Good Project Management is Common Sense

Common Sense... by RobertBasil, on Flickr

Project management is one of those things that seems very complex when you’re starting out. But after you been doing it for a while, it really turns out to be a good dose of common sense with some science and discipline added in.

I think many project managers tend to focus on tools and techniques far too much, and not enough on the people aspects of managing projects. By far these relational aspects of project management are the most important ones.

I recently had someone comment about my online project management training. They liked it, but it seemed strange that instead of pouring through multitudes of esoteric details what I was presenting was rather simple, a “no BS” way of just showing how to do things and illustrating the important concepts. High praise to my mind, and I’m still glowing from it.

If you are a new project manager or someone who’s getting into project management for the first time, I urge you to keep something in mind. After you learn some of the formal techniques that come along with the discipline of project management, this is about working with people. Most of the real progress I’ve made in the way I manage projects has been the result of understanding human psychology better in some way, not by understanding a tool better. Most of what works in terms of tools and processes is rather simple, and if you understand the core fundamentals, you can adapt your approach to any situation.

Manipulating numbers in the spreadsheet or a Microsoft project file doesn’t make reality happen. Planning is important, but the actual plan itself is much less valuable than the process of creating it. I have known a lot of project managers over the years who do an excellent job at managing projects and teams, even though they have never gotten a degree in management or a certification in project management. That said, I do think that even those project managers would be better at their jobs if they approached it as a discipline.

At a high level the way that I manage projects follows a particular process even though the individual implementation is going to change on every single project I manage.

  • I start with the why,
  • then figure out the what,
  • then figure out how it will be done and who’s going to do it.
  • When comes out as a result of these things
  • and then there’s a process of iteration where we update our draft plans in light of reality including funding.

There are always trade-offs involved, considerations about the individuals that will be on the project teen, who is paying for this, et cetera. Generally I like to make my project management processes as lean as possible and as iterative as possible so that we have continuous integration and a very good understanding of exactly what it is we are supposed to be producing. Feedback loops all over the place are excellent as well including

  • daily tag-ups,
  • lessons learned,
  • retrospectives,
  • putting prototypes of the product in front of the customer,
  • mockups,
  • user stories,
  • and many other techniques that allow you to gather feedback from stakeholders.

So don’t be intimidated by project management. When you look at something like the PMI standard or other certifications and standards having to do with project management he can seem really complex and convoluted.

But in the end, good project management is common sense.

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Dale S. Brown

Thank you for the article. I agree with you that the people aspects of the projects are as imporant- and maybe more important than the tools and techniques. I sometimes think that discussion of the tools feels safer than dicussion of the personality issues that can cause the productivity backups. Thanks for sharing.

Josh Nankivel

Thanks Sterling and Dale. I’m going to say that the people aspects are more important. How those considerations get factored in to communication, tools, and processes is what really matters. Tools and processes should be driven by the needs and behaviors of people, not the other way around.


Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Good post! In every list of the top reasons why projects fail poor communication, poor team management, and poor stakeholder management are at the top of the list. The tools are helpful but a good project manager who knows how to communicate and manage people can get by with calculator, Post-It notes, and a pad of paper in handling a project of any size.

I do have a general disagreement about “common sense.” Albert Einstein had the best definition when he said that “common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Too often common sense is just another way of saying “I told you so” and the unwillingness to stray from our comfort zones. Just plain thought and reflection is all that is needed.

Josh Nankivel

I know what you mean Bill. Perhaps “good sense” would have been more accurate than “common sense”….but then I couldn’t have used that awesome image! 🙂

I feel the same way you do about this….once I added that “science and discipline” to my own approaches, I really started improving as a project manager. Thinking like anchoring in project estimates are something you don’t think about usually…anchoring ends up happening in the ‘common sense’ approach most of the time. That science and discipline helped me change my thinking about generating project estimates….change from common sense to good sense, based on evidence in the psychological literature.


I’m glad you wrote this post.

I run into the wall of frustration when I find myself surrounded by people (often other management) who have never been PMs, but believe they understand it intimately and only expect a PM to manage templates & meeting minutes. Good Common Sense goes right out the window at that point. And that sucking sound that follows is usually the project circling the drain.

Bill Kirst

Great article! Thanks for sharing. I couldn’t agree more – understanding human psychology and what motivates people has been a huge benefit to me as a project manager. The tools, processes, methods and techniques can help get the machine started, but it is truly the human element that makes the system sing.

Josh Nankivel

@Bill – absolutely, those teams that get through Forming, and stay stuck in Storming are a testament to what you say. The Norming and especially Performing phases require more…conflict resolution, trust, easy communication, etc.

Anthony Tormey

Good article Josh. I’ve always promoted there are two sides to PM, the “Technical” side, the tools, techniques, models etc, and the “People” side, leadership, influence, communication, and more. If done properly one will influece the effectiveness of the other. For example having identified a (preferably written) need /opportunity statement is a fundemental first step as you indicate in your article (know your why). It is also a criticle step in the people side in that it will be the first question everyone involved will want to know, and subsequently have an influence on their involvement or lack of.

Josh Nankivel

@James – yep, seems to be a gap between ‘common sense’ and ‘common practice’

@Anthony – Absolutely, and there are many ways of getting to the various steps for planning. As long as the process results in a good definition, it will probably work out just fine.

@T.Jay – I’m thinking about re-branding my training courses to “No BS Project Management” 🙂