Rigor is a popular topic among IT project managers, often used in the context of describing how a PM should adhere to a particular process. It’s been on my mind quite a bit lately, and I’ve made some conclusions about what “rigor” means to me, as project managers who use agile are frequently criticized as not being particularly rigorous.
First, let’s start with Webster.
(1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity
(2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness
(3): severity of life : austerity b: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty 2: a tremor caused by a chill 3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially : extremity of cold
(4): strict precision : exactness
Not very cheery, if you ask me, but let’s talk about how it’s used. Typical usage with regard to project management my frequently feel like (1) above (harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment), but that’s not what we typically mean when we talk about rigor in project management.
Instead, it typically means the strict precision with which you follow some project management belief or practice. For many PM’s, it means the strict precision with which you follow the process. I have tried, over the years, to have this type of rigor, but I usually fail, while my projects usually succeed. Project management ideals always get supplanted by the expediency of execution on my projects, whether I am using waterfall, iterative, or even Agile.
Let me give you some examples of my shortcomings in project management rigor, at least in the sense of process adherence:
This list could go on and on. Some of my colleagues could add it to it considerably based on their observations of me, and rightly so. I am not really devoted enough to any one methodology to apply “strict precision” to following the process.
Now for the irony. I’m a reasonably successful project manager. I’m batting well over .500 on project delivery. How can I be successful without process rigor? Shouldn’t I be failing more than I succeed? There are plenty of PM’s out there with process rigor with lower batting averages, of that I’m sure. I think the answer lies in the type of rigor I do have.
So, here’s what I’m rigorous about. Here are the things I apply strict precision to.
Your chances of creating project success are not defined by the strict precision with which you follow a process. I would argue that the factors I’ve described have a substantially greater impact on whether a project succeeds or fails than whether you stand up at standups or complete one phase before you start another.
This is my rigor. Obviously, someone who is rigorous in this way, but doesn’t follow a process with strict precision, is going to have perception problems, especially if they insist on being honest about their projects, as I foolishly do. Here is what you can expect others to say about you:
This list could be never ending as well. The truth is, my rigor, without process rigor, invites political and social trouble, even if it doesn’t hurt project delivery. I am envious of people with both types of rigor, especially if it comes naturally to them. They are the golden stars and starlets of the PM world – loved by the business and by IT management. Likewise, I’m disgusted with people who have only process rigor. They are hated by their business partners and baffling to IT management. I wouldn’t want to be that sort of PM no matter what. Fortunately, they don’t last very long.
As a PM who lacks process rigor, I have developed a few “workarounds” to help keep me out of trouble. I’m going to share those workarounds in the hope that I’m not the only one who struggles to be “process rigorous.” Here they are:
For me, these lists are in my head and they grow and shrink by trial and error. They also need to be tailored for the particular managers you are dealing with. One manager’s “hot water” activities aren’t necessarily the same as another’s. When you get yelled at for not having this or that, adjust your list.
Process rigor doesn’t have a correlation with project success, and ultimately project managers who don’t deliver successful projects won’t make it. You need to have another kind of rigor as well, a rigor I call “project rigor”. If you haven’t got it, you’d better get it. You won’t get there without it.