1. If it’s not in writing, it’s a rumour. And we don’t work that way.

If you spend your entire time reacting to what people tell you, then you’ll not only never get time to work on important things, you’ll probably end up trying to fix the wrong things.

The same is true for requirements — if you’re working on what someone told you a few weeks back, and relying on your memory being the same as hers when it comes to acceptance time, you’re asking to be beaten up.

Verbal facts nearly always change from day to day, and are much more susceptible to being coloured by the individual’s own perspective. You need to establish the objective facts, and set them down so they won’t change when you come back to rely on them. This is of course most important for anything contractual.

2. Ne pas prévoir, c’est déjà gémir
(To not anticipate is already to moan) – Léonard de Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was a smart guy; as well as anticipating the helicopter, the parachute and aeroplane, he also forsaw the necessity for Risk Management.

One of the marks of a poor Project Manager is one who always rushes around fixing problems. If you’re not working out what to do with Bad Stuff before it happens, you have already failed and might as well start whining about it.

3. Adding more people to a late project makes it later – Fred Brooks

If you’re running late on a project, the temptation is always to add more people. Don’t do that — you’ll make it worse. Why? Because of the lines of communication involved.


If you have N people on a project, the number of communication channels is (N*(N-1))/2. So with 5 people on the project, you have 10 lines of communication. With 7 people on the project, you have 21. With 10, you have 45. Negotiating all those communications takes time and effort which aren’t being spent on producing your deliverables.

4. The unachievable deadline is your fault

Projects nearly always start off with the right intentions — to produce a workable plan and stick to it, delivering quality results on time and on budget. But in far too many cases, the workable plan isn’t palatable to important stakeholders; they want it earlier, or cheaper, or both. So the pressure comes on you to ‘adjust’ the plan to show that it meets the constraint.

And guess what? It never works. Or if it does, it does so at the price of unsustainable pressure on your team.

Whose fault is that? Yours. You accepted the constraint, knowing it wasn’t workable. If you’re making those kinds of promises to clients then it’s “beyond carelessness or gross carelessness and [is] dishonest.” It’s the kind of failure that leads to £700m lawsuits.

5. How does a project get a year late? One day at a time.

It’s the little things; always the little things that kill you. Once tasks start missing dependency dates, their effect magnifies. And the cause of that can be as little as meetings continually overrunning by ten minutes.

6. Hope is not a strategy

Positive thinking is good; it motivates people including yourself. But how are you going to achieve your hope? What are you doing to make sure it happens? How will you know if you’re not getting there, and what are you going to do about it?

If you’ve not thought through these things, you’re not managing. You’re wishing. And sorry to tell you, the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.

7. All estimates are random variables

Unless your process and its inputs are so standardised and the outputs so stable to prove otherwise, there will always be some variance between estimated effort/schedule and the actual. So much so that if the estimate and actual end up identical, smell a rat and start investigating whether the actual has been fiddled in some way.

Therefore you should always:

  1. Build in buffers in your schedule
  2. Cite estimates as a range, rather than a single value
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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Seven Project Management Aphorisms to Live By by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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