Project Management Institute

Tick, tick, tick


by Sarah Fister Gale

In straddling the line between strategy and execution, project managers often are pulled in multiple directions. They must assign specific tasks to team members while focusing on the big picture issues of budget, quality and deadlines. For some, giving up authority over the details and having faith that the team can and will do the job is a constant challenge.

There's a fine line between managing and hovering, and project managers don't always see the difference. “The pitfall for many new project managers is that they don't know how to let go and delegate,” says Joseph Phillips, director of education for Project Seminars, a PMI registered education provider in Indianapolis, Ind., USA, and author of three project management books. This is an especially common problem in the IT industry, he says, where project managers move up through the technical ranks. “They often have the mindset that no one can do the job as well as they can.”

Executives see a project leadership position as a test: Micromanagement signifies a lack of confidence in team members and an unwillingness to give up control. While project managers may have the best intentions—to oversee the project and ensure it's getting done correctly—all that hovering prevents people from doing their jobs and even can lead to project failure. Instead, Mr. Phillips urges project managers to set clear goals for team members, then give them the room to work. “Give them the chance to succeed,” he says. “If they don't hit their deadlines, then you can talk to them about it.”

Sometimes an outside perspective can help rein in management issues, allowing project managers to focus on what's important and take control of their daily schedule. In the late 1990s, Guy Grindborg, PMP, learned that lesson as an integration project manager in the Dutch office of Ericsson Telecom. Currently the vice president and senior consultant for International Institute for Learning, Plano, Texas, USA, he spent two years in The Netherlands overseeing 45 other project managers. “I was too busy to even stop and think if there was anything that could make my life easier,” he says. As a result, overlong meetings and constant interruptions made it impossible for him to get work done.


Effective time management means trusting team members to do their jobs and delegating authority so you can focus on the big picture. Micromanaging slows projects down.

The best project managers understand the value of planning. They set reasonable expectations for performance and set aside time in case projects go awry.

Project managers should build windows of time into their daily schedules to work undisturbed on project tasks.

If a project spirals out of control be honest, ask for help and have solutions in mind.

He ultimately found a solution when, during a feedback session, his manager said that he accepted far too much work and strongly encouraged him to let his administrator take care of his calendar and planning. “I was really skeptical, but when he assured me that I could take back the calendar after a month if I wasn't convinced, I agreed,” Mr. Grindborg says.

The administrator always planned 30- to 60-minute windows around meetings, labeling them “room to work” (ROTW). “That meant I had 30 to 60 minutes to get my papers and thoughts in order before a meeting, and if the meeting went over, it was only eating away from my ROTW time, not making me late for another appointment,” he says.

To reduce Mr. Grindborg's interruptions, his administrator implemented an online scheduling function so team members saw when he had time available to talk and when he was too busy to be disturbed. She also added a two-hour block of ROTW at the end of each week to help him catch up on current items. Prioritization and time buffers allowed Mr. Grindborg to dramatically improve his time-management skills. He better organized his day and got his work finished without interruptions. “I have continued using the ROTW techniques since I left Holland, and it has been really beneficial,” he says.

Adding a time buffer around meetings can give you a lot of catch-up time, notes Shari Beane, PMP, project manager for Quick Solutions Inc., Columbus, Ohio, USA. “One of the biggest time-management mistakes that project managers make is underestimating the number of meetings needed to accomplish goals.” By establishing clear boundaries when you are concentrating on particular project-related tasks and letting colleagues know you can't be disturbed, you can focus and advance the project. The challenge is to ensure these times are respected.

Vladimir Liberzon, PMP, CEO of Spider Management Technologies, a Russian project management consulting company with branches in the Ukraine and Romania, agrees. “Long, frequent and unnecessary meetings eat up valuable project time,” he says. To keep meetings under control, he suggests first sending a clear preliminary agenda that includes only the necessary topics to all participants, asking for feedback and suggestions, then sending a final schedule prior to meeting.

Planning is Doing

To ensure you will have enough time to complete a project and meet your goals, focus on early, thorough planning. However, executives may get frustrated, thinking that the “actual” work is delayed during this critical stage. “‘Planning’ quite often does not equate to ‘doing,’ because no tangible product results are being generated,” Mr. Grindborg says. “However, insufficient time during planning leads to half-baked plans for execution. These half-baked plans mean that people will be wasting their time doing the wrong things or doing things out-of-sequence.”

To avoid this kind of misunderstanding with results-focused executives, project managers must clearly define up front how much time they intend to spend on planning, why it's critical to the success of the project, and how they intend to use that time. This upfront dialogue ensures that management has realistic expectations for outcomes. Involving team members and task experts also helps more realistically set time expectations, says Midgie Thompson, a performance coach and director of Bright Futures Coaching Ltd., a consultancy firm in Brighton, U.K. “Asking the people involved how much time it will actually take them to do a task helps to develop a more realistic plan rather than a paper plan that may not accurately reflect the complexity and amount of work that is required.”

Even with the best planning, it is nearly impossible to exactly estimate how long a project will take, especially if it's not something your team has done before. While it may seem like a good idea, padding the time estimate to make room for errors or adjustments is not a good solution. “If you think a task will take 40 hours, but you estimate 60 hours, the task will magically take that long,” Mr. Phillips warns. “Then at the end, when you really need a little more time, it's gone.”

Instead, he suggests creating a management reserve, tacking 15 percent of the estimated total time to finish onto the end of the project diagram. When specific tasks are added or go long, you can subtract that time from your reserve. The difference between padding and a reserve is the way time is allotted. With a management reserve, you don't give each task a little extra time, eating away at your cushion. Instead you save it for real problems. “Not every task is going to take longer than projected, and you can't predict where you are going to be late,” Mr. Phillips says. “The reserve allows for bigger events.”

Shari Beane, PMP,
Project Manager, Quick Solutions Inc.,
Columbus, Ohio, USA.

Mr. Liberzon recommends keeping a contingency reserve in the control of the project leader. “It is a big mistake to include contingency reserves in planned duration of the task execution that will be known by task implementers,” he says. He's learned from first-hand painful experience that if team members know they have extra time, they will use it.

When using a management reserve, depending on the client and project politics, you may want to make the reserve transparent, explaining that you will use the extra time only if problems arise. “If the project doesn't encounter any problems, you can still come in on time with your reserve intact,” Mr. Phillips says. “Then, as you complete similar projects, you can shrink your reserve, because you can more accurately predict time estimates.”

Admit Your Mistakes

If you do encounter problems, whether due to poor planning, micromanaging or unforeseen crises, the first thing you need to do is get help. “By not saying anything about the problem or by trying to do it all, you can damage your professional reputation and even your health,” Ms. Thompson says. “When you identify that there is too much to do and not enough time, consult with the stakeholders to discuss the situation and to determine, together, what the priorities are.”


“To be successful, project managers must thoroughly comprehend the authority process and methodology of their clients,” she says. Even if it means admitting mistakes, go to executives with your schedule and have them help you prioritize it; that way, you make decisions together for the best interest of the client and the team.

If you don't get the help you need in time, and the project spirals out of control, honesty still is the best policy, Mr. Phillips says. “People are more willing to work with you if you tell the truth. The sooner you do, the less harm is done.” Go to your manager, admit to the situation and have a clear solution in mind. “It's your job to finish the project, so don't expect others to solve your problems,” Mr. Phillips says. Every decision has a financial impact, and you have to make choices with the overall goals of the project in mind—and realize that executives think in these terms. “You can't just look at the short-term impact, you have to consider profitability and, most important, whether or not the customer benefits,” he says. “Get beyond your field of vision to see the business purpose. That's where the solution lies.” PM

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., USA. She has written for Training, CRM, Inc. and Workforce Management.

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.




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