tailoring in project management

February 9, 2022

What do you think about before you start planning and organizing a new project? About stakeholders and their expectations, the development method, the team and risks? You are probably looking for advice or an example of what to do to make the project successful. Most likely, you are trying to find useful insights for a new project from colleagues with similar experience, refer to the methodology and PMO staff, or even search in numerous books and articles. After all, it’s human nature to always try to take the easiest path that will help us quickly and effortlessly achieve what we want.

When starting a new project, many managers need to define the life cycle (Predictive, Agile, Hybrid) and a framework to use (Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban, etc.).

Now Scrum is very popular, which allows you to effectively organize an agile product development process through backlog management, sprints, regular and time-boxed meetings, readiness for change and team self-organization.

The Scrum Guide has been serving us with this purpose for more than 10 years already, constantly being improved. The document authors clearly indicate that “Changing the core design or ideas of Scrum, leaving out elements, or not following the rules of Scrum, covers up problems and limits the benefits of Scrum, potentially even rendering it useless”.

There are many frameworks and methodologies for project management and product development. There are even more books, articles and other sources of useful tips and tricks on a wide variety of project management topics. These sources of information are extremely useful for broadening one's horizons and for an inquisitive mind. But these are examples of so-called “explicit knowledge”, which, as you know, has one problem: the lack of context.

Because, when defining a methodology or a framework for a future project, the manager must have a good understanding of the project’s context. All projects are unique because of context, even if its deliverables are not unique (PMBOK Guide 7th edition). The context of a project is defined by its environment.

External environment – these are factors that usually neither the project team nor the performing organization can influence (political, economic, social, legislative, market, infrastructural and other factors).

The internal environment is the organization itself in which the project is executed (budgeting and project management policy, organizational structure, culture, processes and rules of work, available resources, etc.)

Leaving out or missing important elements of the project's external and internal environment can jeopardize the performance of some parts of the project or put the entire project at risk.

So, is the manager trying to apply far-fetched advice in attempts to apply the recommendations exactly as they are described in external sources (manuals, books, articles)?

You can draw an analogy with the adoption of a healthy lifestyle and weight loss. Millions of books and articles have been written on the subject, tens of thousands of courses and social media accounts have been created. The industry's annual revenue has already exceeded $200 billion. But many people know that in order to improve your health and lose weight, you should first consult a doctor, and choose those recommendations that are most suitable for your current lifestyle and that will not become a source of excessive stress for the body. Surely, when you come to the doctor and tell him the key purpose of the visit (weight loss), you will be very surprised and think about changing a specialist if, in response to complaints of fatigue and being overweight, he immediately starts writing out recommendations without analyzing the state of your body.

Far-fetched effect in project management can be observed in two situations:

  • When trying to apply an outdated or rigid organization methodology, which is imposed on the project due to bureaucratic reasons, and
  • When, due to lack of experience or good methodology, one tries to apply fairly rigid frameworks or universal recommendations “by the book”.

In order to decide which approach is right for a project, one must first assess the project environment, goals, constraints, and risks. And in this case, alas, no “as is” methodology or modern framework from a guide is likely to suit your project. You will have to roll up your sleeves and think with the project management team what exactly needs to be changed in the methodology or framework so that they help, and not impede the project to create valuable results. This is called adaptation (or tailoring).

It is OK if the tailored methodology will not be ideal, because adaptation is an ongoing process as part of the continuous improvement of any project. Pay due attention to feedback from the team, customer, and other important stakeholders, and tailor the approach to creating project deliverables to meet their requirements. To do this, you need to be able to communicate with them and be ready to make changes to the project and methodology. The value of the project results and the satisfaction of key stakeholders are the main indicators of the project methodology effectiveness.

It's better to make a little mistake in the beginning, but eventually find your own path to success, than to be very disappointed and burn out the team by focusing on making sure everything is done perfectly "by the book".

So why can the use of best practices reduce and even destroy a seemingly successful project? Firstly, following someone's successful experience, you cannot be sure that what worked for others will work successfully for you. Again, due to the project’s context: the market is different, the organizational structure and culture are different, the people are different, after all. That is why, copying someone else's experience, you can put your own project at risk.

Secondly, we often tend to follow the leader's actions, ignoring those who have also tried this method and failed. Blindly copying the standard, we lose the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, apply a creative vein, thereby developing and becoming better and more adaptive. Many companies that "deviated from the classics" ended up implementing more successful projects than those that blindly followed the canons.

If you are looking for good or best practices to apply to your project, try to use those that are as specific as possible: it will not be a single framework, but a set of recommendations on different project management domains, how to act in certain situations, when to apply which method or tool, etc.

How should one properly adapt a framework or methodology when organizing a new project?

  1. Study the project’s context – external and internal environment, including the existing methodology and historical experience on relevant projects. Check with the project management office for a recommended methodology or framework.
  2. Identify the project’s key constraints and risks – these are exactly the problems that you want to prevent by adapting a particular framework. Always focus on the most critical risks or limitations of your project first.
  3. Make a list of framework tailoring actions that will help you organize work in the face of key constraints effectively – these can be the results of team brainstorming or previous successful experience in the organization (you can also use the experience of other companies, but pls consider the risks outlined above). Chat with experienced colleagues to get the so-called “tacit or implicit knowledge” that contains context.
  4. Make sure you don't throw the baby out with the water (adaptation) – the new rules should allow your team to create results at the rate of value creation that the key stakeholders expect from you. If you are faced with a misunderstanding from some stakeholders, check the second point above again.
  5. Start adopting a customized approach and regularly evaluate its effectiveness – if necessary, you can quickly make small changes based on the results of team retrospectives and feedback from stakeholders.

When starting a new project, never be ashamed that the developed framework is not an exact copy of the standard. It is important to remember that project management is an adaptive process, and its goal is to satisfy the customer needs through the creation of valuable results. Therefore, various methods can be suitable for achieving the goal - not necessarily those that are universal and recognized. What matters is the methods that work for you. After all, if the customer is satisfied, the team works smoothly and enthusiastically, and problems are solved easily and do not repeat - isn’t it the ideal project management framework?



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