Stop fighting alligators, drain the swamps (pro-active project management)
This paper is one of a series of ten project management papers that are aimed at over-viewing the basics of the profession. This paper has a short review of the ingredients leading up to gaining team member and management commitment to the activities that contribute to project success. The paper then addresses how to stay ahead of the project as a project manager soliciting communication of potential problems on the horizon as opposed to problems that have already impacted the project schedule and budget.
Envision interlocking gears, as they would depict the project management processes. Hand-off should include a document that is given to the project manager as a project starting point. The scope document is generated with high-level information about the project. The deliverables are a result of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The WBS is an input to the Activity Identification step that identifies the projects activities. Establishing the activity sequence follows. Estimating includes establishing effort, available resources and any compensating factors. With all of the above completed then the “Project's Critical Path” can be identified. This represents the initial plan for the project. The commitment step is where individual resources make a commitment to start and complete activities in a specific time frame. This is the “contract” between the resource and the project manager. Now the full cost of the project can be calculated. In addition to the standard cost of the project there are potential risks that have to be identified with prevention, mitigation and recovery plans put in place as needed. The cost and time required for these plans must be identified and shown to the client for pre-approval prior to the start of project execution.
The Commitment Meeting
All personnel associated with the project must attend this meeting. This meeting is to establish an agreed to schedule in coordination with all team members. For every activity there are two entries in the Task List. The first entry is the start date of the activity and the second entry is the completion date of the activity. For every Deliverable there is an entry for the planned date of client acceptance. With these recorded the Task List now covers every item identified in the WBS and Activity Identification steps. This effort also includes any activities that are required of the project manager. Resources have to verify that they can start activities on time as well as end them on time. If they cannot meet the requested schedules then an alternate schedule is negotiated with the result being committed to by the resource. This process finalizes the project schedule. The time committed to by the resource belongs to the project and the project manager and only the project manager can relieve the resource of that commitment. Management must be aware of the process and agree to the implementation or it has no force behind it and the process is of no value. Now is the time when the WIBNI (Wouldn't It Be Nice If) list is turned into a realistic schedule and team members commit to the final schedule. Until this exercise completes you only have a plan that is based on optimal conditions and have no personal commitment by anyone assigned to the project. This step turns the “best case timings” into a realistic estimate for the project. This is the time line that you can commit to management as the final and agreed to one by the entire team.
Unplanned Resource Loss
Many times on a project a company “line manager” comes to the project manager with a more important task for one of the team members. They generally expect the project to continue on schedule as if the resource was not removed from the project for a period of time. This is a misconception shared by many managers. When the interdependence of resources on a project is key to the project's successful completion losing a resource is not insignificant. Management will always come to project managers and “borrow” resources for their favorite tasks or assignments. There is no way a project manager can stop this activity from occurring over the course of a project. If they do prevent it, then they are considered as not being team players. Since we cannot stop this from happening we can only try to ensure that the management team makes the appropriate business decision. When being approached for one of these “opportunities” you should always have a note card in your pocket for each project. On these cards you should have written the cost of losing a resource during the project. This should be identified for both budget and time lost per day the resource is gone. In this way the manager must make a decision to either give your project the relief in time and cost that your identified or they cannot take the resource.
Now that a Project Plan is agreed to and committed by the appropriate resources the major problem that can happen to us is allowing uncontrolled changes. The plan in place represents the client's and management's expectations for the project. The project manager's first requirement is to meet or exceed client and management expectations. When uncontrolled changes occur there is a high probability that the project will not stay in line with the established expectations. Lack of an effective and efficient change control process is one of the major contributors leading to project failure. When changes are made without the appropriate analysis and time-cost evaluation followed by approval by the appropriate level of management, there is no formal modification of the existing project plan. The final project, will more than likely, not match the original plan for content, cost or time. This results in the project manager not meeting her/his client expectations.
Proactive Team Status Meetings
It is most effective to schedule project status meetings in the same conference room and at the same time of day and on the same day of the week for the entire duration of the project. This precludes anyone saying that they forgot the time, location or day of the meeting. Project status meetings should be scheduled on Tuesday through Thursday and never on Monday or Friday. Friday is the day most people leave work early to have a “long weekend”. If you schedule the meetings on Monday then team members are working on status information on Sunday … Sunday belongs to them for rest and relaxation and not to the company for work.
The “Student Syndrome”
If the start of an activity is delayed the work effort is not diminished, merely delayed until a later time. When that occurs all of the effort must be accomplished in a very short time. This procrastination and delaying of the start of an activity causes a phenomenon known as “the student syndrome”. As project managers everyone should understand that when things are left for the last minute problems always occur at the last minute. This leaves no time for corrective actions and the activity goes late.
Activity Oriented Status Meeting
This is the single most important meeting you can have for the project. If you implement this philosophy your possibility of project success will greatly increase on every project you have under your direction. You first have to convince the team that it is okay for them to give you bad news and to ask for assistance. When the team pulls together to solve problems for each other it creates the team cohesiveness that is key to project success. This process requires that you have your team think four weeks in advance. By doing this they should be able to identify any task that is in trouble before it becomes a problem. In this way they will give you, as the PM, the opportunity to provide them assistance to complete the task on time. If, after asking the resource four weeks in a row if the task is in trouble, the task shows up as late the fifth week, the person assigned the task either does not understand what the task is about - or - a major problem occurred the last day of the task schedule - or - the person lied to you. In any of the above cases the project manager needs to identify the problem and insure that it does not happen again on the project.
Not Being Pro-active
Ask yourself these two questions about not being pro-active: Would I run down the street as fast as I can while looking over my shoulder? You would probably run into something if you did that. Would I drive through the Alps in a severe snowstorm while looking in my rear view mirror? Why do we “look over our shoulder” while running projects instead of looking ahead to keep ourselves out of trouble?
© 2005 A.J. Howard
Originally published as a part of the 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Edinburgh, Scotland