Manage Your Projects … Not Just Your Schedule (Part 2)


In my first post, I discussed the significance of initiating a project properly. Carrying on with this series, let’s look at what’s required to plan a project appropriately.
In my first post
, I discussed the significance of initiating a project properly. Carrying on with this series, let’s look at what’s required to plan a project appropriately.

In my prior career as a programmer, I loathed project managers because to me, they waste a lot of precious time in planning, meeting, deciding how to implement and run a project. In my mind, real work begins when I start coding and churn out software applications. In retrospect, I’ve also been in projects where proper planning wasn’t part of the culture and guess what, it wasn’t as successful as it could’ve been.

During project planning, it is critical that you involve key stakeholders like customers, management, and subject matter expert (SME). Realize that the project manager alone does not perform project planning; it is a collaborative team effort. What a concept, huh?

To get you on the right track, here are six essential steps to plan a project:

Step 1: Identify project tasks by creating the WBS

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a deliverable-based grouping of tasks. Here is an example of a WBS of a recent project:

Developing a WBS is essentially defining the tasks that needs to be performed in order to achieve the project deliverables defined in the project charter. That’s why you can’t bypass the project definition phase. By focusing on project deliverables, tasks identified are only the essential tasks.

At this stage, you DO NOT worry about the schedule. This is the biggest mistake of a lot of project teams; they jump in right away and start talking about the schedule.

Also, this can be an iterative process. There’s no way that you can identify all the tasks at once unless you have worked on the exact same project 10,000 times.

Step 2: Estimate tasks

Normally, your team should be able to identify how long the tasks identified in step 1 will take to complete. Now, there might be certain tasks that you are not familiar with and you need to estimate how much time is needed to complete them.

Hold your breath as to what I am about to say:

A common problem in a lot of project teams is that poor estimation culture is widely a norm.

REALLY? How many times have you asked your team member: “How long will it take you to do ABC task?” the person would immediately reply: “5 days” then you take the person’s word and just walk away?

Have you ever bothered to ask what “5 days” meant? Is the task effort driven that if you have another person help out, would “5 days” drop to “2.5 days”? Or is it fixed duration like “Attend a 5 day training class” that even if you throw more people onto the task, “5 Days” is still “5 Days”? Or is it a fixed resource task that depending on who works on the task, “5 Days” is relative?

Resources are not completely to blame if their estimates are off – this goes to show that the project management team hasn’t instituted a sound process in estimation.

Did you know that the root cause of a lot of projects being late is due to poor estimation during project planning?

Step 3: Generate the initial project schedule by establishing task dependencies

This is the time where you break out tools like Microsoft Project. You enter the tasks and estimates you have identified and then establish the logical flow of what has to happen first then what has to happen next. By doing this, you are defining task dependencies and eventually building a network diagram.

Once the dependencies are identified, you can tell what the schedule of the project is by looking at the critical path. The critical path tells you the overall schedule of the project.

Notice I used the word “initial” to describe project schedule. You see, this is your first cut. This schedule is more like an ideal or “in a perfect world” scenario. Keep in mind that you haven’t identified the resources that will work on these tasks yet.

Step 4: Plan for resources and assign tasks

I know, I know – you might think planning for resources is a waste of time since you won’t get the necessary resources anyway. Trust me, this is beneficial in spite of the roadblocks that lie ahead.

The key to resource planning is generating a resource pool. It is essentially a list of resources that you need to complete the tasks and in the timeframe specified in step 3. These resources are typically people who will perform the work, but sometimes, it will include material resources as well such as equipment, supplies, etc. In addition to identifying who and what the resource needs are, it is also pertinent that you identify the realistic resource availability, rates and calendar.

Once you have your resources identified, you can assign the appropriate resource to the appropriate task. Depending on the how much resource you have and the person’s availability, this might affect your project schedule. Again, this is where you can harness the power of tools like Microsoft Project because it can automatically recalculate the project schedule for you.

Step 5: Conduct Risk Assessment

There’s a saying that good project managers are good at “putting fires out”. I say that’s rubbish. A good project manager ideally should not have to do this if the project was planned well and appropriate risk assessment was conducted.

To put it simply, project risks are undesirable events that might have some likelihood of negatively impacting the project. So it is pertinent at this point that you review how your project was planned and identify potential risks, assess the likelihood and impact of the risk to the project and lastly, define mitigation or contingency plans.

As an example, let’s say your project is to build a nuclear power plant. One of the tasks you’ve identified is “Deliver uranium to the plant”. Since you are short on budget and resources, you assign the task to a newly hired intern who has only been driving for 2 years.

If we perform a risk assessment against this scenario, it might look like:

Risk: Inexperienced driver potentially getting into an accident
Likelihood (Probability): Medium
Impact (How bad would it be): High
Mitigation Plan: Increase budget to hire experienced driver

By performing sound risk assessment, you can use this as a tool when negotiating with management or customers to justify budget increase, schedule adjustments and limiting project scope.

Step 6: Baseline Project Plan

You’re almost ready to get started with your project. At this juncture, you should have created a project plan that is made up of critical components like your project charter, project schedule, budgets, resource plan, risk management plan, etc.

The last step in planning is to baseline your project plan. Essentially, you are making a copy of your project plan. This will serve as your primary reference point so as the project goes underway, you can compare your actual information for schedule and cost with what you have planned for originally.

As the planner of the largest infantry invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of D-Day in WW II once said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Read Manage Your Projects … Not Just Your Schedule (Part 3)

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Originally posted at EPM Live

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