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Why guiding principles are critically important and how to use them

April 3, 2018 - Featured, Leadership, Project Management

This way or that way?

Decision making. A wildly important skill in leadership, and everyone has their own approach. While it isn’t possible – or even wise – to remove emotion from the equation entirely (short-term emotion specifically is dangerous), my approach to decision making includes doing the following two critical things:

  • Bring the best minds in the company together around the decision to be made, as quickly as possible
  • Make the decision-making process as data-driven and objective as possible

The toughest of the two to execute successfully? Ensuring the decision-making process is data-driven and objective. And that shouldn’t be much of a surprise: When anything is worth caring about at all, emotions will run high. The risk to manage is emotion’s power to cloud information that should (and should not) be used to make the decision at hand. Almost any project or initiative we manage in any organization will have points in time exactly like this, and we all need to be prepared to lead through this kind of decision making event.

This is where guiding principles come in.

What are guiding principles?

According to, guiding principles are:

“Any principles or precepts that guide an organization throughout its life in all circumstances, irrespective of changes in its goals, strategies, type of work, or the top management.”

While that’s a good definition in a broad sense, here is my definition of guiding principles:

A set of agreed-upon principles that will act as a guide for decision making in a project, initiative, or any other kind of strategy execution in an organization.

I love to think of guiding principles as a way of making decisions up front in a project, before shit hits the fan, when everyone is thinking rationally, strategically, and as a cohesive team. When a decision then needs to be made downstream, the first document that should be pulled up for reference is the set of guiding principles already agreed upon by the team.

I have two great examples of guiding principles from recent history at my workplace that I’d like to share.

Example #1: Guiding principles for an operating model redesign

I recently led an effort to redesign the operating model between a business unit and IT, which was also going to include some movement of employees between teams. Anytime we talk about any kind of impact to people’s jobs, there will be emotion involved, and rightfully so. After defining the problem to be solved, we sat down as a leadership team and aligned on the guiding principles that would be the North Star for the operating model and organizational decisions in front of us. Here is the output of that exercise:

Operating model principles

 1. Global business process development and demand for systems to support business operations will be shaped by [the business function], and IT execution of that demand will be owned by [the IT function]

2. Organizational change management, business process development, ongoing embedment and training will be owned by [the business function], and ongoing IT operations, maintenance, IT project management and support will be owned by [the IT function]

3. We will take a long-term product management approach to role design (establishment of product owners), rather than a short-term project management approach, to promote:

  • End-to-end ownership of the processes and capabilities, from ideation through ongoing embedment and support
  • A continuous improvement mindset and utilization of agile practices for deployments, enhancements, and support
  • Better long-term decisions at the product level, instead of short-term decisions at the project level

Reorganization principles

4. We will keep a global perspective in mind, and the organization will be structured to enable that vision

5. For [business function] roles that today execute both IT and functional responsibilities, we will reorganize an appropriate percentage of them to [the IT function], and define new roles and responsibilities as applicable (in alignment with the previously documented functional and IT accountabilities)

These guiding principles served as gentle reminders to us as a leadership team as we proceeded through making tough, emotional decisions on roles and responsibilities, team structures, and future work.

Example #2: Guiding principles for software implementation

Who knew technology could be such an emotional topic? It’s so true. The fastest way to rile up any team in an IT function is to facilitate a technology selection decision, or the prioritization of software features. For the kick-off of a recent project portfolio management (PPM) system implementation in my workplace, the following guiding principles were created and aligned with the implementation project leadership team up front:

  • Time is the flexible variable! Scope is non-negotiable. Cost is optimized.
  • Minimal configuration! The out-of-the-box solution will be queen.
  • Keep an open mind! Challenge the status quo of current processes and tools.
  • Type once! Integrate and connect to existing systems.
  • Global commonality! All configurations and use cases will be global.

These guiding principles helped tremendously to remind the team to fight the urge to customize the software to our own unique whims, which helped keep both implementation costs and ongoing TCO optimized.


Have you used guiding principles in the past? How did they help you make decisions when emotions ran high?

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