Should we have standards in project management?

Adeline Teoh
November 27, 2014

While project management has been around since the construction of the pyramids, project management standards are relatively new. Should we standardise project management, or allow a more freestyle approach?

For freestyle

Mark Heath, managing director of UniPhi and mbh, presented a paper at the AIPM 2014 National Conference called ‘Don’t standardise project management’.

The majority of people are standardising erroneously. There are four fundamental things common in all projects: stage gates, where you check in with the powers-that-be, financial control, governance and facilitation, where a project manager is able to lead and facilitate and interject at key points. Assuming there is maturity, if you have these four things in place then you can go nuts with any tool or method, which is what [author] Kaye Remington calls the ‘jazz method’, a standard approach to managing projects rather than standardisation.

Methodology can only get you so far; eventually any standard falls apart when you do a complex project. I used to set up PMOs and it was all about establishing standard methodologies—which is required to get a company to Level 3 maturity—but then it needs to thrown those standards away to get from Level 3 to 5. That’s pretty well recognised, but the people who establish a methodology become zealots to it and forget it’s just a guide.

Standards are a way of trying to control what’s reported and what information is given but I don’t believe you can. People can only control so much and when they don’t want to let go it’s a problem, especially with project management where everything is built on a control-based methodology. You need to manage, not control. Different scenarios require different ways of managing, so I encourage people to know as much as they can about different management techniques and start to apply those in a way that fits the context of the project.

For standards

Professor Lynn Crawford is an internationally renowned researcher and academic and a director at the Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards (GAPPS).

It was not possible to get everyone to agree to one project management certification, one body of knowledge, so the next best thing was to provide a platform for transferability and mutual recognition. We had no intention of setting another standard, but when you compare one standard to another, which do you take as the core? And if you take that as the core, then you privilege that one. We saw there were 48 topics that were fairly common and developed the GAPPS project management standard, which is a performance-based standard that underpins the knowledge guides. Within the standard we’ve acknowledged there are different ways projects can be managed.

What I like about performance-based standards is they don’t say ‘do it this way’; they say ‘when you’re doing a project you really ought to think about these things’. It’s not prescriptive, it’s about saying ‘this is the minimum we would expect’.

You can improvise if you have skilled practitioners but you also need a shared structure. If you have very skilled practitioners of the jazz musician variety, you have to have a standard, that is, the things you’ve agreed on: “it’s in this key, it’s in this time signature”. So whether it’s an organisational standard or it’s based on an external standard, you do need a standard, you do need the rules of the game. If you see standards as the rules of the game then that’s how projects work.

What do you think?

Author avatar
Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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