Rule-based discretionary (RBD) project management is a simplified and intuitive methodology and mental model for project management. It recognizes the importance to be systematic and consistent in the way a project is managed, but also the role of a project manager and other stakeholders to use discretion and judgement where appropriate.

In broad terms, the distinctions between rule-based and discretionary are the following:

RBD-Project-Management

This type of methodology traces its origins to rule-based discretionary trading in the financial markets. RBD traders carefully manage risk and trade in a systematic and consistent manner; however, they also incorporate discretion to flexibly adapt to market conditions and continuously improve their systems. The inspiration for RBD project management came from recognizing this same type of workflow and methodology could benefit the discipline of project management.

Rule-based

The first component of RBD project management is the rules. In broad terms, these are formal, well-defined or quantitative aspects of project management. Rules ensure projects are managed in a consistent and systematic manner. For example:

  • Well-defined project management techniques or methodologies, such as Earned value management or Scrum.
  • Checklists for risk assessments, task completion, quality assurance, or task prioritization.
  • Quantitative metrics for cost or schedule performance, such as actual vs estimated cost and burndown charts.

In general, project management rules provide a relatively formal and well-defined framework for a project’s workflow, risk management, performance measurement, and quality assurance. For teams which collaborate on projects, these rules also help the team come into alignment and collaboratively work on a project in a consistent manner.

Discretionary

Discretion is the second, and arguably the most important component of RBD project management. For example, discretion can include the following:

  • Choosing and adapting rules for different projects.
  • Analyzing measurement results for patterns, anomalies, and trends.
  • Excluding metrics which don’t contribute to decision making.
  • Selectively overriding the rules.
  • Leveraging the experience and judgement of project stakeholders, supplementing the rules with subjective decision making.
  • Conducting post-mortems to learn from failures and continuously improve.

Some level of discretion is a natural part of every project. However, RBD singles out discretion and brings and it to the forefront. Leaving room for discretion recognizes the following: at the end of the day, business projects are human endeavors which depend upon and greatly benefit from the judgement, experience, and decision making of their team members.

Balancing Rules and Discretion

Every project is different, so the appropriate balance between rules and discretion will vary from one project to the next.

For example, a project to develop a completely new product will be high risk and have many unknown variables. This type of project will heavily depend on the judgement and discretion of its stakeholders.

Conversely, a project to maintain an established product will typically be lower risk and require less discretion. Although there will be some discretion to triage and prioritize changes and fixes to the product, project management, for the most part, can be systematic and rule-based.

No matter what type of project is being managed, there should always be some room for discretion. Discretion helps to manage uncertainty, adapt the rules for different project types, and to stay alert to ever-changing business conditions. Without discretion, there is a risk of unnecessary work being performed, not adapting to new business conditions, or not making changes to ensure continuous improvement.

There is a separation of concerns between rules and discretion, but they also complement one another. Rules prevent a project from being managed in an ad-hoc or undisciplined manner. For aspects of project management which cannot be addressed by rules, discretion fills in these gaps. For example, on a large and complex project, it would be unwieldy to have a rule to manage every aspect of the project; at some point, the project needs to depend on the expertise and experience of individual project members.

Discretion Takes Precedence

While there should be a balance between rules and discretion, RBD project management generally places more emphasis and importance on discretion.

For the rule-based component of a project, there is a multitude of well-defined checklists, techniques, and project management methodologies to choose from. However, discretion is required to determine which of these should be included, or when and how they should be excluded, adapted or overridden.

Giving discretion precedence is consistent with a principle that individual project managers know their business best and should retain ultimate control. Moreover, project managers also have ownership and accountability; at the end of the day, it is a project manager, not the rules themselves, who is ultimately accountable for a project’s success or failure.

Summary

The concept of rule-based discretionary project management captures the separation of concerns between managing a project in a consistent and systematic manner, while also giving project managers the flexibility to make decisions which impact the project.

Discretion gives a project manager flexibility to make adjustments for evolving business conditions, including or excluding different rules for different types of projects, and to selectively override the rules. Since a project manager is ultimately accountable for a project’s success, this type of discretion is needed by a project manager and can take precedence over the rules themselves.