For all my students and anyone who has heard me talk about this topic, I’ve been promising this article since there were only three Cs of PM, and now there are five! Well, the wait is over. Here are my dashboard dials for tuning project management tone, rigor and focus to the right project the right way. As a master class topic, the 5 Cs do assume that the table stakes of project management techniques and skills, no matter which methodology, are in place. The 5 Cs confirm that you’re aimed true for THIS project. So let’s get into it!
The 5 Cs of managing projects, Complexity, Criticality, Compliance, Culture and Compassion, tell you how much and how often to do the things we do. There are five, they fit on your hand, and they go in order. The first three, complexity, criticality and compliance, are about the work, and that's where we begin. From there, we expand our view to Culture and Compassion to tune to the team, the organization, and the day.
1. Complexity: how intricate is the work?
Complexity is the first dial, and of course, the more complex the project, as in moving parts, tight dependencies or multiple constraints, as examples, the more attention to planning details you need to pay. The simpler the project, or the more familiar the team is with the work and what it takes to get it done, the lighter touch the PM can take. This goes for any method, including how rigorous an Agile team manages ceremonies and how short sprints may have to be to maintain consistent velocity. Complexity can also come in the form of risk profile, in that the work itself may not be a heavy load, but externalities or dynamic environments can require diligence and a watchful eye on risk triggers and solid risk response plans in place. In general, higher complexity means higher requirements for focused project management.
When we think about complexity, we're also thinking about how the work needs to be done. Complexity drives your method, as well. If your complex project allows the team to make mistakes or take chances and learn from them, iteratively or incrementally, anywhere along the way, then you know you can use more agile methods to guide and frame up that specific set of outcomes or activity set. When you have one time to get it right, you know a more traditional approach of practicing and simulating, then doing it once with a lot of structure and support, calls for a waterfall mindset of more linear progression. The complexity of the work at each point across a project's lifecycle defines how we craft hybrid project approaches, a mix of both incremental/iterative and linear methods, that work best for most projects PMs manage now.
2. Criticality: how important are the outcomes?
Criticality is sometimes confused for complexity, but it’s very much it's own beast. Criticality defines how important the project or effort is to its stakeholders. Criticality can be about the impact the project has, even saving lives or changing communities, where risk management is an essential PM technique set to tap into. Criticality can be about the level of visibility the project has compared to other work, a leadership priority or an effort that lays the foundation for significant change to come. In this case, criticality steers the PM effort toward communication, facilitation and making sure that decision-making in the face of risks is in good shape, even if the work itself doesn’t require heavy project management technique.
As a refinement to technique and methodology, criticality can point the way to using a gated methodology, an approach that explicitly carves out milestones of approval that greenlight forward. Depending on the visibility and importance of the project, analyzing criticality of the work helps you refine your approach to its complexity, adapting to how leadership needs to engage and confirm decisions or agree on success criteria in support of the team and required outcomes. Criticality focuses on impact of the project, before, during and after, on participants, the teams that support the project, and the wide range of other stakeholders who are impacting or impacted by it.
3. Compliance: how externally constrained are we?
Compliance, is not an optional consideration on any project, whether considering the defined right thing to do or internal and external stakeholders to please. Compliance impacts projects from the outside, imposing constraints in methods and scope by prescribing definitions of success. Whether the project is implementing a new health care product, a credit card, or a financial system, compliance with regulatory agencies, industry standards, financial requirements, or even internal policies, are part of the job. Compliance is a core element of scope and requirements definition and quality management. The good news is that project managers can bake experts into resource needs to make sure that benefits of appropriate compliance outweigh costs.
Wait, that sounded fishy, didn’t it? Well, here’s the hard truth. There ARE times when the cost of non-compliance is LESS than the cost of compliance. Doing the right thing is always as a default, and managing compliance is absolutely not about sacrificing ethics or morals. Consider an example of paying a vendor penalty for not being able to participate in paperless transactions because it’s less expensive than replacing internal systems to implement EDI, at least for now given other priorities we may have. As PMs, compliance considerations require us to gain complete agreement on how we will meet requirements and when, taking risks and costs of both compliance and non-compliance into account.
4. Culture: what are our norms and values?
So, complexity, criticality and compliance are the three Cs about the work itself. But project management is about the concentric circles of the work, the team, the organization, and the environment. We need two more dials to make sure we fit there too, and that's where Culture and Compassion come in. Culture captures the default values and behaviors of the organization in which the project exists. A project manager adapts to the inherent culture in how she engages stakeholders, with what level of formality, what level of detail, and what level of structure. While project management standards in place before your project ever got started might be pure technique table stakes, how you use them to achieve the goals of THIS project might be reflecting more on the culture of the organization than just the day-to-day PM job. Do I actually NOT produce a weekly status report on a project at a certain point because I need manage data addiction and establish what slow looks like, so I can leave room to ramp later when we hit a more active phase with tighter milestones? I can use the existing culture as a baseline from which to guide the team on this specific effort.
Elevating from tactical culture adjustments on how I run my project, culture is a fundamental component for defining my project's organizational change management work, too. The trick is to tune the culture of the project somewhere between where the organization is now and where we need to be after the project is implemented. If the project doesn’t introduce significant organizational change, like releasing a new version of a current product line, then the culture of the project should tune right in to the organization. If the project is going to drive a new way of interacting, between functions or processes, then the project should start to feel that way, introducing more cross-functional sessions to define requirements, develop solutions, etc. The collaborative culture of the project will enable flexibility when roles and responsibilities need to shift to new norms as part of the project's outcomes, or when we nimbly need to define a train-the-trainer education approach in the face of project constraints.
5. Compassion: what current events are impacting us?
Compassion is about a point in time. A project manager practices with compassion when he tunes his project approach to respect impacts of current events outside the project on the team. While culture is relatively stable over a several year timespan, events usually introduce change. Those events, when they happen, need a different response, understanding that there will be a period of time before the culture itself responds creating new norms. Even so, operations operate, and initiatives need to make good on their value proposition. A project manager who understands the basics of compassion knows not to schedule a standing project meeting after a company-wide townhall announcing a significant change in leadership. A PM a little more savvy on the compassion spectrum will also know to push a little harder after celebrating an achievement to take the win as motivation for a little acceleration.
Taking PM skills further, compassion on a project also reflects the degree to which the team, this team at this time, is prepared to do the work at hand. Levels of experience of team members, strategic importance of the project within the enterprise portfolio, perceived value by sponsoring leaders, stakeholder analysis takes all of these into account to define success based on what we can reasonably and respectfully achieve together now, given all the factors this time and place introduce. Depending on the other four Cs, compassion may not have the weight to have a major impact on project approach, but actions and tactics allow it to color your project appropriately. From recognition programs encouraging positive motivation to increasing the frequency of retrospectives to encourage open communication, compassion-targeted tactics are the team heartbeat that builds strength and project resilience.
Applying the 5Cs toolset
To put it all in context, the 5 Cs are like photo editing tools. When a PM applies the 5Cs to a PM basic, like creating a workplan or capturing a requirement, or even managing a vendor, she adjusts the brightness of detail based on complexity, or the color contrast of communication based on criticality. Applied to a broader context of project approach or method, the 5Cs help frame, center, focus, and tone check the project to manage it for the most potent impact for investment made.
Want to get started? Think about your next team work session or workshop you want to conduct. You know what you want to achieve. You know the players. You want to get the most from it!
Now, apply each one of the 5 Cs:
How complex is the work of this project, this workshop? Moving parts or lots of personalities? Do you need to put a bit more structure in to stay focused on intended outcomes? What tools in the room? How closely are you managing to a defined agenda?
How visible is the project? How many people are impacted by it? Do we need to make sure that oversight of critical components, defined by roles and by processes, is really clear to all participants and subsequently informed stakeholders? Does the agenda leave room for the human elements of awareness and commitment to guide decision making?
Controls or compliance expectations? What elements of the workshop may be impacting or relying on internal or external controls? Is there any education needed on those implications? How can we get advice on details? Does that add new participants or stakeholders?
For this worksession, how does our culture drive required behavior norms? Do we pre-socialize agendas with participants? Do we send pre-reads? Are there formalities we need to follow for decisions to stick? If this is a new way to introduce a subject or get work done, do we need to create a bridge from our norms to this new thing?
And finally, how does compassion tell us to respond to current events impacting the team? From global events to company happy hours, how do we need to respond differently today, of all days, given who’s in the room and the role they’ll each play to achieve this agenda? From as simple as whether snacks will create a proper social mood to choosing a room that's neutral territory for all, are there adjustments this point in time requires? And of course, in what way do we show gratitude or appreciation for contributions, in context?
Using the 5 Cs as a dashboard to check your PM fit makes sure that you’re tuned to right now, the right way.