Which came first, the project process or the tool?

PM Oracles
December 3, 2014

There are many aspects involved in successful project and program management: hard work, experience, good teamwork, solid processes and work practices, having good tools with which to work, adopting and displaying the right behaviours—the list could go on. This article focuses on two aspects of project/program management—the processes and the tools we use as program and project managers—and asks: what comes first—the process or the tool?

The case for processes first, tools second

Processes for project and program management are well documented and readily available today, from professional institutes and organisations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the International Project Management Association (IPMA), to chartered institutes of various project-orientated professions, books and research papers, training organisations, and internal groups (for example, staff working in PMOs) in commercial and non-commercial organisations.

Ensuring a thorough understanding of processes to follow and how to ’embody them’ in your program or project is crucial to setting your program or project up for success. One key to success is to ensure processes are represented in the way you do things’, which in this article we will call behaviours and actions.

Simply put:

  1. Behaviours: The way people in a project team conduct themselves during the course of program/project.
  2. Actions: The physical activities and interactions the project team undertakes and manages during the course of the program/project.

For example, having a solid understanding of the processes required to create a project management plan is fundamental to ensuring the plan accurately portrays how the team will deliver the project. You must then display the behaviours and take the actions to make it happen. The same could be said of the project estimating and cost control process, the scheduling process, the procurement process, the quality process, the process of controlling risks and all other aspects of program and project management.

But even if you are aware of the processes you should follow and the behaviours and actions required, is this enough to guarantee success, or is there too much room to manoeuvre? Are you hindered if you know the processes to follow but cannot follow them because you do not have the right tools? Do you need a level of control that an appropriate tool can provide?

Consider this scenario: you are a project manager and have just hired a group of professionals from outside your organisation to run sections of your project. Neither you nor other members of the team have the time to show them “the way things are done around here”, and the specific processes you expect them to follow. In this case, is it enough to ask them to adopt the processes outlined in your procedures guides without providing specific tools that will provide direction?

While a tool can embody good processes, one can argue that it is the behaviours and actions of individuals that make the real difference, regardless of the tool or tools they use. Such behaviours are a result of understanding how to perform certain activities; this cannot be taught by a tool.

The case for tools first, processes second

We all need and expect good tools to help us do our jobs. Whether you are an office-based project manager who uses a multitude of computer-based tools, or a professional that works in a different environment, you can’t do your best without the right tool—or can you?

Years ago, project management was carried out with tools that were more manually intensive than those used today, but they were tools nonetheless. In the same way, carpenters relied on manual saws and now use a variety of powered devices to help them get the job done more quickly and with less physical effort, and designers used hand-built models in the absence of specialist computer simulation software.

Project management tools of varying levels of complexity abound today. Some have evolved into entire systems for managing the project itself, while others are specific to particular disciplines. Many project management tools have been developed by the organisations that have refined them over the years through the use of feedback and wisdom from user groups. Whether they are scheduling tools, resource management tools, estimating tools, scope management tools or a composition of all these facets and more, they can provide a solid platform to control projects.

As an example, consider scheduling. Today’s computer-based scheduling tools are very powerful, and allow real-time consolidated views ranging from a single project to a portfolio view of a global scale.

Tools can undoubtedly provide structure to our work. As long as they are task-appropriate and designed to support the process, they help us to become more efficient. And that is one of the keys to using tools: we need to use the right one for the job at hand, it should be a platform to achieve efficiency and it should be used appropriately and properly as a result of training.

Let’s revisit our project scenario: in this situation, you are taking on a group of professionals from outside your organisation to run sections of the project, but you do not have the time to show them “the way things are done around here” and the specific processes you expect them to follow. Are you still confident that if you give them the tools they need with no attention given to the processes to follow, they will adhere to the processes in the manner that you anticipate?


We believe that processes and tools need to work in harmony with each other, and that the process should determine how the tool needs to be used. Tools vary in their level of sophistication, and they can definitely help your efficiency and level of consistency and control if they are appropriate for the task at hand and they are used properly.

You cannot use a tool effectively unless you know the processes it guides or instructs you to follow. The need to know ‘why’ and ‘how’ to use a tool is the reason that you first need an understanding of processes (and behaviours). Without the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, we will not understand the real meaning behind the task at hand.

Program and project managers need to combine process familiarity, embodied through behaviours and actions, with the tools to carry out their work. Understand your processes first, and then use the most appropriate tool available to you to undertake the process.

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PM Oracles
PM Oracles is Gareth Byatt, Gary Hamilton, Jeff Hodgkinson and Duke Okes, all experienced PMO, program, and project managers who share a common passion to help others and share knowledge about PMO, portfolio, program and project management.
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