Lots of people will tell you that project management is just common sense, including project managers. You can find articles, books and methodologies devoted to the idea that it is. And at the beginning of a recent seminar 80% of our audience, mainly project professionals, agreed with that.

We are not so sure.

If we take a standard definition of common sense – “the ability to perceive, understand and judge things that are common to nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without need for debate” – then we can apply that to our own project experiences.

While much of project management theory, for good reason, is about creating a commonality (a “common sense”) across the project, the reality is that this is incredibly difficult to do in a moving corporate environment with changing scope, timelines, priorities, and personnel. That lack of commonality can apply to both what the project is trying to achieve (the objectives or deliverables) and how it is trying to achieve it (the methodology).

While there are positive trends within the research on the effectiveness on project delivery, studies in the past 12 months continue to show that less than one-third of projects deliver on time, on budget or with alignment to the organisational strategy. If everyone was truly on the same page wouldn’t we expect a much higher project success rate?

So, here is our view.

Project management is often seen as common sense because, to us project folk, it is common sense and we often frame it in that context. At the same time, the concepts of project management are very easy to grasp and can seem obvious. Perhaps, when we talk about project management being common sense, we are talking about the concepts rather than the practicalities of implementation.

When we draw that distinction between the concepts – scope, planning, dependencies, risk management – and the practicalities – managing people, corporate navigation, priority juggling, creating momentum, stakeholder coordination – then project management feels less like common sense. The skills, experience and ability to deal with these day to day challenges are, in our opinion, not common.

Why do we care?

It is, as we said above, for good reason that a lot of project management is about creating commonality. The ability to create that commonality is a key factor is making projects successful. When we talk about change management, engagement, and communications this is one of the key things that we are trying to achieve.

And it is much harder to achieve if the starting position is “this is just common sense”. That statement comes with implicit assumptions about how much people know, how much time needs to be put in to creating the commonality, and the skills and experience needed to do it. If our starting point is that we are doing something that is either not common or not common to everyone involved then, in theory, we should be giving more thought to how we make it common and increase the chances of the project being successful.

Our conclusion is that, overall, project management is not common sense and, particularly at the beginning of a project, it is highly unlikely that what needs to be done is common sense to everyone involved. By the end of the seminar 80% of the audience agreed.

In the next part, we’ll give you our top tips on how to create common sense on your project.