Cocktail napkin project management

Introduction

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), amongst other project management standards, covers the key principles needed by project managers to initiate, plan, implement, and control projects successfully. Organisations have come up a long way in utilizing the tools of project management to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. Maturity levels have improved and many organisations have moved on a path to excellence. With all these successes, some ingredient continues to be missing. This could be referred to as the “sensitivity ingredient”.

To uncover this sensitivity ingredient, let's start by looking at our world of project management. We've been trained to believe in attention to detail, being thorough, and highly organized. For some of us, it comes naturally, and for others, it is a learned trait. Through standards, tools, and education, we have learned to speak the same language and become believers in the discipline of project management. However, many people who participate in projects don't think the same way. Often, as well, people in other organizational roles are given the assignment of managing a project. To be successful, these people need to know the critical success factors for managing a project and they need to know them fast! This is a job for “Cocktail Napkin Project Management” – a simple, easily absorbed, boiled down process for managing projects.

A poll conducted by allpm.com indicates that most organizations surveyed believe that having clear acceptance criteria is the difference between success and failure. This was based on a survey of allpm readers in March 2005. The results from the 72 who responded to the survey are shown in Exhibit 1 below and point to the fact that approximately 76% of these organizations believe in the importance of clear success factors. This is part of the justification behind our belief in the importance of going to the napkin to keep it simple and clear.

Acceptance Criteria

Exhibit 1 – Acceptance Criteria

In the above Exhibit, answer 1: nice to have but rarely use them (14%)

Answer 2: usually too vague to do my project any good (7%)

Answer 3: the difference between success and failure (76%)

Answer 4: a waste of time because they take too much time (3%)

The Cocktail Napkin Concept

The term “back of a napkin”, or sometimes “back of an envelope”, refers to the act of drawing up an idea on a napkin, most likely in an informal setting. It can be construed as a highly idealistic and positive phrase, as when “the concept for that successful company was first developed by the co-founders over drinks on the back of a napkin”

It can also be read as taking shortcuts - only taking enough time to document something important on the back of a napkin. The reality today is that we all have less time to execute projects, and those of us charged with selling the concept of project management have very minimal time to sell our beliefs. Hence, the need to choose only the key ingredients, such that our process will fit on the back of a cocktail napkin.

This is not to say that an organization cannot embrace the full complement of project management processes. It just has to happen in due course, depending on the company culture, willingness to change, and other decision drivers. The cocktail napkin concept provides a simple way to begin selling project management concepts. The key is to focus on the basic needs without overwhelming your audience with too much process and complexity.

The Cocktail Napkin Process

Where do we begin with our cocktail napkin? As we sift through the mass of project management methodologies and philosophies, we have to ask some questions:

What are the key tools to drive project success?
What information must I have to understand my project?
How can I make the information usable to ALL project stakeholders?
What is the CORE of project management?

Thinking about the core brings up a couple of project management keystones: for example, a first keystone is the triple constraint theory, as shown in Exhibit 2.

Triple Constraints

Exhibit 2 – Triple Constraints

Working under the assumption that managing the elements of the triple constraint leads to successful projects, our cocktail napkin should contain tools for each element, including:

  • Scope – A project charter describing business needs, project requirements, including what is in and out of scope is a simple direct way to define focus
  • Time – As PM's we've been trained to work with project schedules, but a simple schedule, focusing on milestones, and not necessarily needing a sophisticated scheduling software would also work
  • Cost – A basic spreadsheet to assist in estimating cost including the amount of resource hours we will need, will go a long way in the cost management effort
  • Quality – Regular status reports, stand-up project reviews (15 minutes or less), and dashboard indicators will give others a chance to review project information to ensure quality

The second keystone of project management to consider is communication – some say project management is 90% communication. This means that a piece of our cocktail napkin approach should be a simple process for continuous communication and updates of our project documents. The simplicity of the documents themselves should lend to more participation from project team members and sponsors, thus facilitating communication and collaboration.

The FACT Model

The Cocktail Napkin approach to project management is a movement towards focus. It is a call to focus on what counts in projects and programs across businesses. This approach has the potential of saving organisations millions of Euros associated with typically missed key simple lessons learned. At the core of this approach is a learning culture that supports strong leadership across the levels of the enterprise. This is essential in allowing these leaders to make the decisions necessary for this simplified approach to projects.

Along the cocktail napkin principal, and in an attempt to guide an organization in finding the project management implementation model that fits, the following model is designed to address the wide variety of projects and programs' complexities, types of teams, strategic drivers, decision making approach, etc.

The model is referred to as “FACT.” The model name is designed and chosen with an attempt to keep organizations connected to their daily lives, their present, and the realities on their plates, yet keep an eye on the future potential associated with the proper doze of project management implementation. The dimensions of FACT are: Flexible, Aligned, Customizable, and Timely.

Flexibility is a key to an implementation model. Many organizations have not been close to tapping what project management could do for them because of the fear that might have existed in the different layers of the organizations of this potentially policing exercise. The true value of the discipline could only be seen if there is an acceptance to the PM use and thus the beginning of consistency could take place. Another poll conducted by allpm.com indicates that most organizations surveyed don't have a consistent project management approach applied. The question allpm asked the readers in May 2005 was: “What is the state of your organization's PM Methodology”? The results from the 128 who responded to the survey are shown in Exhibit 3 and point to the fact that approximately 80% of these organizations don't have the consistent use of PM processes.

Organizational Use of PM Methodology

Exhibit 3 – Organizational Use of PM Methodology

The answer choices and the corresponding percentages were: a. Total chaos, processes are not defined 27%, b. Processes defined, but inconsistently applied 52%, c. Common processes are consistently applied 14%, and d. Processes are benchmarked, continuously improved, and audited 7%

This gives us some indication of the state of PM implementation in today's organizations and the room that exists if we allowed more flexibility to encourage the hearts and souls of the leadership and other stakeholders to take on PM and its value. Flexibility allows for openness, dialogue surrounding the implementation, and eventually personalizing the effort.

In comparing this to the cocktail napkin, napkins could come in different colors and for the sake of flexibility and simplicity, one could design a Dashboard with the different traffic light colors to get a clear message across for use by the decision makers. Part of the flexibility is also the choice to put the Napkin aside which could mean putting the use of PM processes aside in the case it does not help the given project situation.

The PM Methodology needs to be aligned with the strategic direction of the organization. This is a key aspect of the model to ensure that there is no wasted effort or energy in an approach that does not serve the organization's needs from a process. A sample tool for use in alignment is the Project Charter. The charter is best kept simple as an executive document that gives the green light to the project and the project manager. Comparison to the Cocktail Napkin: Napkins sometimes get some branding through different designs, shapes, and letters.

The PM Methodology needs to be customizable and this is one of the most important dimensions of a methodology. No two organizations or industries are that much alike. This requires that we stay open for refinement and adjustment to best fit their needs. This requires full participation of the organizational key players so that the agreed upon approach has the buy-in necessary.

Extending the cocktail napkin analogy again, napkins could beautify or cover the mess. They come in different sizes and shapes. Sometimes napkins are even tailor made to ensure excellent fit. As simple tools we could customize useful ones such as the risk register to also include issues and changes with the proper designation used as necessary.

Another key aspect of the model is “timely.” Methodology has to provide timely information, timely involvement, and many open channels of communications. Timing contributes to many of the healthy project habits. The bathtub approach, which creates high involvement and attention upfront in a phase or a project, then drops for a while and then the intensity picks up again at the end of phase or project, is a good timing example. Many other examples for the timing emphasis exist, such as the handling of project conflicts as early as possible to gain the higher potential of managing these conflicts and ultimately project success and to avoid late costly surprises.

In order to get to a situation where this model and many of the simple ideas around the cocktail napkin approach could be implemented, a supportive culture has to exist. The following are some of the signs of that culture.

A project management supportive culture eliminates unnecessary fear, is open, invests in piloting project management principles, embraces doing business in a project fashion, recognizes the full time role of the project manager, establishes proper project sponsorship level, avoids bad multi-tasking, uses project administrative staff, allows for mistakes, and makes lessons learned a way of life.

Conclusions

- Through standards, tools, and education, we have learned to speak the same language and become believers in the discipline of project management

- Most organizations believe in the importance of clear success factors

- Embracing the full complement of project management processes has to happen in due course, depending on the company culture, willingness to change, and other decision drivers

- A cocktail napkin approach to project management focuses on applying the key elements of successful projects in a simplistic process

- The key questions for your PM cocktail napkin are: What are the key tools to drive project success? What information must I have to understand my project?, How can I make the information usable to ALL project stakeholders?, What is the CORE of project management?

- The dimensions of FACT are: Flexible, Aligned, Customizable, and Timely

- Most organizations surveyed don't have a consistent project management approach applied

- A project management supportive culture is open, sensitive, and creative in adopting the discipline

References

allpm.com, The Project Manager's Homepage™

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2006, Zeitoun and Burns
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain

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