The Pathfinder Framework

Project Management 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 documents (‘Artifacts’), 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’).

Pathfinder Framework
Figure 1: The Pathfinder Framework


The Caravan describes the team (e.g., a lab team). The Caravan encompasses three roles: the Pathfinder, the Messenger, and the Companions. Outside the Caravan are external stakeholders (described here as Stakeholders for simplicity).


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).


The Messenger is the academic supervisor of the Pathfinder and the Companions who will approve, support, and oversee project work (e.g., faculty member or professor).


Companions refer to members of the academic team—or lab—but may not have a direct interest in the outcome of the Pathfinder project (e.g., fellow students, postdoctoral fellows, or technicians). However, they may be supportive of the Pathfinder project and be able to help more than other stakeholders.


Strictly speaking, stakeholders include anyone who can positively or negatively affect a project. This group would also 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 heartbeats of the Pathfinder framework. Each Square is 2 – 4 weeks in duration, and consists of 3 events: Start, Run, and Finish. In each event there are Artifacts, Actions, and Assistances (Fig. 4). When a Square has been completed, the next Square starts immediately.

Pathfinder Squares
Figure 2: Pathfinder Squares


At the Start, the Pathfinder must write or update a comprehensive Project Charter that outlines the project and includes a high-level overview of the project goal, 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 backlog consists of all the work required to complete the project, and it may need to 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 Artifacts and to perform the Actions (see section 6 for more details). Except for the very first Start which can take 1 to 3 days (initial planning of the project), this event should take 2 – 4 hours.


The Run immediately follows the Start and deals with the actual project work. First, the Square Backlog must be organized into a logical sequence that takes work items, starting with the items of the highest priority, from the Project Backlog. Completion of all work items in the Square Backlog should be possible within the 2 – 4 weeks Square duration. The goal is to provide a minimum viable increment that provides value at the end of the Square. If too much or too less work items were ordered into the Square Backlog, it must be noted in the Run Report in order to improve the workload in subsequential Squares. Other information to note in the Run Report include risks, constraints, and assumptions identified during the Run which will 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 section 6) helps to maintain an overview and thus control over the project.

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. The Increment Review should take less than 2 hours and notes must go into the Run Report. At the end of the Run, the Pathfinder will also conduct a 30-minutes to 1-hour Campfire session (an open and informal meeting) to reflect on what went well and what did not. This meeting between the Messenger and Pathfinder should extend invitations to Companions and Stakeholders even if they were not involved with the work because they could increase the quality of the project. Findings of the Campfire go into the Run Report.


On the Finish, the existing Project Report must integrate the work conducted (e.g., a PhD thesis), as must Project Documents (anything else of value that does not go into the Project Report, e.g., Standard Operating Procedures – SOPs). At this stage, the Pathfinder must update all documents, repositories, and processes; the Run Report can help identify what needs to be updated or improved. Updating the Project Charter (if necessary) leads straight to the beginning of the next Square. The Finish event takes 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. 2). 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 to change project work to become suitable to a new state of a project.
  • Transparency – the quality that makes a project easy to understand and open for inspection.
  • Accessibility – the quality of information being easy to reach and use.

Built on:

  • Lean thinking – a methodology to organize activities in order to focus on delivering value while eliminating waste in order to continuously improve the framework’s workflow.
  • Empiricism – the practice of relying on observation and experiments 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. 3). 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 display of all latest project information (e.g., the following tools, data, graphs, calendars) at a glance 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 decomposition of the total scope of 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 as input for the Project Backlog. Click here for an example of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

Burn-up & burn-down charts

Charts that track the amount of backlog items (work tasks) the Pathfinder has completed across a Square and/or the whole project. 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. 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 on their impacts and probabilities, and responses on how to deal with them. 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 to record 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 all project stakeholders, including the Messenger and Companions, and classifies, categorizes, and assesses them. 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 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).



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 with a solution to improve how they manage their projects and do so more effectively and efficiently. With knowledge gained through this process, they may identify pathways or adapt other tools and techniques in order to make this framework even more efficient for their work. But the Pathfinder must be careful when making such changes noting that they could 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); the preferred method of this framework is a highly visible and physical area to write—or put notes—on. Progress sheets, results, and other information can be either drawn on a board or printed out and pinned onto the board (low-tech, high-touch).