The Pathfinder Framework

The First Project Management Framework for Academics

This project management framework is for Pathfinder practitioners and, hence, only provides the framework without any further context. For more background and a full justification of the Pathfinder framework, see the white paper.


The Pathfinder framework can be imagined as a board game on which a ‘meeple’ moves from square to square and complete them by performing actions. This guide serves as the game manual which describes the system, rules, roles, and practices.

In summary, the aim is to move the meeple (the Caravan) across the board. In the Caravan there are 3 roles: the Pathfinder, the Messenger, and the Companions; each role has a different purpose. Outside the Caravan there are further roles, called Stakeholders. To complete each Square, the Pathfinder has to go through 3 events: the Start, the Run, and the Finish. In each event there are Artifacts (documents) to produce, Actions to complete, and Assistances (“the 3 A’s”). To help completing Squares, the Pathfinder is equipped with codes of conducts and practices (the ‘Tent’) and a starter pack of tools & techniques (the ‘Backpack’). Figure 1 provides a visual illustration of the framework.

Pathfinder Framework
Figure 1: The Pathfinder Framework


The Pathfinder Framework includes four roles, three of which are part of the Caravan. The Caravan describes the project team (e.g., a lab team) and includes the Pathfinder, the Messenger, and the Companions. Outside the Caravan are project Stakeholders.


The Pathfinder is the academic researcher who is also the project manager (e.g., a student or postdoctoral fellow). The Pathfinder is equipped with a Tent of conducts and practices (Fig. 3) and a Backpack packed with tools & techniques (Fig. 4). Both items are essential for efficient academic project management.


The Messenger is the academic supervisor of the Pathfinder and Companions. Their role is to approve, support, and oversee project work (e.g., professor, postdoctoral fefllow, PhD student).


Companions include all other academic project team members (e.g., fellow students, postdoctoral fellows, or technicians). Each companion has a unique role in influencing the outcome of the Pathfinder project.


Strictly speaking, stakeholders include anyone who can positively or negatively affect a project, which would include the Messenger and the Companions. In this framework, Stakeholders only include people who are not part of the Caravan but still can influence a project.


The Squares are the movement places and progress map of the Pathfinder Framework. To complete a Square, the Pathfinder must pass through three events (a Start, Run, and a Finish), and each event has three corresponding steps (Artifacts, Actions, and Assistances). Artifacts are the tangible documents that the Pathfinder must produce, Actions are the tasks the Pathfinder must carry out, and Assistances refer to the tool sand resources at the Pathfinder’s disposal. This creates a 3 by 3 system, visually illustrated in figure 2. The three columns represent the Start, Run and Finish, accompanied by three rows, Artifacts, Actions, and Assistances. Depending on the Pathfinder’s time selection, each Square lasts  2 – 4 weeks. Pathfinder beginners are advised to start with a four-week Square. When a Square is completed, the next Square starts immediately.

Pathfinder Squares
Figure 2: Pathfinder Squares


The Start event initiates the Square, and begins with the Pathfinder writing (reviwing, or updating) a comprehensive Project Charter that outlines the project and includes a high-level overview of the project goals, scope, deliverables, responsibilities, resources, quality, schedule, stakeholders, success factors, risks, and required work. The next step is to write or refine the Project Backlog. The Project Backlog consists of all the tasks required to complete the project, and may be subdivided into smaller pieces of work. It should complement newly identified work as the project progresses. Here, the Pathfinder must prioritize or re-prioritized work items together with, or under the supervision of, the Messenger, who may approve the Start and subsequent events. The Pathfinder may use a set of optional tools and techniques to help craft the Start event Artifacts (i.e., Project Charter and Project Backlog) and to perform the necessary Actions. The very first Start takes 1 to 3 days (initial planning of the project),  whereas subsequent Start events should take 2 – 4 hours.


The Run event is where project work begins. This event includes two Artifacts, the Run Backlog and the Run Report. First, the Run Backlog takes work items from the Project Backlog (created in the Start square) that need to be completed first. The goal of the Run Backlog is to provide a minimum viable increment that adds value at the end of the Square (i.e. successfully completed or progressed work items). If excessive or insufficient work items were ordered into the Run Backlog, work items must be deleted or added to the Run Backlog and the difference must be noted in the Run Report. This process will improve to determine the optimal workload in subsequential Squares. Other information to note in the Run Report include risks, constraints, and assumptions identified during the Run which will also help to improve subsequential Squares. Progress should be tracked, risk monitored, and Stakeholders and Companions engaged on a continuous basis. The use of an information radiator (see 'The Backpack' section) helps to maintain an overview and thus control over the project.

The Run event includes three meetings. First, the Messenger and Pathfinder should meet weekly for 30 minutes to discuss the Square progress and review the increment of work accomplished at the end of the Run. Next, the Increment Review is a meeting in which the Messenger and the Pathfinder review the accomplished and/or progressed work items (e.g., showcase and discuss results, collect feedback, look at newly discovered work items added to the Project Backlog). The Increment Review should take less than 2 hours and notes must go into the Run Report. Finally, the Pathfinder will also conduct a 30-minute to 1-hour Campfire session (an open and informal meeting) to reflect on what went well, what did not, and why. This meeting between the Messenger and Pathfinder should also be extended to Companions and Stakeholders (i.e. stakeholder engagement) as their feedback could further increase the quality of the project. Highlights from the Campfire session go into the Run Report and, based on the Campfire findings, subsequent Squares may need to be adjusted. Overall, the Run event should take 2 – 4 weeks.


The Finish event is where the Project Report and Project Documents are completed. The Project Report summarizes most completed work (e.g., a PhD thesis, grant application). The Project Documents include anything else of value that does not go into the Project Report (e.g., Standard Operating Procedures – SOPs, lab notes). All previous documents, data repositories, and project management processes should be reviewed and updated if necessary; the Run Report can help identify what needs to be updated or improved. Reviewing and/or updating the Project Charter leads straight to the beginning of the next Square. The Finish event takes approximately 4 – 8 hours.

The Tent

The Pathfinder Tent is built on empiricism and lean thinking, works within a frame built with adaptation, transparency, and accessibility, and houses seven different values (Fig. 3). Those principles and values determine the Pathfinder mindset. The following provide the definitions of each principle and value in the Pathfinder context.

The Pathfinder Tent of Conducts of Practices
Figure 3: The Pathfinder Tent of Conducts of Practices

Built with:

  • Adaptation – the process of changing project work to become more suitable for a new project state.
  • Transparency – the quality of making a project visual and simplistic.
  • Accessibility – the degree of project information that is user friendly.

Built on:

  • Lean thinking – a methodology to efficiently organize project activities while eliminating waste (e.g., work redundancy) in order to continuously improve the framework’s workflow.
  • Empiricism – the practice of relying on observation and experimentation to implement and act on lessons learned to tailor the framework towards the project’s unique needs.

Houses values:

  • Commitment – the attitude to focus on work to advance the project.
  • Responsibility – the state to act on, and stand up for, one's own.
  • Endurance – the ability and strength to overcome project obstacles.
  • Competence – the state of having—or acquiring—sufficient knowledge, judgment, and skill to conduct a project.
  • Respect – the act of giving particular attention to treat people (including oneself) in an appropriate way.
  • Self-motivation – the initiative to conduct a project without encouragement or supervision of another.
  • Reflection – the ability to consider and evaluate past actions that affected the project.

The Backpack

The Pathfinder Backpack is a starter pack of tools & techniques the Pathfinder may use to progress through the project (Fig. 4). Pathfinder beginners should start with the tools and techniques presented here, while Pathfinder experts can adapt the Backpack with other tools and techniques to accommodate a project’s unique needs. However, limiting the Backpack to 10 tools and techniques will help to minimize framework waste.

The Pathfinder Backpack of Tools & Techniques
Figure 4: The Pathfinder Backpack of Tools & Techniques

Information radiator

A visual display of up to date project information (e.g., using the following tools, data, graphs, calendars) summarized in a highly visible location (e.g., white board in front of the main work desk). This is the only mandatory technique in the Pathfinder Framework because the use of an information radiator increases adaptability, transparency, and accessibility, the building materials of the framework. This tool provides an overview of the project.

Work breakdown structure (WBS)

A hierarchical flow chart mapping the total scope of project work to be carried out. Use to manage scope, costs, and risks as well as to get an overview of the project. Can be included in the Project Charter and/or Project Backlog. Click here for an example of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

Burn-up & burn-down charts

Visual line graphs that track the actual versus estimated tasks completed (Project or Run Backlog) over time (Project or Square). Use to manage schedule, scope, and cost. Can be included in the Project Backlog and/or Run Report. Click here for an example of a burn-up chart, and click here for an example of a burn-down chart.

Kanban board

A visual workflow board consisting of multiple columns. Each column represents a different project state. Work items in progress should be limited to increase flow and throughput, reduce multitasking and work overload, enhance focus, and improve predictability. Use to manage schedule, quality, resources, and costs. Can be included in the Project Backlog and/or Run Report. Click here for an example of a Kanban board.

Risk register

A repository of identified risks (threats & opportunities) which are evaluated based on their likelihood of occurrence and severity of impact. The register also includes potential responses for each risk. Use to manage risks. Can be included in the Project Charter (high-level) and/or Run Report (detailed). Click here for an example of a risk register.

Lessons learned register

A document that records knowledge gained during the project so that it can be used to improve subsequential Squares and the overall framework processes. Use to manage risks, quality, and integration. Can be included in the Run Report. Click here for an example of a lessons learned register.

Stakeholder list

A document that identifies and classifies all project stakeholders based on their relationship to the project. Use to manage stakeholders and communication. Can be included in the Project Charter. Click here for an example of a stakeholder list.

Bar chart (Gantt)

A visual display of schedule-related information. WBS components are listed over time. Use to manage scope, cost, and schedule as well as to get an overview of the project. Can be included in the Project Charter. A WBS may be used as an input. Click here for an example of a bar chart (Gantt).

Customization Considerations


The Messenger can house several Pathfinders in the Caravan, but from a Pathfinder perspective the other Pathfinders form part of their Companions. This way, the Messenger can manage programs that consist of one or more projects. The Messenger can also be a Pathfinder, e.g., using the Pathfinder framework to manage other Pathfinders, but would then need to have a Messenger as well (e.g., the department head).


The Pathfinder Framework equips academic researchers solutions for improving the quality and efficiency of how they manage projects. With knowledge gained through this process, researchers may identify new pathways and/or adapt external tools and techniques to enhance the Pathfinder Framework. But the Pathfinder practitioner must be aware that any changes could potentially reduce the efficiency of the framework (‘verschlimmbessern’).

Low-tech, high-touch

Everything in this framework does not require the use of paid software that has a multitude of functions (high-tech, low-touch). In contrast, the preferred method of this framework is a simple, highly visible, and physical area to write—or put notes—on. It is suggested that progress sheets, results, and other relevant information should be either drawn directly on, or printed out and pinned onto a board (low-tech, high-touch).