In my early days of managing projects, the tasks ran the show. I was the man with the to-do list. I filled it out every night before leaving work. Every morning I religiously reviewed it, verified the priorities, and executed each item for a successful day.
The disappointment I felt if I wasn’t able to complete the list was measureable. It wasn’t just my own tasks that I managed that way. Every member of the team had their tasks, if not for the day, at least for the week. I felt it was my job to make sure everyone got their tasks done for the good of the project.
The tactical mind
By following that task-mastery approach, I know that I got a lot done. The team got a lot done. I felt like I was managing the project effectively by following this tactical approach. And to some degree I was. I was identifying what needed to get done and driving it to completion. Continue reading Thinking a Step Ahead of the Project Owner→
I have a friend who is a really good sales person. He is also very entrepreneurial. He has worked for other people for a number of years, but I’ve always been impressed by how he approaches his work like it is his own business. It shows commitment.
He has been talking for a long time about going out on his own. I have encouraged him. He has such a deep knowledge of his industry and a lot of innovative ideas that could help people in it.
One of my favorite books I used to read to my kids was The Mitten. It’s the story of a young boy walking in the woods and loses his mitten. A mole comes along and crawls in it to stay warm. Then, a rabbit sees the mitten and squeezes in with the mole. After that the animals get progressively bigger. An owl, a badger, a hedgehog, a fox, and then a brown bear all squeeze into this little mitten.
Finally, a field mouse squeezes in. This proves to be too much and the mitten explodes. Besides this being a classic tale, one of the reasons I like this story so much is because it is a perfect illustration of how scope creeps into a project. People think, “just a little more” over and over until it’s just a little too much.
There is a common term of “the final straw.” The full expression is “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It stems from the practice of loading straw on the backs of camels. Individual straws are easy to carry. But as you load more and more, the camel’s ability reaches a limit and eventually it breaks its back. There is one straw that tips the scale to the point of being too much.
Like straws and mice, small things can make a big difference. It is a project manager’s responsibility to be a defender of the scope. There are several ways in which that can be done.
Define scope in the project charter
Project managers produce a lot of documents. Some are necessary. Others are done to please a checklist. The project charter is one of the more important and necessary documents.
The project charter defines the purpose of the project and how it helps the organization achieve their overriding strategy. An important section of the charter is the definition of scope.
The scope definition should provide some high level detail about what types of functionality will be completed as part of the project. An important aspect of that is listing things that are specifically out of scope for the project. This sets distinct expectations and removes as much ambiguity as possible for the business stakeholders.
Require succinct requirements
In most projects, business requirements are defined by business analysts. It is important to ensure that the business requirements they define are complete and succinct. There should be as few loopholes as possible.
In an organization where I once worked we had a term called “spell checker.” Assume that someone asked you to design a spell checker for a word processing package. You define a simple application that will go through a block of text and identify any words that do not exist in the internal dictionary.
When you present a demo of the product, the business is disappointed. They wanted it to provide correction recommendations. They wanted thesaurus capabilities. They wanted you to check for grammatical errors.
In your mind, a spell checker is simply that. Software to check your spelling. The additional items they wanted are additional functionality outside of just checking spelling. If they wanted that, they should have asked.
When you review business requirements, consider how you would implement it. Are the any open questions? Are there any gaps? Are there any broad terms like “spell checker” that could be interpreted in different ways?
Business analysts are the liaison between the business and those who will implement the project. They have the responsibility to make sure both parties are aligned with the right terminology.
Get sign-off from business
When business requirements are complete, they should be reviewed by the business stakeholders and approved. The review should be done formally with a physical signature or an email that documents the version of the requirements being approved.
In the future if there is any difference of opinion with the requirements, there is an official, authorized version that everyone uses as a source document.
Think like a lawyer
Lawyers take a lot of criticism. Some may be warranted. Nobody likes when a lawyer defends a criminal and gets him off on a technicality. He murdered someone, but since they didn’t read him his rights, he walks free.
But lawyers aren’t paid to do what’s right morally. They are paid to defend the law. If they have been hired by a criminal, the lawyer’s job is to use the laws to protect the client to the best of his ability. The lawyer’s job is not to judge the client.
Once the business requirements have been approved by the business, those requirements are the law. The project manager’s job is to implement what the requirements dictate. If the business decides later that they want additional functionality, it can’t just be squeezed in like a field mouse in a mitten.
The business may argue that the functionality they are requesting is absolutely necessary for them to do their job. The project manager’s job is to protect the scope of the project. If the business needs it that bad, there are other means of including it that don’t introduce additional risk of squeezing it in.
Develop a strong change control process – and follow it
The most effective way to handle those new requests from the business is to establish a process to manage change requests. When a new request is identified, complete a change request form that details the change and provides an estimate for the work.
Additionally, the impact to the project should be provided. This will indicate whether the project timeline is affected, more people will be needed for the project, or whether the additional work can be absorbed in the current project plan.
Never say “No.” Once you have identified the impact to the project, present the change request and its impact to the project to the business. In most cases, the business is financing the project. Impact to the project implies additional cost. If the change is large enough, it may include adding resources and extending the timeline on the project.
The project manager should develop multiple options, if possible. Those options should be presented to the business owner to allow him or her to decide. Would you like to pay to bring on additional resources? Would you like to extend the project? Would you like to add this functionality and remove some other functionality to make time for it?
Develop a collaborative relationship with the business
Often, the project manager and business owner develop an adversarial role. The business owner wants as much functionality at the lowest possible cost. The project manager is often held responsible for getting the project completed on time and within budget. But she is also responsible for completing the project to the business’s satisfaction.
It is important that both the business owner and the project manager work collaboratively toward the goal of adding business value. If both teams work toward a balance of providing business value while managing scope and delivering a project within the planned parameters, both groups can succeed.
My wife and friends ridiculed me a few years ago for using a Microsoft Project plan when we moved. But I got the last laugh. Every detail was covered and the move went smoothly. I’m also very organized. The hooks in my garage are labelled so that each garden tool is put in the appropriate place. Okay, maybe a bit too organized.
I’ve always been organized. And I’ve always been a planner. I’ve been called anal retentive and geeky. Those terms don’t bother me. I like being organized. I like knowing where everything is when I need it.
Being an organized planner comes in handy when managing projects. Of course, there are a lot of other skills involved in order to be a successful project manager, but one of the biggest factors is the ability to plan.
According to Wikipedia, planning is the process of thinking about and organizing the activities required to achieve a desired goal. If you are managing a project. Your project objective is your desired goal. Being able to state that objective clearly enough for all stakeholders to understand is one of the first aims of the project.
Once you have that objective defined, you need to figure out how to get there. It’s like saying you want to go to Napa, California for vacation. Great. Let’s go. Do you know how you will get there? Do you know how long it will take? Do you even know where Napa, California is?
The three components of success for any endeavor are (1) the creativity to come up with a unique and usable idea, (2) the ability to execute the idea into action, and (3) the ability to sell the idea to potential investors and consumers. The second part, execution, requires detailed and competent planning in order to complete anything well.
Project management is the execution of that idea. The project manager has to implement a focused plan to get the job done. There are several project management planning considerations for the project manager to address.
When you first start a project, it’s easy to be gung-ho and chomping-at-the-bit excited just to get started. Let’s just start working. It’s like the vacation. We’re going to wine country! There will be beautiful, winding hills and lots of wine to sample. Let’s just get into the car and start heading west. What could go wrong?
You could run out of gas at Omaha. You could end up in Seattle. You could get lost, meandering around the countryside, never reaching your destination, until your vacation time runs out and you have to go back to work.
The biggest part of planning is preparation. For a long trip, you would probably determine how many miles separate your home from Napa, CA. A good planner would determine how much time and gas it takes to drive. You might look at the weather forecast and determine appropriate clothes to pack for the trip.
If it’s a long trip, you might look into other options. What are the flights available and how much do they cost? Is taking the train or a bus an option?
A project manager should prepare for a project in the same way? How much work is involved? How many people and what skills are needed? What are the options for executing this project?
Like a long trip, a project has many aspects to consider when preparing. The more things you consider, the more prepared you will be.
A Project Plan
Once you determine everything you need and the appropriate approach for your project, you need to put together a plan. Let’s say you have decided to get to Napa by driving so you can enjoy the countryside. The trip will take several days. So you map out the route you will go and make hotel reservations at appropriate distances.
A project needs to have a plan that details how the project will reach its objective. A detailed project plan will map out the tasks to complete and will identify who is responsible to complete the tasks. Periodic milestones should be identified to verify for all stakeholders whether the project is on track.
If you take a long road trip, and you want to make the trip as much fun as the destination, you might allow extra time to see some points of interest along the way. Each day on your trip, you will plan how much time you have to reach your day’s milestone destination. You know how much time you have for other stops.
In order to stay on schedule, you know the approximate amount of time you have allowed for each stop. This allows you to see the sites you want to see, and helps you reach your milestones on time.
When managing a project, it is important to plan tasks that need to be done by day and by week. An agile project will plan sprints of 2-4 week durations. Each team member has their daily plan, which is usually posted on a wall. On more traditional projects, every team member has their work planned in a detailed project plan. The project manager will verify each person’s progress on a daily or weekly basis.
Managing the time on a project allows the project manager to plan tasks and verify whether the team members are on track for their tasks in order to stay on track with the plan.
On a long road trip, you have a planned destination and some planned sites along the way that you would like to stop and see. You have a week of vacation. You plan to get home on Sunday in time to go back to work on Monday.
While you’re on your way, you learn about another site you would like to visit. It’s an hour off the highway you are traveling, and it should take a day to really enjoy. If you and your family are going to fit that into your schedule, something is going to have to give. You can cut another day’s excursion out of your trip, or reduce your stay at Napa by a day. Alternatively, you could extend your trip by a day. That would get you home on Monday, causing you to spend more money and another vacation day.
Having all of your day trips and your duration at your final destination planned out allows you to make decisions. When an unplanned activity comes along, you can compare its priority to that of the planned activities. You can more easily decide whether you’d rather do the new activity and reprioritize others.
The same thinking goes for project. When you have work items planned and the business asks for new functionality, it makes decision making easier. The project is a container of X work units. The business has just asked for X+1. You can present all of the original X activities and allow them to reprioritize for the new activity. If they don’t want to deprioritize any of the activities, they have the option of extending the project if the time and budget exists. But they can’t make those decisions unless they have an original plan to compare to.
Risk and Issue Management
If you plan on taking a long trip, you probably start thinking ahead about what could happen? I could get a flat tire along the way. I’d better have all the tires checked, including the spare. I could run into some rain. I should replace the windshield wipers. There could be new highway routes, so I’ll update my GPS to make sure it has up to date information. If you plan to swim on your vacation, there could be rainy days. You may want to plan alternative activities for those days.
By taking some time to consider what could go wrong, you can take actions to mitigate it as a problem or to have alternatives.
When you manage a project, you will want to go through the same type of planning. At the beginning of the project, you should meet with a group of stakeholders to try to think about anything that could go wrong. Then you can establish a plan to avoid the risk from occurring or to have an alternative plan just in case it occurs.
Having alternative plans can help mitigate major risks on a project before they become major issues.
Project management is about more than just asking people if they are done with their assigned task. A major factor in the success of a project is the level to which it is planned and how well the plan is followed.
Preparing in advance and planning all aspects of the project ensures that things will be done on time and in the right sequence. A strong plan allows the project manager to make and facilitate better decisions with better information.
“He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” – Winston Churchill
What project management planning considerations do you address on a project?
This past Thanksgiving my daughter Emily was selected to travel to Florida for an elite soccer tournament. Because of the cost of the trip and the fact that we traditionally host Thanksgiving for my side of the family, we decided to divide and conquer.
My wife Heather, along with three other moms on the team, went to Florida with the daughters. I stayed home with our two older kids and hosted Thanksgiving.
Normally, my wife takes the lead in preparing the meal. I help out, but she’s in charge. She’s had enough practice that she just seems to know how to get everything done.
A well-defined plan
I needed to be a little more organized. You should have seen the project plan I put together for the meal. I had the list of dishes I could prepare the night before. The plan had the cooking temperatures and durations.
Each item was listed in order of when it needed to go in the oven. I had tasks for others as well. My sister Cindy would begin preparing the dinner rolls at 12:15 PM. My niece Katie was in charge of making gravy at 12:30 PM. My kids, Holly and Sam helped get the table set and water glasses filled so that we could sit down at one o’clock.
I thought the plan went down fairly well. There were a few people who arrived later than expected, which slightly delayed the meal. The turkey got done a little before plan, but we let it sit and it didn’t dry out.
We sat at the table and went around saying what we were all thankful for. As we dug in, I probably had a smug little smile on my face thinking how smoothly everything had gone down.
Then somebody said, “It’s just not the same without Heather.” There was a brief, selfish moment where I arrogantly thought I had successfully replaced her. I had the plan down. It went so smoothly. How could you miss her?
A leader in the kitchen
But I quickly realized how right they were. I followed all of the same recipes she did. I planned it all out so that everything was ready when it should be.
But, in addition to her charming personality, my wife added that special something to the meal. She wasn’t just performing tasks. She was preparing a meal. She inherently knows how and when to do things and how to work with the other people in her kitchen.
Leadership in project management
Project managers experience the same thing in the business world. A project manager can list all of the tasks that get done and determine the optimal times to start and end each one. A project manager can assign tasks to others and hold them accountable for getting them done.
These are all things that a good project manager should be able to do. But a great project manager has the leadership skills to deal with the human side of things. Redirecting people when they have momentum on a different course requires diplomacy. Assigning tasks to people so they enjoy the work makes them do a better job.
My wife adds love and leadership to the kitchen for a big project like Thanksgiving dinner. Do you add the same aspects to the projects you manage?
The Scout Motto is “Be prepared”. I don’t know if a study has ever been done to determine whether former scouts make better project managers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a correlation.
The most successful project managers I know are prepared for almost anything. Over the years, the most successful way I’ve found to be prepared is to have a formal risk assessment process, in which risks are addressed early and often. Continue reading Assessing Risk in Project Management→
I recently went on a family vacation to Vermont. Even while I was admiring the beautiful green mountains of that state, I couldn’t help but get distracted thinking about project risk.
We were visiting some family who took us on a drive to Stowe, VT. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains with dense trees and mountain scenes. There was a narrow pass named Smugglers Notch, in which the road narrowed and curved sharply. The lane was wide enough for two cars to meet, and still pass. But it required them both to slow down enough to avoid hitting each other or the side of the mountain.
When we entered the mountainous area, I noticed a sign that read “Road ahead unsafe for trailers, trucks and buses.” I didn’t think too much about it until we got a few miles in and an oncoming car flagged us down. Continue reading Project Risk and the FedEx Truck→
I’ve been a project manager for so many years that it’s part of everything I do. In the morning, I get my coat on and grab my bag while the Keurig is running. I just don’t want to waste that minute standing and watching coffee brew when I can be doing tasks in parallel.
A 2009 study from the New England Journal of Medicine showed that when surgeons used a basic checklist prior to a surgical operation, deaths were reduced by almost 50%, and complications due to surgery were reduced by more than a third.
These basic checklists included steps such as verifying the identity of the patient and the type of surgery to be performed, as well as making sure blood was available in case it was needed during surgery.