How to Manage Your Projects
without Really Trying
This timely event was jointly sponsored by our local STC and PMI (Project Management Institute) chapters. To kick off a lively conversation on this very ambitious subject, we began with a simple question:
“What is a project and when do we really need to use project management techniques?”
Although the answer might seem obvious most of the time, there are plenty of scenarios in which we can become entangled in “projects” without fully realizing it!
And even when people are aware that they're working on a project, they may not always be certain which methods to use. That's why we aimed to focus this event on the simplest, most effective, lightweight, best practices that we have in our arsenals.
Smaller-sized efforts in particular might seem like routine endeavors on the surface but can take on an unruly life of their own. The most basic, “we’ve-done-this-a-hundred-times-before” activities can suddenly sprout new requirements, demand more time and resources than anyone anticipated, and end up ensnaring unsuspecting contributors like deer caught in the headlights.
Also, larger-sized projects that start off with meticulous planning can run into problems at any time. At that point, people might be thrown off-kilter and abandon their original, clear-headed resolve.
So, What Can We Do?
Our conversation focused on a variety of strategies, checklists, and forms that you can pack in as your “lightweight survival gear,” regardless of which role(s) you might play and which circumstances you might encounter.
Whether you work one-on-one with your clients or on larger virtual or face-to-face teams, you’re going to need good ways to handle:
- Chartering the project and getting buy-in from stakeholders
- Figuring out which requirements your project needs to satisfy
- Estimating how long it will take to complete the work involved
- Creating a realistic schedule and constraining the project scope around it
- Deciding who will do what and how you will communicate during the project
- Managing meetings, decisions, and follow-up action items
- Solving problems and dealing with the unexpected!
Our Preliminary Survey Data
Based on our preliminary e-survey results, we learned that people's top-most “burning issues” regarding projects seemed to focus primarily on the topics below (listed in descending order of perceived importance). So, we focused our discussions mainly on these issues, framing nearly everything around the key topic of scope management.
- Creating a realistic schedule and constraining the scope (#1)
- Estimating how long it will take to complete the work (#2)
- Solving problems and dealing with the unexpected (#2)
- Chartering the project and getting stakeholder buy-in (#3)
Tips, Resources, and Takeaways from the Event
Please see the handouts and resources below, which include examples of the kinds of tools and forms we discussed, as well as fill-in-the-blanks templates for several of these items, and links to articles and books on related subjects.
Event participants provided the following tips in addition to the many others we discussed:
- Seek help, ask questions, find solutions, and network.
- Keep the project time span as short as possible; the longer things drag out, the greater the exposure to scope creep!
- Try a “kanban” (just-in-time) approach to task management, which can help focus attention and reduce overload. (This is also the premise of using the theory of constraints, or TOC, in project scheduling, as explained in the business novel “Critical Chain,” below.)
For a description of kanban in project scheduling, take a look at the software tool “Flow.” To help support estimating, Flow claims to use automatic time tracking to measure progress and make estimates for you based on your past performance.
Newer, affordable, online project management systems offer built-in time-keeping systems, and might thereby provide a way to log “actual hours” for an entire team over several projects. Take a look at the following, all of which offer a free trial option:
- Wrike.com (see the “Boost Productivity” section of the tour)
Finally, here are a few visuals that helped orient our discussion:
Downloads & Resources:
best results, please use the following
tips when downloading files:
- Windows Internet Explorer: Right-click on the link and select Save Target As... You will be prompted to save the file to a specific location
on your hard drive.
- Other platforms or browsers: Right-click on the link (click
and hold on the Mac) and select Download link to disk, Save
Link As... or a similar command. You'll be prompted
to save the file to a specific location on your hard drive.
Download the handouts:
- Lightweight Project Survival Kit (PDF, 600K), which includes:
• Project Planning Checklist
• Six Common Estimating Challenges
• 12 Estimating Best Practices
• Tips on Using Estimating Techniques*
• Sample Work Breakdown Structure
• An Easy Project Scheduling Technique
• Identifying Project Risks Checklist
• Assessing and Mitigating Project Risks
• Proactive Project Rollout Strategies (rollout strategies are also proactive ways to recover from scope meltdowns, and involve re-planning work, re-prioritizing deliverables, and re-framing expectations)
*The Excel spreadsheets below can help you estimate labor hours using three different methods, as explained in “Tips on Using Estimating Techniques,” above:
The document templates below were provided courtesy of the San Luis Obispo County Project Management Office:
Completed examples for the “family reunion” project:
A few of Adele's newsletters on project management topics:
Project Management Books
Several of the books below are in the business fiction genre. They provide a fun and compelling way to absorb what would otherwise be dry, abstract, boring, or complex information!
Memory Jogger: A Pocket Guide for Project Teams,
by Paula Martin and Karen Tate.
Ensure that your teams projects are completed on time,
within budget, and with great results. This
handy pocket guide enables teams to prepare for, charter, execute, and close
out successful projects.
A Novel about Project Management,
expert Tom DeMarco. This enjoyable example of business fiction
explains cutting-edge project management techniques through
a riveting plot filled with international intrigue.
@ the Speed of Stupid: How to Avoid Technology Disasters in
Business, by Dan Burke and Alan Morrison. This series of case studies reveals in gripping detail how several project teams
that these consultants witnessed or attempted to advise insisted on making
major mistakes that resulted in painful failure.
||Critical Chain, by Eli Goldratt.
In another compelling business novel, Goldratt's story characters explore, debate, and discover why projects often run late and over budget, or fail to complete everything that was originally specified. The story line covers a variety of important issues such as critical path vs. non-critical path tasks, resource conflicts, safety buffers, negotiating with subcontractors and suppliers, and the effects of early vs. late starts.
But Not Sufficient, by Eli Goldratt,
This insightful business novel
examines in cliff-hanging detail a range of problems that can result
from excess complexity in software product design. By examining these
problems from both the vendors and the customers
viewpoints, the book shows how over-complexity, especially
in large systems, can quickly become a lose-lose proposition.