The Value of Project Management and Understanding the Different Approaches

The Value of Project Management

You would never see a large bridge constructed or a skyscraper built without project management. It would be unheard of; however, project management is an often under-valued service in law firms. It may be because the projects are not as big, even though some of the projects undertaken have a significant impact on firms and need to be well managed.

As an example, changing a legal practice management system must be one of the largest projects a law firm can undertake, but when Lights-On talks to legal practice management system providers, we often hear the view that “law firms don’t value project management”.

Indeed, after helping a firm select a practice management solution and at the point of implementation, the client sometimes feels “Dave can do the project management” where ”Dave” is not a project manager PM, has no PM experience, works in finance, has a day job, and will be heavily impacted by a PMS project! (No offence Dave!)

To the client, it seems a sensible option (as “Dave” is a good egg, a capable person, and will be involved in any case), and so the firm feels comfortable about the approach and positive about the financial savings. To us, we can hear the Scottish accent of Private James Frazer in Dads’ Army – “We’re all doomed!”

You wouldn’t put a pensions lawyer on building plot land acquisition with complex rights of way issues, would you? So why put a finance controller (FC) as a PM who has never done a PMS implementation?


Three Golden Rules of Project Management

Rule 1: Recognise project management for the skill it is, and get a good PM who has been there and got the T-Shirt, and is ideally experienced in managing the same sort of project you need them to manage for you. The project management purists will say that project managers can manage anything, and, to a degree, that is true, but skills and experience in the subject area really helps too.

Rule 2: The PM should avoid taking over tasks defined for others in the plan. Project Managers manage the project and resources to deliver the tasks. If they have a day job that conflicts with the project work, most will place the immediate needs of the day job first. i.e. the FC will respond to the audit or year-end work first, and the project second, in the meantime the rest of the project lacks direction and management. Just doing project management can be a little alien to the legal sector perhaps because in their own work, partners, practice group heads and even MPs still ‘do the fee earning work’ as well as manage, and so an expectation is set of the player/manager in relation to Project Managers.

Rule 3 – Get the right person. A PM is not a ‘pen pusher’ who simply reports where things are at. They should have skills to identify how to get the best out of people, and what approach to take to deliver results. That may take individual treatment in some cases and applying the right amount of pressure to deliver results without causing harmful friction in a team, but a little awkward silence should not phase the PM!


Jargon Busting

Jargon junkies love the project management scene! It’s full of buzz words like waterfall, agile, scrum, Prince II, and Kanban, to name a few. Here’s a quick glossary of the key ones.

Traditional Project Management (or Waterfall) – Waterfall is the traditional approach with discrete steps and dependencies. A Gannt chart (below) actually looks like a set of steps or a waterfall, hence its name.  Steps flow into each other and you complete one before moving ‘down river’. The plan maps from start to finish.






Waterfall certainly has its place and aligns well with projects with well-defined outputs and fairly well-known approaches.  You know what you are trying to achieve, and this has been done before (at least by the supplier), so you know what the steps and dependencies are.

Prince II – is one of the most widely used methodologies for project management. It is often seen as a traditional approach, but nowadays it has agile elements to it so is definitely evolving. There is a lot to Prince II and so it is rare to see every aspect of Prince II used in a project. Very often the methodology is ‘pared back’ to an appropriate level for the project complexity and the project maturity of the customer. Traditionally, the PM has control of the project, resources, people, diaries, timescales, and documentation within the Prince II methodology.

Agile Project Management – Agile project management is a project philosophy that takes an iterative approach and creates early, measurable ROI through defined, iterative delivery of product features. As such, it is great for things like software development where you can deliver phase 1 that may just do one part of your requirement but is one that could start to add value by early release and use in your business or with your client.

The iterative nature of agile encourages transparency of a project’s progress but in doing so, requires close involvement with ‘the business’ or project sponsors. As such, it could make or break those firms that have to fight for project involvement from the business. Iterative approaches can however inform the business about what can be done and how it will look and feel; by seeing these early phases, more ideas can be generated. This does not mean it’s a free-for-all, as project frameworks exist to deliver agile projects and manage scope.

Scrum – is simply one methodology (or framework) for delivering agile projects. Scrum provides a process for how to run the project including identifying work, who will do it, how it will be done, and its completion date.

Scrum is characterised by short phases or ‘sprints’ when project work occurs. During sprint planning, the project team identifies a small part of the scope to be completed during the upcoming sprint, which is usually a two to four week period of time.

At the end of the sprint, this work should be ready to be delivered to the client. When complete, the sprint ends with a ‘sprint review’ and is ‘retrospective’ (a scrum term for “lessons learned”). This cycle is repeated throughout the project lifecycle.

Now, as you will have guessed from terms like ‘retrospective’, scrum has quite a language of its own, so it can feel strange and geeky to the uninitiated! (Sorry scrum fans!) For example, you will have a ‘scrum master’ (anyone thinking Hong Kong Phooey ?), accountable for guiding, coaching, teaching, and assisting a Scrum Team. Technically, a scrum master is not accountable for delivering the project (that is down to the whole project team) but is responsible for ensuring everyone knows how to follow the scrum process.

What Should I Use and When?

If only life was that simple! Unhelpfully (but understandably) there is no hard and fast rule as to which methodology should be used and when.  But, importantly, nor do you have to use one or the other, you can use elements of both.

For example, Practice Management implementations fit well with Waterfall but if there is some development to be done, that may be agile, and you may use scrum. There is also no harm in applying some traditional ‘agile’ methods like ‘stand ups’ to bring greater clarity on a day-by-day basis to a Waterfall project at specific stages.

At the end of the day, all these philosophies, methodologies and approaches, are just tools to do a job. The key is knowing the tools and knowing which to use when and avoiding breaking the golden rules that are there to protect the project.

You need to understand the benefits of all types of project management, that it is very much about using the right tool for the job, and modifying how ‘pure’ to be in following a process to fit the project needs and the culture of the client. As a result, we at Lights-On Consulting, have both Waterfall and agile project management skills – and aren’t afraid to use a blend.

What is most important are the three rules:

  1. Recognise the value and invest.
  2. Avoid player-manager project management.
  3. If you get the right person, you shouldn’t have to worry about the philosophy, methodology or jargon; you just need to find people in the business that will step up to define the requirements, and be part of a well-run team. Then, wait for the benefits to show.


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Lights-On Consulting Limited

Lights-On Consulting Limited
Lights-On is an independent IT consultancy established in 2005 on the core principles of confidentiality, experience, independence, integrity, and deep knowledge. We specialise in legal and professional services, working with clients that range from niche commercial practices through to global and magic circle clients. We are proud to say that we have been working with many of our clients for well over a decade. Lights-On can help you to get the best out of the solutions you have or on new technologies that can future-proof your firm, drive efficiency and better position you to compete in your markets. The majority of our IT consultants have held leadership positions in law firms and corporates as well as being experienced consultants – this combination of in-house management and independent consultancy allows us to provide insightful and supportive IT advisory services. Whilst strategy is key to a successful IT project, there also needs to be a clear plan to communicate and implement the strategy. As such we look for both strategic and practical abilities in all our people and “strategic advice, practically delivered” has become a mantle for Lights-On and how we work. From independent advice on a technology evaluation or procurement project, through to a strategic IT review or our ‘IT Director as a Service’ offering, our extensive experience across legal and professional services makes Lights-On the first choice for an ever growing number of firms.