The Essentialist Project Manager

When I first picked up “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown, I was reading it to help me work on managing my time.  I had become over-committed to many things – full time job, sessional instructor at the Haskayne School of Business, volunteer work, mentoring, mentee-ing – all over and above family life.  I wasn’t spending much time with my wife, I hadn’t seen my friends in weeks, I wasn’t spending any time on my fitness, and I was constantly running from one meeting to the next while trying to keep 4 projects on track.  Something had to give before I was totally burned out.


Through the natural passage of time, though, my volunteering commitment ended, my projects started to wrap up, the semester completed, and all of the sudden my time was manageable again.  The pain of the trying to do too much helped me realize that “I’m never going to do that again”, and began to resume a more practical schedule.


The book “Essentialism” taught me nothing about managing my own time – it was too late to warn me about what I was doing – but the lessons on being a great Project Manager in this book were too obvious to ignore.

Here are my top 5:

  1. Choosing to Choose – prioritize great options over good ones
  2. Manage Trade-offs – What Problem Do I Want?
  3. Avoiding Scope Creep through The Power of Extreme Criteria
  4. Managing Your Resources Accordingly (aka not all team members are created equal)
  5. Different things are important at different times in the Project


  1. Choosing to Choose – prioritize great options over good ones

One of the best pieces of advice that I have received in my career is “the secret to being a successful project manager is knowing which projects to choose.”  In McKeown’s book, he focuses on the concept of just because there are many options, you do not have to take them all.  In fact, you should be focused on the great opportunities, as the good ones will merely take up your time.

If you work for organizations where Projects are piled onto staff to ensure utilization thresholds are met, it is hard to say no when a project is assigned to you.  I have spent a majority of my career working for these types of organizations, so I know the struggle. However, just because there was a project available didn’t mean that I would take it.  The rare occasions that I would take on an additional piece of work to meet a utilization target, I often found myself in a project environment where issues would emerge.  That’s where I learned that the biggest risk to a project can be the project manager.

When you are presented any opportunity, be sure that you are being thoughtful in your approach as to whether or not to take it.

  1. Manage Trade-offs – What Problem Do I Want?

In Essentialism, McKeown focuses on “Straddled Strategy” – the notion that you are trying to pursue a new strategy while still working your old strategy, and will ultimately fail at both.  You can’t do both.

As Project Mangers, the first concept that is drilled into us is the “Iron Triangle” of Scope, Schedule, and Budget (or the Iron Star that also adds in Resources, Quality, and Risk).   However, as practitioners, we are so focused on managing one or two of the constraints – often at odds of managing the third.  This is where you will run into problems with your sponsor if you don’t have an honest conversation.

One of the hardest concepts to get over as a Junior Project Manager is having uncomfortable conversations.  As a Project Manager, it is your duty to get uncomfortable and objectively manage all three constraints.

  1. Avoiding Scope Creep through The Power of Extreme Criteria

Scope Creep (verb): the stuff of ghost stories told to young project managers to scare them into aggressively managing the scope of their project, which should thereby protect the budget and schedule.

McKeown’s concept of “the disciplined pursuit of less” leads to the need for introducing “Extreme Criteria” to protect your life.  He reference’s Derek Sivers’ TED talk “No More Yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no” to drive home the point that if you do not think something is great (idea/opportunity/person/etc), you should not spend your time on it.

The same concept should be applied to a project.  First, identify the single most important criterion for your project (and don’t say scope, schedule, or budget… think about the real organizational value that your project is going to deliver; e.g. increase payment processing capacity by 1000%; build the safest bridge for pedestrians and cars that has ever been built; enable our sales force to manage information better by improving our CRM system), and then manage the project in light of that.  If opportunities arise to help you achieve this criteria, do not say no right away as it will impact your scope/schedule/budget, but rather objectively assess it to see if it meets the test of your most important criteria.  If it doesn’t, then either record it for assessment in a subsequent project phase, or it’s an outright ‘no’.

When assessing these types of opportunities/changes, remember that you are an agent for your sponsor, and need to make the case as to why to embrace this opportunity/change.  You are not only the protector of the scope/schedule/budget, but you are also the biggest cheerleader for your project.

  1. Managing Your Resources Accordingly (aka not all team members are created equal)

McKeown uses a brilliant parable about a Scout Troop on a hike (spoiler alert).  The Troop Leader has a range of hikers – from fast to slow – that he has to keep together.  At first, he tries to have the fast hikers stop and wait, but then realizes that having the fast hikers stop isn’t helping the overall velocity.  The Troop leader places the slowest hiker at the front to keep the group together and removes some load from the slowest hikers and transfers it to the faster hikers to increase the Troop’s overall speed.

The concept that McKeown is trying to drive home with this parable is, to paraphrase Einstein, that the same planning that got us into a problem will not get us out of it.

When starting a new project with a new team, it’s often hard to judge skills and working styles of each team member.  As a result, each team member gets the same “load” and the same “hiking pace”.  It’s only after work starts to progress that you, as project manager, are able to objectively assess team performance.

The difference between a junior and an intermediate project manager is the time that one spends getting to know the team during the planning phase.  This doesn’t need to be a formal interview, but needs to be the start of an objective assessment of skills.  How you complete this should speak to your personal style, but can be accomplished through one-on-ones or conversations about previous projects and work completed on that project.

Good Project Managers know that not all team members are created equal, and as such work to anticipate issues and leverage non-traditional approaches and thinking to solving them.

  1. Different things are important at different times in the Project

The penultimate section of Essentialism is “Focus: What’s important now?”  Ultimately, McKeown’s thesis is that at each stage of your life, there will be different goals or priorities that you must consider.  You cannot relentlessly pursue one priority through your life, as there will be others that are truly the most important.

From the perspective of the project, this is true too.  The overall priority of the project should be that most important criterion discussed in “the Power of Extreme Criteria”, yet to achieve the small wins of each phase, you will need to alter the lens of how you look at that criterion.

It is imperative to never lose sight of the true goal of the project – e.g. increase payment processing capacity by 1000%; build the safest bridge for pedestrians and cars that has ever been built; enable our sales force to manage information better by improving our CRM system – but to adjust your priorities as you progress.  A method that is becoming widely adopted is adding Agile into the mix of traditional waterfall projects.  Having small sprints (or what we curmudgeons used to call “phases”) to produce milestone deliverables can keep the team focused and engaged, and allow focus to shift without being disruptive to overall progress.


Essentialism may not be a great book for time management, but it is an astounding book to help focus on strategies to make you more effective in the tasks that you are already completing.  Pick it up from Amazon, Audible, or your local library.


About Jason H Zalmanowitz
I am a nerdy Management Consultant / Project Manager with a MBA, have spent the majority of my career working for consulting firms in Calgary, and I race in triathlons because of (and thanks to) my wife. As a Project Manager, I have managed field implementations, strategy development projects, software development projects, and hardware implementation projects. As a consultant, I have helped companies articulate how and why they are going to implement and interact with sustaining technology to support their business.

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