Category Archives: PM Tools

One Word to Rule them All

One word is more powerful, more annoying, and more challenging than any other. And when you understand how to use it, it becomes a huge asset for any project manager.


Yes, that’s the word. We all know how much young children love to torture their parents and carers with it, but we don’t stop asking it as adults. We just forget how powerful it really is.

Of course, Tennyson suggested that in some walks of life we grow out of why: “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die”. Whether this is true anywhere in the modern democratic world, I don’t know. But it should certainly never be the case when managing projects. So, let’s look at five of the blades of the Swiss Army Word that why is.

The Razor-sharp Blade

First, let’s understand the razor sharp blade that cuts to the heart. When you ask “why did you do that?” it strikes at my very core; my values. It asks what was important to me when I made the choice. It challenges my decision, and it challenges me. Consequently, you will often get defensive answers to that kind of why question that are of little use in making progress. Use it with great care and, to avoid defensiveness, ask questions about my process instead, like “how did you make that decision?” or “what were your criteria?”

The Big Blade

Second is the big blade that we use most often. Why exposes meaning and purpose. We ask why of our sponsors and clients to understand the reasons for the project, because we know that if we cannot give our team an answer to their why questions, we will fail to motivate them. Because is the answer to why, and it confers meaning. If you don’t know why you are being asked to do something, you want to rebel and at best, you do it reluctantly. Because is one of the most powerful motivators.

The Pointy Blade

The third blade is that pointy thing that works stones out of cracks (and hooves, my non-equestrian dad told me). Use why as the first step in finding solutions to problems, by asking “why?” and “why?” and “why” to expose root causes. Without understanding what is at the core of causing the problem, any solution you find can only be a temporary patch. The “five whys” technique (for which, incidentally, five is not a necessary number) is fundamental to a project manager’s toolkit.

The Tweezers

The tweezers are often derided as a tool in a pocket knife, but I find myself using them a lot. They are a useful tool for picking up little things and examining them in detail – your knife may also come with a small hand lens. Why is the agent of curiosity. Use it to learn new things, because greater knowledge leads understanding, and understanding leads to mastery. Curiosity is not merely a joy: in the harsh world of projects, it is a survival skill.

The Saw Blade

Finally, there is the saw blade that can hack off the branches of untested assumptions and the limbs of hares running out of control. Why is the question we ask when challenging myths and received wisdom. Why does not accept excuses, it decries arm-waving arguments, and it laughs in the face of “because that’s the way we do things around here.” Why demands a higher standard of rigour: testing, data, and hard evidence.

So, let’s hear it for why… the most powerful of words and the sharpest of tools.

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 edition of the APM (Association for Project Management) journal Project. It was later re-published on the APM website, on 10 July, 2015.

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy


The Virtues of Excel

Long ago, a more technically adept colleague told me that MS Project was build as sophisticated set of macros and add-ons to Excel. I don’t know for sure if it was true, but certainly the earliest versions felt that way. Now it is a far more sophisticated tool that it was then, and I don’t get to use it anymore.

But Excel remains a tool I use daily. Early in my career, I started by working on Project Finance and, coming from a mathematical science background, I was tasked with building complex financial spreadsheets. Ever since, I have been in awe of what excel can do. (In fact, in the earliest days, I use Lotus 123, of blessed memory).

Even now, I find the process of discovering a clever way to do something the tool wasn’t explicitly built for to be pleasurable – and the triumph of making it work is as good as any other professional buzz. The people who can do it well deserve a lot of credit.

For any serious player in project management, professional services or just management, numeracy to a high level is a must-have. The tool of choice for expressing that numeracy and setting it to work is the spreadsheet: Excel, Numbers, Google docs or Zoho versions. And an adeptness with spreadsheets will be a career asset throughout your life.

So, I’d like to recommend a site that taught me tips that were new and gave me a buzz f admiration for the creative problem solving the author shows in making spreadsheets do things they were not designed to do. Take a look at the resources at:  I understand the author, Doug, is planning to add more PM tools over time. But the reason to watch his videos is not for the PM tools… its for the joy of seeing ways to solve problems with Excel.

The Risk Management Process

A short (under two minutes) video blog, introducing the simple four step process for managing project risk, fully described in my new book, How to Manage a Great Project.

How to Manage a Great Project

Go to the How to Manage a Great Project website

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from

How to Manage a Great Project by Mike Clayton

The Book of the Plan

A short (around two minutes) video blog, introducing the Book of the Plan – a comprehensive document at the heart of your project. It is fully described in my new book, How to Manage a Great Project.

How to Manage a Great Project

Go to the How to Manage a Great Project website

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from

How to Manage a Great Project by Mike Clayton

Generating Project Planning Tools

One of the joys of project management, I tell people, is its potential for creativity. And as someone who loves a good management or leadership model or tool, I am always on the lookout for new ones.

A great way to generate tools is to start with the ‘elements’ of project management.

To download this chart, click it and pop back to the original blog post.

Pick the two elements that you are interested in: ideally the two that are most critical to your particular project or just the ones you want to focus on. Then create a chart of one against the other. Many of these are already standard project planning tools.

The examples in the chart below are not intended to be exhaustive and there remain gasps where I cannot immediately think of a tool. And, of course, this is just a small subset of all of the project elements.

Project Tool Chart

The Time-Cost-Quality Triangle

A short (around three minutes) video blog, introducing the time-cost-quality triangle – a core concept in project management. It is fully described in my new book, How to Manage a Great Project.

How to Manage a Great Project

Go to the How to Manage a Great Project website

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from

How to Manage a Great Project by Mike Clayton

The Project Diamond

Some of my readers will know that I am a huge fan of models: models that help explain, predict or optimise performance. I recently came across a new model (to me) developed by Dr Aaron Shenhar, formerly of The Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and Rutgers Business School.

In a rich and thought-provoking paper (that you can download from the website Dr Shenhar’s business, SPL) called ‘What is Strategic Project Leadership?’, is a summary of The Diamond Model for Project Adaptation. This is, I assume, at the heart of a book I have not yet read: ‘Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach to Successful Growth & Innovation’ by Shenhar and Dov Dvir.

Shenhar and Dvir’s model identifies four dimensions against which we can assess a project. The pattern it creates (hence the name of the model) indicates the approach we should take to managing the project. They suggest a four point scale for each dimension, giving, in principle, 16 possible project fingerprints. In practice, it is the patterns and extremes that should driving our choices of how to configure a project. The dimensions are:

  1. Novelty – ranging from ‘derivative’ to ‘new-to-the-world
  2. Technology – ranging from ‘low-tech’ to ‘super-high-tech
  3. Complexity – ranging from ‘component level’ to ‘system of systems
  4. Pace – ranging from ‘ regular’ to ‘blitz

Assessing your project on these four scales allows you to create a diamond plot, which should guide you to thinking about the priorities for the style of project management.

This accords nicely with my thinking that a big part of a project manager’s role is to diagnose what are the two or three big levers that they need to be concentrating on in controlling each project. For some, it could be governance, risk, delivery schedule, quality, reporting, resource utilisation… All of them are important, but on each project, some will dominate.

What the Project Diamond gives you is a way to start thinking about your priorities and how to manage them, based on a systematic understanding of four vital characteristics. The authors also use it nicely to highlight the gap between how a project is being managed (‘actual style’) and how it ought to be managed (‘required style’). This makes it a powerful diagnostic tool for troubled projects. I have reproduced the example from Shenhar’s article, ‘What is SPL?’, below.

Shenhar & Dvir - Project Diamond illustration

The ‘so what?’

This is a model all project managers can benefit from and the paper is also a compelling read, whether you are managing large or small projects. You will also find some other interesting articles on the SPL website; do take a look.