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Understanding and Interpreting

A few years ago, I was reading a collection of essays by the famous physicist, Richard Feynman, in which he explained a problem he called Cargo Cult Science. I couldn’t stop wondering how well that explains a fundamental problem we have in project management when I was reading it. So, let me explain:

There were a few isolated tribes of people in New Guinea and a few other islands. During the two World Wars, they saw cargo planes landing and bringing goods for the temporary military bases on their islands. Seeing those large human-made flying objects was magical for them. Moreover, the soldiers used to give away or trade some of the cargo, which was fascinating to the islanders.

When the wars ended, there were no cargo planes anymore, and the islanders wanted them back. So, they built runways, control towers, and mock planes. They wore wooden headphones with antennas, marched around the mock airbase, and lit the sides of the runways, thinking that these should attract the flying cargo planes and convince them to land.

In their mind, simulating what others were doing was enough to have the same result. In reality though, as you can imagine, it wasn’t enough to bring back the cargo planes.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Many people look at successful projects and then start imitating them. They think as long as they have something that looks like a plan, a business case document, or a project charter document, etc., they have proper project management and they can get the results they need. This is specially the case in many Agile projects, where they think as long as they use the Scrum labels and have big boards with lots of sticky notes on them, they are good Agilists.

What’s missing in many projects is the essence of what we do and the real dynamics behind the scenes. The rituals, documents and everything else are not the end, but the means to the end.

Having principles is a way to bring the attention back to what we really need to have. We think about the principles, and then carry on producing various project management outputs that serve different purposes without blindly imitating others. That’s why the 7th edition of the PMBOK guide has become principle-based.

Principles are the main content of PMBOK 7. It’s fair to say that PMBOK 7 is mainly about how you can avoid the Cargo Cult effect! We’ll explore the PMBOK principles in detail in the rest of this chapter, and then we’ll also have a short overview of principles from other resources to give a wider perspective.

Next: PMBOK 7 principles