April 13 – Methods and Principles

“If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods. But if you learn principles you can devise your own methods.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Last year I was taking a train-the-trainer session for a class that was being rolled out at work. The class was for teaching some standardized processes to project managers in a space where we didn’t previously have standards. As I was discussing the class with other trainers we were getting into some interesting scenarios that neither the class, nor the standard particularly covered. All of us who were trainers were experienced PMs, so we each had a way to approach the questions. One of the prospective trainers said that the class and standard needed to be updated to cover these scenarios, but then we wondered how it could ever cover everything. After some time I said “Chefs don’t use cookbooks. We should be training chefs”.

We had a good laugh, and several of us actually wrote that quote down. I can tell you that I have used it since in some of the teaching sessions I have lead. Emerson’s quote and mine both are based on the same idea. When you have a framework, a set of principles, in which to work, you don’t have to be told the exact steps to get things done. In fact, straying from the prescribed methods is where innovation and creativity come in.

The reason I chose the profession of being a chef for my analogy is that my wife watches a lot of cooking competitions, and I sometimes watch with her. What I have noted is that the chefs all come in with a similar set of basic skills and understanding of how to cook great dishes. They operate under the same principles. Then the competitions put them in situations to do creative things, whether with odd ingredients, or with unusual circumstances. Those who do well are the ones who can best bring their principles to bear on the situation to create something the judges will like. Often, those who fail do so because they are too reliant on the ways they have learned – the methods, and haven’t mastered the principles.

The world of Project Management is no different. Very often I get to interview prospective new-hires for PM positions. Many come in with a certification called PMP – Professional Manager of Projects. This certification is governed by the Project Management Institute (PMI), and is based on a person’s experience, and their ability to pass a very long, difficult exam. All too often the candidates who have the PMP certification can recite the standards, and tell me what is in the book, but they lack the ability to apply those standards to unusual situations. And the truth is, unusual situations happen every day. Those who can only pass the test, and not apply to everyday circumstances are lost in the methods and standards, and lack the innovation and experience to see things through.

I see the same problem play out in other areas of life as well. People become too engrained in the methods, or dogmas of something, and fail to see how to apply the basic principles to a wider variety of situations.

I have certainly fallen into the methods trap in my life more times than I care to admit. I have just as much of a tendency to want to use the cookbook as the next person. But I am most successful when I learn the principles and how to apply them. It is then that I can devise my own methods, let my creativity shine, and be a more successful person.

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