The Project Notebook

A Fresh Start for an Old Project

 By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2014, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved.  No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.

As we ring in a brand new year full of promise, we may feel the incentive to make resolutions to improve our lives in a variety of ways. Just as the calendar gives us an “excuse” to start anew in our personal lives, it can also give us the impetus to re-think the current projects with which we are involved. It’s easy, particularly with a lengthy project, to feel trapped in a rut. The meetings all sound alike, the progress is miniscule, and the personality conflicts abound. Or perhaps the project is progressing as planned, but people seem to be sleepwalking through their tasks. While keeping the goals of a project intact, there are some easy actions that can revitalize a “tired” project.

A good place to start with a fresh approach is the actual project work to be accomplished. A quick, high-level overview of what’s progressing, what’s lagging, and what doesn’t seem to be moving at all can often pinpoint tasks that can be dropped or at least modified. Generally, at the beginning of a project there is a tendency to list every possible task in order to ensure that nothing will be missed. As the project progresses, at least some of these tasks become superfluous, redundant, or meaningless. Since other tasks surface as the project progresses, the team members as well as the project manager can experience a sense of being overwhelmed. The overview can identify tasks that can be dropped, leaving everyone with a sense of relief.

A common challenge on project teams is that there is little or no “cross pollinization” among team members with regard to activities and responsibilities. The start of a new year is a good time to make some changes in who is doing what. The team can provide input with regard to new assignments so that the project manager is not faced with merely rearranging the Gantt chart resource allocations. While there are some people who would not willingly accept a different assignment even if it meant a 50% raise, the majority will welcome some change that they have controlled. New perspectives are bound to surface.

What would a project be without meetings? Now is a great time to look at the actual purpose of each scheduled periodic meeting that is connected with the project. Consider the following questions:

1) What is actually getting accomplished in each of these meetings?

2) Are the meetings poorly attended?

3) Is the attendee list growing while the output is dwindling?

4) Are the same things being re-hashed at every session?

If the answer to #1 is “very little” or “nothing” and at least one of the remaining questions can be answered with a loud “yes”, it’s time to revamp the meeting, eliminate it, or use a more effective method of communication.

Now that everyone is back from the holidays, it’s a good time to re-energize projects by capitalizing on the renewed energies of the manager and the team. A little overhauling can produce major positive results.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum advisory committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

It Isn’t Easy Being the Only One Who Is Focused

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.

The practice of jumping from one activity to another or worse yet engaging in frantic multitasking can be all too common in project management. It is the project manager who must maintain stability and sanity as project participants and sponsors fly off on diverse paths in attempting to achieve the goals of the project. The following article provides some project management strategies for maintaining focus in the midst of chaos.

Establishing and maintaining focus starts at the very inception of the project concept. There is often much talk about specific solutions or outcomes and “drop dead” dates. All of this conversation takes place in an euphoric atmosphere in which no problems could ever materialize, and no risks could ever be present. According to the project participants, it’s the role of the project manager to make certain that nobody else has to deal with problems and that no other person has to face a risk that manifests itself. It is during this initiation phase that the project manager must establish him/herself as the “voice of reason” to guide people toward specific definition of goals. The project goals are not to be confused with the actual solutions or outcomes. The goals need to be specific targets for accomplishments, such as “to increase market share by 50%” or “to overcome a technology barrier”. A project without goals will never achieve focus and will have no measures of success.

Assuming that the project manager is able to persuade project participants to define and agree on specific goals, the challenge then becomes reinforcing those goals throughout the project. It is easy to set aside goals during the planning phase in the rush to obtain resources and funding. However, the goals are the actual criteria that determine who should work on the project, the amount of money that should be allocated for deliverables, and the timeframe that should be defined.

As the project execution begins, the real threats to a project’s focus arise. Marathon meetings, email flurries and informal conversations can erode the focus of a project. People need something tangible to “hold on to” in order to remain focused. Requiring completion of frequent physical deliverables assists in preserving a sense of accomplishment. When the inevitable change requests occur, the project manager needs to correlate these requests with the project goals and to remind requestors of the goals in a variety of methods. Sometimes all it takes is providing meeting participants with a page that briefly outlines the goals. If the meeting discussion shows signs of drifting, the project manager can quickly re-focus the session by referencing this outline.

As mentioned earlier in this article, project goals are the basis for focus and for determination of success. An astute project manager knows that he/she can achieve success only if there is an actual target. Otherwise, he/she is at the mercy of a multitude of individuals who each employ a unique rating system weighted heavily toward “0” rather than “10”.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum advisory committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Just Think of all the Money That We’ve Saved!

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.

Organizations continue to enforce relentless cost reduction efforts in the face of global competition. Given the emphasis on minimizing costs, virtually every project manager has had at least one project budget that is woefully inadequate. After so many years of hearing “less is more”, “lean and mean”, and other well-worn clichés, project managers have come to expect that initial budgets will seldom be realistic to achieve expectations. This article explores some legal “creative financing” options to address the challenges of underfunded projects.

The “Right” People

Quantity and quality are not synonyms in the project management world. While selecting the right human resources for a project does not necessarily mean getting the most “expensive” personnel, acquiring those people with appropriate skills and relevant expertise does take concerted effort. It means taking time to carefully review resumes, to conduct meaningful interviews, and to ponder the potential effectiveness of the mix of people on the project team. Of course, the “right” people are typically in great demand to participate on multiple teams. Therefore, a project manager may need to rearrange activities and/or dependencies so that the appropriate people can participate. Typically, a few “good” people can outperform a large number of lesser talented resources in a shorter time period. Rescheduling is well worth the effort when it results in fewer personnel costs as well as a shorter time to implementation.

“Time is Money”

In an attempt to keep costs at a minimum project managers are often given completion dates that are unrealistic. Organizations believe that an aggressive timeframe keeps everyone motivated and does not allow for the cost overruns often associated with lengthy projects. Competitive pressures may also drive a tight time schedule. After all, being “second to market” is not a goal for most companies. In the face of this focus on time project managers need to assess what really needs to be accomplished on a project. This assessment needs to be made before developing the project schedule so that any tasks that are not essential to complete the core requirements can be eliminated. Too often project managers attempt to complete “everything” that is requested. In this futile effort the project may actually not accomplish anything concrete. In such situations the project either has to obtain more money in order to complete anything or has to be severely downsized or even scrapped. Any of the preceding three situations means that money has been wasted. It is better to complete a basic deliverable than to deliver only promises.

“We Can Fix It Later”

Every project includes some interim deliverables prior to the final deliverable that do not turn out as planned. The tendency is to say, “We can fix it later”. However, “later” seldom comes, and so the inadequate interim deliverables do not meet expectations. If an interim deliverable is part of a larger downstream deliverable, there can be a cascading failure effect. (Remember the Challenger’s “O” rings?) Even if the interim deliverable stands alone, its implemented version may not be used or worse yet, may result in a “work around”. The potential for interim deliverable failure needs to be a part of proactive contingency planning with scheduled backup tasks and resources to address those deliverables that truly need fixing now not later.

In summary, there are creative methods to stretch budget dollars effectively. While the tendency is to focus directly on costs, the concepts discussed in the above article represent some other types of actions that can be effective when project budgets are anything but realistic.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum advisory committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

A Plan for Success OR A Recipe for Failure?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 This article focuses on factors that need to be addressed early in the project life cycle in order to avoid later problems.  Many times, these critical considerations are either overlooked or deferred.  If an issue seems particularly loaded with political maneuvering and ramifications, someone is bound to say, “We can worry about that later”.  Typically, the project manager will be the one who then has to deal with the deferred issues, which always get worse over time.  Let’s look at a few of those considerations that need to be addressed “now” rather than “later”.

Executive Support

Generally, a least a few senior people in an organization can be persuaded to appear at a “kickoff” event, say a few words, and then depart.  The “troops”, who have been through this scenario many times, are then left wondering if they will ever see these people again during the project.  Executive support comes in many forms, so an astute project manager defines what types of support and timing are necessary to provide the true demonstration of belief in the project.  Appearance at kickoff sessions is valuable, but both the team and all people who will ultimately be impacted by the project implementation need to see executives at important points in the project’s progress.  Examples of executive support include visible recognition of completion of interim project deliverables, occasional appearances at team meetings, and reinforcement of project goals with middle management personnel.  When a project manager guides executives through the types of support that are needed, he/she also ensures that the executives will not engage in activities that could actually harm a project.

“We Don’t Need Goals — We Need Solutions”

Goal setting is viewed by some as a real waste of time, particularly if a project has an aggressive timetable.  “We’ve all agreed on the solution, so we must agree on the goals” is a common statement made to cover the fact that there is actually much hidden discord.  Early in a project the “solution” is often framed in vague terms that lead to multiple interpretations.  For example, an organization may undertake a project to build a new corporate headquarters.  While the “solution” is a building, there are many types of structures that could conceivably fulfill that definition.  The goal that the organization really has to determine at the beginning of the initiation phase is “What do we want to accomplish with a corporate headquarters?”  Depending on the goals that are defined, the actual solution could range from not building anything to building a multi-million dollar “state-of-the-art” facility.  A common statement is “the devil is in the details”.  That statement really highlights that people have not agreed on the goals, so they will never be able to agree on the means (“the details”) to achieve disparate, undefined goals.

“Somehow Everything Will Get Done”

Project managers often are coerced to accept unrealistic project schedules, inadequate personnel, and/or insufficient budget.  They grimly dive into these types of projects knowing that the outcomes will not meet expectations.  Yet they feel that somehow miracles will happen.  If a project manager perceives that one or more of the three constraints (time, budget, and quality) is not being adequately addressed at project initiation, he/she needs to determine how the constraints can be modified upfront.  Once a project is underway, there is a perception that the constraints are not issues.  A project manager is in a far better position to address the constraints in the initiation phase with solutions than to march bravely into defeat knowing that the obstacles are insurmountable.  Upfront negotiation beats last minute wailing every time.

The bottom line to these examples is that project problems identified early in the life cycle don’t “go away”.  They need to be addressed proactively, or they will explode at some unforeseen point later in the project.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San   Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum advisory committee.  She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP