09 May, 2014
You may have heard a lot about project management and think that it's a complex process.
Those with a project management qualification – usually PRINCE2, which stands for ‘projects in a controlled environment 2’ – often make the processes involved in project management sound very complicated. Those who provide project management training also have a vested interest in maintaining that impression.
There is no question that using PRINCE2, or its predecessor PRINCE, is undoubtedly a valuable discipline, which has prevented many large projects from going over budget and out of scope over the years. However, we suggest that for a large number of the projects routinely undertaken by companies and individuals, some basic and fairly straightforward practices, used consistently, can ensure that projects deliver results without the need for a formal qualification in project management.
Basic Rules of Project Management
Fundamentally, good project management, like risk management, is a team activity. One of the useful elements of PRINCE2 is that it forces you to bring together the right people to run the project. It also has the advantage of requiring good documentation. These give us two fundamental rules of project management:
- Decide who needs to be involved early on, and get them round the table to agree the scope, desired outcomes and timelines for the project. This group should formally be designated the Project Board, and be responsible for the project.
- Document everything. You need to write down, and regularly review, your scope, desired outcomes and timelines, and who is responsible for each task. It’s also helpful to document anything related to the project, even casual phone calls. Keep a book by the phone, and get into the habit of writing notes during phone calls. It can also be useful to send an email to the person you have been speaking to after the call noting what you discussed and agreed. Yes, it sounds bureaucratic, but you would be surprised how often two people emerge from a conversation with completely different ideas of what was agreed. Writing it down and sharing it makes sure misunderstandings don’t endure for long.
There are a number of essential pieces of project documentation which you will, as a project manager, need to prepare fully. You will also need to take the time to ensure that these pieces of paper are read and agreed by all those involved, if necessary standing over them as they do. However long this process takes, it is well worth the investment as it could save you huge amounts of time and trouble in the future.
Good Project Documentation Includes:
- A one-page summary of the project, which sets out the project sponsor, the project manager, the scope, the important deadlines, the budget, and an ‘elevator pitch’ of the project, or the way that you would describe it to the CEO if you met him in the lift (or elevator) and he asked what you were working on.
- A timeline/project plan, which sets out how long each task will take, constraints on each, and who will be involved.
- A budget, including both people and financial resources, which can often be the hardest thing to agree.
- A risk analysis. See our page on Risk Management for more about how to do this.
Probably the most time-consuming to prepare, but most essential, is the project plan or timeline. One of the most useful forms is called a Gantt chart.
This sets out in visual form:
- All the tasks that have to be completed during the project;
- Any constraints on when tasks can be completed, such as which tasks have to be completed before others can start, or particular deadlines;
- The likely and maximum duration of each task;
- The resources that will be dedicated to each task; and
- The critical path, or in scientific terms, the ‘rate-limiting steps’, the tasks that will define the length of the project because they cannot be shortened.
A simple Gantt chart usually looks something like this:
Because it shows linkages between tasks, such a diagram helps to prevent you from falling into the trap of the ‘miracle box’, as in ‘in this area, a miracle will happen which will move us from where we are to where we need to be’.
For more information about another method for avoiding the ‘miracle box’, the use of causal diagrams, take a look at our page on Strategic Thinking.
You need quite a lot of information to prepare a Gantt chart, some of which will be estimated. The more you estimate, the less accurate it will be, and you may need to revisit your estimates several times before you agree a timeline with the project sponsor or Project Board. However, if you make realistic estimates of the required time for each task, within the resource constraints, and your Gantt chart shows your project finishing three months after the desired end-date, you will probably need to renegotiate the deadlines.
This process is called ‘expectation management’ and, like good planning, will avoid problems later.
Your next task as project manager is to get the work started. If you’ve done the planning, this should be relatively straightforward as all those involved will know what they’re doing. You will only need to check periodically that all is going according to plan.
As project manager, it is your job to get regular updates from task managers, to ensure that the project is on track. You also need to report on project progress to the 'Project Board', and let them have information about any emerging problems.
Your updates from task leaders do not have to be formal. They can be as simple as a regular telephone conversation about progress. However, you may prefer a more formal reporting structure, such as a one-page report. This could be in a traffic-light format, with task managers asked to say whether their task is on track (green), at risk of delay or problems (amber) or suffering delays or problems (red).
Know what's going on
As project manager, it is crucial that you know what’s going on. It is best not to rely on formal reports, as these can be misleading. Get out there, and go and talk to the task managers. Get to know them, and build good relationships, so that when problems emerge you are the first person they call, instead of the last. Although it’s not necessarily your job to solve everyone’s problems, you may find that your position gives you an overview which means that you can mediate between task managers and resolve emerging issues, provided you know about them early.
Negotiation and Renegotiation
Finally, project managers need to have strong negotiating skills. You need to be prepared to negotiate and renegotiate scope, specification, budget, deadlines and timelines with both the project board and with task managers. Flexibility, organisation, and the ability to think strategically and focus on what’s really important are key, so have a look at our pages on Organisation Skills and Strategic Thinking Skills.
Although the formal discipline of project management emerged from projects in a work environment, you can apply the ideas to any area of life where you need to get something done. It seldom hurts to consider what you need to do first, what can be done while something else is in progress, and how long it will all take before starting on a task.
Orignally published at www.skillsyouneed.com.