Managing a systems development project

Statskonsult AB, Sweden

Administrative development is to a large extent carried out in projects. The concept project management has long been associated with administrative techniques. These techniques are connected with such steering Functions as goal-setting, planning, organization and project control as illustrated in Figure 1.

A project management model

Figure 1. A project management model.

The use of administrative techniques is, however, not always enough — in some cases not even desirable — to achieve effectiveness in the project work. The project result is, for example, to a large extent influenced by the efficiency in the co-operation among project participants. Attitudes, misunderstandings, prejudice, resistance to change, prestige etc. are well-known phenomena in periods of change. Good co-operation can be attained through project group seminars, discussions about experiences during the project work, conversational and group dynamic exercises, and by creating common goals.

Concerning co-operation in a project

Figure 2. Concerning co-operation in a project.

Effective project work means to produce a good product within time and cost limits as well as achieving an internal sense of well-being within the group of project participants.

A “mixture” of administrative techniques should be sought for each individual project, well adapted to the participants. The following questions should be focused.

  • Should a particular technique for planning, organization or project control be applied or not?
  • On which ambition level and with which degree of formalism should a particular technique be applied?
  • Should we change technique, change the project organization etc. according to changes in the project environment and the project personnel?

To find this “mixture” it is necessary to

  • study and predict the contacts between the project and its environment
  • discuss experienced needs among project members and examine their attitudes towards different forms of project management.

Certain formalism and continuous documentation of the project work is required when a project group is working in an environment with extensive contacts with external groups. A more informal project management style could be considered in a “closed” environment.

The degree of formalism in the internal work of a project group should be based on the importance of formal or creative environments for the motivation of the project members. Clear routines and forms can give security and support for the project work. It is important, however, to observe possible drawbacks with the use of certain administrative techniques.

Some aspects concerning goal-setting, planning, organization and project control — worth more attention when managing a systems development project than they have received in the past — are stated below.

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Figure 3.

Goal-setting

Goal-setting should be based on a thorough problem analysis. Particular attention should be put on relating the project goals to experienced problems. Solutions should be coupled with identified causes to the problems. This should be done on a detailed level. It is important to pursue a common problem and goal conception among interested individuals and groups. A few simple questions can give support for the problem analysis and goal-setting procedure.

  • What problems exist?
  • Who experiences (“owns”) the problems?
  • Why is something experienced as a problem?
  • Which of the problems should be taken care of in this project?
  • “How” should the problems be solved?
  • What effects should be pursued?
  • What consequences can be foreseen? “How” should they be taken care of?

Well formulated goals are measurable and controllable. These criteria are important. They can, however, get too much attention at the cost of other aspects.

The following questions should be answered for each individual project.

  • Who will use the documented goals?
  • For what will the goals be used?

The answers to these questions often show the value of the goals being realistic, informative, clear (“difficult to misunderstand”), guiding and motivating.

Goals being specified and “fixed” in an early stage of a project often reflect a high ambition. The enthusiasm is usually on top at this stage. Changes of ambition level and other deviations from the goals do often occur, unnoticed, during the project work.

The goals can be more useful for the project work if they are formulated in phases and gradually given a more and more fixed form. A phase-oriented goal-setting routine offers a possibility to take advantage of experiences and new ideas, to successively assess alternatives, and to carry on the work.

Planning

When planning a project several planning documents are often produced. A master plan should explain the structure of the project, working phases, estimated time of completion, groups of activities, and important events in the project work. In larger projects it is often appropriate to create separate sub-project plans, a detailed phase plan is usually required for the nearest time period (a few months). Each activity in this plan must be possible to control. This requires, among other things, that it is possible to describe the product of the activity in advance. However, planning requires time, effort, and money. It may neither be an end in itself nor a jog-trot work. The value of a complete plan should always be questioned. On the other hand, great emphasis should be put on the feasibility of the plan.

The planning value lies in the process taking place rather than in the documents (often neatly designed) being produced. The primary thing is that we conduct planning discussions in the project when a true need exists—which is not seldom. Ideas, opinions, value judgements, and alternatives should be explored to reach a common planning result. The documents in themselves, however, often have a value as information material and memoranda.

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Figure 4.

The planning and project control work is of a psychological nature rather than of a technical nature.Patience, openness, and a forward-looking and motivating approach are required to keep planning discussions and planning documents alive. A computerized planning procedure does not usually solve these problems.The planning work then becomes bureaucratic, whichcan have a detrimental effect on the planning climate and the attitude towards the planning documents.

The following aspects and activities are often underestimated when planning a systems development project

  • Determine working' phases, well adapted to the individual project.
  • Time consuming, but necessary and important learning periods for “end users” as well as “systems analysts”.
  • Continuous problem analysis during the project work.
  • Using documentation as a management tool. For example in an early stage of a working phase create preliminary tables of content for the end documents of the phase.

Organization

The project organization offers several possibilities compared with a regular line organization. A possibility, which should be exploited more than what is common today, is to rapidly change the project organisation when changes in the project environment, the assumptions, the tasks, the competence, need or project personnel occur. Changing the project organization should be just as natural as setting up the organization in the first place.

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Figure 5.

Concrete steps should be taken to create a group feeling in small as well as large groups in a project. A co-operative atmosphere can, for example, be reached by project group seminars, discussions about experiences in the project work, and carrying out the project management activities in collaboration.

In project work it sometimes happens that

  • certain groups of people learn to work better with each other
  • some individuals get a chance to take up greater responsibility than they are used to
  • conflicts between individuals are solved
  • some individuals pick up new knowledge from the project work

Such effects of a project are often looked upon as unspoken marginal effects. They can, however, be knowingly planned. Thereby the project form can become a valuable tool for individual and organizational development.

Project control

Some kind of routine for project control is needed in the project work. The level of ambition and the degree of formalism should be based on experienced needs and be adapted to the size, complexity, and the personnel of the project. When individual and oral control is possible from a practical point of view it is usually the most beneficial form.

A project control situation must include an analysis with the purpose of identifying needs of actions to prevent difficulties in the future project work.

Project control should be motivating rather than controlling. A project manager can, for example, lead a discussion about “How do you find your present situation in the project?” “What do you plan to do?” “Do you see any risks for the result being different from what is expected?” “Do you need more information or other kind of support?” Consequently a forward-looking approach should be applied.

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Figure 6.

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