The IIL Blog

LinkedIn Newsletter | Join our Email List
“Cafeteria-Style” Project Management Comes of Age

“Cafeteria-Style” Project Management Comes of Age

By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.     |     Senior Executive Director for Project Management, IIL

I can still remember my early years in project management.

The company handed me a notebook described as project/program management. The notebook identified the life cycle phases, all of the activities to be accomplished in each life cycle phase, and the forms that had to be completed in each phase and presented to the customer. The notebook also described what the project managers could and could not do in the execution of their duties. No deviations were allowed from the notebook partly because the notebook was approved by our customers.

While some project managers considered themselves as the “president” of their project, they were still having to endure wearing handcuffs that limited their authority, their responsibility, and the decisions they could make.

Project management in the early years was driven by customers that were demanding that the contractors use project management. Contractors reluctantly agreed for sake of winning contracts but feared that, if the project managers were given too much freedom, the project managers would make decisions that were reserved for the senior levels of management.

The solution was simple: implement project management for the customer’s benefit and, at the same time, grossly limit what the project managers are allowed to do.

In some companies, project managers served as puppets with the strings being pulled by senior management. The notebooks were explained to the project managers as a necessity for standardization and control of projects, but the real intent was for executives to get better control of the project managers.

Today, the landscape for project management has changed because of the following:

  • Decades of project management practices have shown that it can work, and work well.
  • Project managers know their limitations as to what they can and cannot do.
  • Customers are demanding that project managers have the authority to make decisions rather than always having to get approval from senior management.
  • Senior managers now have significantly more trust in the ability of the project managers to make decisions and execute projects correctly.
  • The handcuffs have been removed from the project managers.
  • Customers (especially those external to the project manager’s company) want to see the projects they were paying for managed by a methodology that was more closely aligned with the customer’s business model than with the contractor’s business model.

The last bullet point opened the door for project management flexibility, a necessity for Agile and Scrum users. Flexible methodologies are most often referred to as frameworks. With a framework, rigid project management methodologies are broken down into a multitude of forms, guidelines, templates and checklists. All of the forms, guidelines, templates, and checklists are then placed on the shelves in a cafeteria. As the project manager goes through the cafeteria, he/she can then select those tools, and only those tools, that are necessary to satisfy the needs of a particular client.

Using cafeteria-style project management, customers will see their project more closely aligned to their business model and the project manager has the flexibility he/she needs to eliminate unnecessary project management waste and create a value-based deliverable.

Cafeteria-style project management is, in my opinion, a necessity for successful project management in an adaptive environment. The benefits of cafeteria-style project management have become quite apparent with Agile and Scrum users, and it is my belief that this approach will eventually become common practice in most industries.

Harold Kerzner, Ph.D. is IIL’s Senior Executive Director for Project Management. He is a globally recognized expert on project management and strategic planning, and the author of many best-selling textbooks, most recently Project Management 2.0.

Scroll to Top