Miller's Maxims of Project Management 

Dick Miller   

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.

© Copyright 2013 by  Dick Miller


Drawing of a project file folder.

I’ve been managing projects all my adult life. Part of the time, I was doing it unconsciously, without training or awareness of what I was doing or why. After I got some training, my eyes were opened, and I could see why I succeeded in some cases and failed in others. I’ve been managing projects in a conscious fashion for more than 40 years now, have managed an organization that taught people how to manage projects, and have taught project management at the undergraduate and graduate levels at college.
All that is not by way of blowing my own horn, but to show you that I’ve been there and done that when it comes to project management. The following tips come from those years of experience, and I share them with you in the hope that they will help move you in the direction of conscious project management.

Failing to plan is like planning to fail

A project is any activity that has a definite beginning, middle, and an end. Taking a family vacation is a project. Doing the weekly grocery shopping is a project. As any mother of the bride will tell you, planning a formal wedding is definitely a project. In any of these cases, you could possibly arrive at the final result of two weeks away from home, six bags of groceries, or a married daughter without a plan, but I’d be willing to bet that the experience of getting to that result would be a lot less pleasurable than it would have been if you had planned the project first.

These simple examples refer to everyday life. Through the rest of this story, I’m going to restrict my comments to projects in the context of the business world. That’s where I gained my experience, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.

Know what you want to accomplish

A man much wiser than I once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there.” The first thing you need to establish is exactly what things are going to be like when the project is successfully completed. This must be stated in observable, measurable terms.

You’re not allowed to say things like, “Quality will improve by 10%.” Quality of what? How will it be measured? Compared to what? Who will do the measuring? How often will it be measured?

Every end result statement must pass the “Gee, Dad” test. When little Johnny says, “Gee, Dad, watch me! I can ride my bike all the way from here to the corner all by myself without falling off!” Dad can observe, measure, and determine whether little Johnny has met the criteria for success that he has established for himself. Even if the success criterion is as simple as “The boss signs off on the document,” that’s observable and measurable, and is an acceptable success criterion.

A project has three aspects: scope of work, schedule, and cost. One may be fixed, one optimized, and one floats.

By scope of work we mean the work that is to be done in the project. This gets back to the end result we talked about in the previous section. Are there things that must be included, and others that wait until later? The schedule is an obvious consideration: is there a definite time by which the project must be completed, or is the time a bit more flexible? Finally, resource constraints must be considered, in terms of dollars, people, and equipment.

An old project management truism says: “Scope, schedule, resources: pick two.” The meaning of that brief version of the second sentence of this section’s title is that you can’t have everything. If you’ve got a hard deadline and tight resources, you may need to postpone some features from this release of your software until the next release. If you must have certain features in the product and you’re working with a fixed budget, then the schedule may have to slip. You get the idea.

The way to settle this question is at a project kickoff meeting. One of the first agenda items should be a discussion of which of the three aspects of the project is fixed, which is to be optimized, and which floats. Determine first whether scope, schedule, or resources is the element that absolutely, positively must remain unchanged. Having done that, choose which of the remaining two elements is to be optimized: if you have to choose between this and that, which one gets picked? The third element has to wind up wherever it winds up, depending upon the demands of the other two project aspects.

Identify the real stakeholders

At the project kickoff meeting, it’s important to have all the key stakeholders for the project in the room. If schedule demands require that a stakeholder send a representative in his or her place, it’s with the understanding that the representative has full authority to speak and act in the stakeholder’s place.

When I say real stakeholders, I mean the people for whom this project is actually going to make a difference. Don’t invite anyone simply because of his or her job title. This is a working meeting, and the people who attend will probably inform the executives in their regular activity reports if they think it’s important to do so. You need to have people who will be providing resources for the project, people who will be consumers of the output of the project, and people who have authority to approve the project from various perspectives (human resources, legal, public relations, marketing, engineering, or whatever). Many of the attendees may not attend regular team meetings after the kickoff meeting, but they must all be there when it begins.

Everybody needs to be on board

Now that you’ve got everyone in the room, you need to lead them to consensus on what this project is all about. One thing is key to remember: this is not your project; it’s their project. You’re just the caretaker, janitor, chief cook and bottle washer. You get all the grief and, when it’s all over, you might get a few Atta boys or Atta girls if you’ve done a good job.

But the key is consensus. It’s important to get everyone to agree to the priorities of the three elements, and to commit the necessary resources to get the project done. If you’re a little rusty on your team facilitation and consensus-building skills, check out a marvelous book called “The Team Handbook” by Scholtes, Joiner, and Streibel. It’s filled with how-tos and useful tips on such things.

Find out from the kickoff meeting participants the extent to which they want to participate in the future. They may want to attend the regular team meetings, to be copied on the minutes of those meetings, to be informed when things are going wrong, or to be brought in at the end when their approval is needed. Try to accommodate their wishes.

If your project is running late, it’s never because you didn’t work fast enough, it’s always because you didn’t start soon enough

Allowance always has to be made for contingencies. Key people get sick, go on vacations, get drawn off onto other projects, take longer to do what they need to do than you thought they would, and so on. Outside factors change constantly: the marketing folks want to impress a new customer, so they’d like to show them a prototype sooner than you had planned to have it ready; the CEO decides we can afford a booth at the big trade show after all; important input or parts you were counting on from some outside organization didn’t show up when you expected them.

All of this means that you need to build in some slack time to your tasks on the front end. As soon as you are able to begin a task, do so. Having a task completed and waiting for its successor is much better than a frantic scramble to get it done so the successor can begin.

No project has ever been completed on time, within budget, as originally planned. Yours will not be the first.

Any project manager will tell you that every project plan must be adjusted many, many times during the course of the project. A requirement changes; a resource dries up or frees up; a schedule slips. These are all ordinary occurrences in the daily life of a project manager. Don’t take it personally. The project plan is a tool. Don’t be a slave to it; let it work for you instead.

Be sure to consider all the ramifications of any change in the project plan. If you have set up your project plan in any of the popular project planning software applications, the application should take care of that for you. Watch out! Examine everything that the application has changed as a result of the change you introduced to make sure that some constraint was not violated that you didn’t foresee. You don’t want the big signoff meeting happening on a Sunday, for example.

When you’re up to you’re a** in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you were sent to drain the swamp

Project management is not a pastime for the leisure class. It seems the day-to-day activities involved in managing projects take up all one’s time. There’s always a crisis to deal with, a fire to put out, or some ruffled feathers to smooth over.

It’s easy to lose sight of what the project is trying to accomplish when you’re dealing with the nuts and bolts of making the machine work. But you, as project manager, have the responsibility to keep that end in sight and make sure that everyone on the team keeps his or her eyes on the prize. Exactly how you go about it is probably determined by your own management style, so I won’t get specific. I will suggest that the regular team meetings present good opportunities to help everyone focus on the project goals.

It’s not over when it’s over

When you have delivered a successful result and your customer has signed off, you’re not done. You need to bring the members of the team together for a debriefing, sometimes called a post-mortem meeting. That’s where you talk about what went well, what didn’t go well, and how things could be done better next time. Be careful not to personalize or play blame games.

The most important part of this step is to write down what is said and to distribute it to all the team members. If the project has an archive of the project records, be sure that the debriefing minutes are included. In that way, you might not have to learn the same lessons all over again on the next project.


Project management is not for the faint of heart or for those looking for an easy job. It can be very fulfilling in the same way that leading an orchestra during a great performance can be, except you’re less likely to get a chance to take a bow.

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