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PM Believer: Colin Powell’s Rules for Project Management – Part 1

I am a believer in the power of project management.

As a professional project manager for twenty years, I have witnessed project success drive business results. I have also proven that project management can change lives and help achieve personal transformation. Now I am sharing some practical tips and techniques that you can use to help achieve your own personal goals, live your best life and become a PM Believer.

Loss of a Hero

On October 18, 2021, America lost a hero, statesman, and great leader with retired general Colin Powell’s passing. Through his lengthy leadership career, Colin Powell developed a list of thirteen rules of life and leadership that have been widely shared, especially since his passing.

Many of these thirteen rules (found here on the State Department’s website) are also essential tools for effective project management. After all, project managers are leaders, right?

Over the next few weeks, I will explain how Colin Powell’s leadership rules can help us all be better project managers.

Colin Powell’s Rules for Project Management – Part 1

As I start recapping Colin Powell’s leadership rules and how they apply to project management, I thought I’d start with the ones that sound most like project management.

Rule #11: Have a Vision. Be Demanding.

Leaders need to have a clear vision for what their team needs to accomplish and what the finish line looks like. Once this clear picture exists, they can tell the story, build the plan and relentlessly hold their team to high standards while driving them towards the finish line. Sound familiar?

At its core, this rule is what project management is all about. Project managers need to start with a vision, which needs to be clearly expressed as a SMART goal (see Get SMART). Once the goal is clear, the project manager can develop a solid plan to get from where they are today to that goal (see The Right Plan, Your Plan).

Once the goal is clear and a plan has been defined and baselined, the project manager holds themselves and their teams accountable for following it. This means tracking progress every day and, when the project starts deviating from the plan, taking action to get things back on track.

Taking your eyes off the goal, even briefly, can lead to failure, so being appropriately demanding about the project is an absolute must.

Rule #8: Check Small Things.

While great leaders understand the bigger picture, they also must pay attention to the details. Small problems add up to big problems and can lead to a “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Details matter!

There is an often shared anecdote about the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in 1980. There were small signs of an impending disaster, starting with a puff of smoke from the mountain that was ignored. Because these small things weren’t checked, the surrounding town wasn’t prepared for the eruption. As a result, nearly sixty people lost their lives, and there was massive destruction in the disaster.

While not the same as ignoring signs of a volcanic eruption, checking the small things is very important for project managers. As I said above, tracking progress every day (see Are We There Yet?) and taking corrective actions is core to project management.

Most projects don’t fail suddenly; it happens through a series of deviations from the plan. Allowing a deliverable to go a few days past its deadline. Accepting the addition of just one more scope item into the already aggressive project. The list of ways that control of your project can slip from your hands goes on and on.

By staying disciplined and focused on the small things, a project manager can proactively identify the micro deviations that start the unraveling of a good project.

A good start to defending against this is by diligently identifying and planning for project risks at the beginning (see Risky Business). By planning ahead for how your project might die (see How Will It Die?), you can avoid those potential goal killers.

Are you ready to be a PM Believer?

Colin Powell was a great leader and statesmen, but I believe he was also a PM Believer. Many of his Thirteen Rules of Leadership are also important project management tips and guidelines. Starting this week, PM Believer will begin exploring Colin Powell’s rules of project management.

How have you applied project management for your personal success? Tell me about it at and make sure to join my email list to have updates delivered to your inbox weekly.

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Want to know more about how I changed my life with project management? Pick up your copy of my book Operation Melt: How I Used Life-Changing Project Management to Lose Over 100 Pounds In Under a Year.

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