The Project Notebook

“Taking a Break” Doesn’t Mean Delaying the Project

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

It’s that time of year when many people realize that summer is drawing to an end and with it the opportunity to take a well-deserved vacation. With project schedules generally tight and overly optimistic, project managers may find themselves tempted to ask their teams to defer vacations until some “magical” future time when there is slack in the schedule. Since slack never seems to materialize, a project manager may find that all the deferred vacations come due at the same time to avoid a company mandate to “use it or lose it”. Then the project manager is in a worse bind. Team members who have sacrificed their optimum vacation times are now at the point of total burnout and do not want to hear that “only one of you can be gone at a time”. However, a little advance planning can allow vacations when people want to take them without delaying the project or causing deliverables to be negatively impacted.

When project managers develop the initial project plan, the vacation schedules of team members need to be considered. Some organizations provide a combined “personal” time allowance that can be used for vacation, illness, or other personal activities. Developing a master vacation schedule identifies not only those times when there could be major impact on deliverables but also if there are periods when several team members will be gone. Overlaying this master vacation schedule on the project plan will highlight any potential problem areas.

Suppose that there are multiple timeframes when several team members plan to be gone. There are many options that a project manager has. If the team reports to the project manager, he/she can talk with the team to emphasize the need to re-structure vacation timing. The project manager should emphasize what has been done to accommodate the majority of planned vacations. Asking the team to work out the schedule themselves is often effective. Only if the team reaches an impasse should the project manager play a role in determining final scheduling. If the team is told that failure to reach a decision on its part will result in a more arbitrary process, there is stronger impetus to resolve any issues without project manager intervention.

A more challenging situation exists when the project team is organized in a matrix structure and does not report to the project manager. In such a situation the project manager can also ask the team to resolve its own schedule conflicts. However, if the team does not reach a resolution, the project manager must then approach the functional managers of the team members. This is definitely one time when the project goals and benefits need to be defined in the specific terms of each functional manager in order to emphasize the importance of this upfront negotiation. For example, a marketing manager may not be concerned that his/her representative’s absence will delay selection of new software. However, that same marketing manager will definitely “take notice” when informed that delay in software selection will also delay the implementation of a new management bonus plan.

Regardless of how dedicated project team members are, everyone needs a break once in a while. That principle also applies to project managers. Upfront planning for vacations can result in a more productive team that remains focused on the ultimate project goals and deliverables.

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 committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Smaller is Better and More Effective

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

It seems as if everything comes in larger and larger sizes — including projects. While a giant pizza or a super-sized drink may be refreshing, a large and complex project often seems overwhelming to all participants as well as to the project manager. This article focuses on “small” approaches to major projects.

The presence of many unknowns is one of the most challenging aspects of projects. Regardless of the sources of the unknowns — technical specifications, scientific barriers, market demand, etc. — the project manager is the one who must provide the direction and the methods to convert unknowns into knowns. This responsibility does not mean that the project manager must be the one who conducts the research necessary to solve the mysteries. Rather, the project manager must assess the strengths of the team not only in terms of specific expertise but also in terms of problem identification and solution skills. All the knowledge in the world is useless if it is applied to a symptom instead of a problem. Determining when “enough” information has been assembled is also a critical assessment. Therefore, using a few people who can identify relevant problems and quickly resolve them is more effective than having an entire team running in multiple, counterproductive directions.

Another challenge occurs when a lengthy timeframe is estimated for project completion. Virtually every project of this nature needs to use a phased approach rather than attempting to schedule all of the activities at the beginning of the project. For example, a project to develop a new drug may span many years before the drug is finally brought to market. While a project manager may be tempted to fully populate a Gantt chart with thousands of activities that culminate in product release, a more effective approach is to “plan only what you know”. This technique means that accurate time estimates can be made only for the initial phase of research. The high-level project plan should definitely have milestones and deliverables defined for the full length of the project. However, there is no point in detailed planning beyond the first phase until there are indications of success. Even then, the detailed planning should only extend to the next phase. This practice forces an organization to identify upfront the criteria for success for each phase as well as to require that projects continue to “prove themselves”.

Most large projects require large project teams. In these situations individual participants may feel that their contributions are not necessary or valued. Large project teams provide lots of opportunities for people to “hide” or even “disappear”. Meanwhile, the project manager gets hounded as to why there is not a high volume of work forthcoming from such a large number of team members. Running “lean and mean” (using a small project team) is one method to ensure that each team member has high visibility and accountability. This method is not always practical given the amount of work that may be required to complete a project. In those cases that mandate a large number of participants, a more appropriate technique is to organize the total large project team into smaller teams within the project. Each team has a leader who can be chosen by the project manager or by the team. This method may require a different approach to project planning through specifying more tangible deliverables. However, it also keeps individuals focused on near-term accomplishments with defined responsibilities. Those who choose to “hide” or to attempt to “disappear” are quickly identified before their lack of participation negatively impacts project outcomes. At that point project management mentoring, coaching, and/or disciplining can be initiated in a timely manner.

The main emphasis behind all of the techniques and practices that have been described in this article is that even “super-sized” projects need not be overwhelming for project managers. Whether it’s building an aircraft carrier, chairing a fundraiser, or cleaning the garage, “smaller is better and more effective” when it comes to project management.

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 committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Just for Today

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

It’s that time of year when so many of us contemplate a “fresh start” for a better life personally and professionally. Making New Year’s resolutions is often a part of starting this process. However, statistics indicate that few resolutions are still in force by the end of January. One reason for the demise of so many well-intentioned goals is that it seems impossible to maintain challenging resolutions for the rest of our lives. Some “experts” advocate shortening the time perspective by focusing on keeping the resolution “just for today”. Project managers can also become overwhelmed by the thought of having to sustain efforts for the entire length of a project. Let’s look at some possibilities for applying “just for today” to project management challenges.

Just for today. . . I will have the courage and the intestinal fortitude:

 To not accept that a project has to be underfunded
I will use relevant terms and concerns that make the project sponsor realize the true impacts of taking the lowest bid or cutting corners at every step. Sponsors may not comprehend earned value analysis, dependencies or any of a number of common project management terms. However, “decreased net sales revenue”, “lack of customer confidence”, and other specifically business-related phrases are more apt to grab the attention of sponsors. I will also rise to the challenge of finding creative (and legal) sources of additional funding so that the sponsor appreciates the seriousness of my budgetary concerns.

To get to the source of unrealistic completion dates
I will uncover what force is driving the project implementation date. I will also work with the client, customer, and/or user to determine what really needs to be done by the target completion date. Using education regarding tradeoffs will assist in setting realistic expectations. I will remind myself that these people have probably always been told at the beginning of the project that the target date is “doable”. They don’t make the connection that an upfront “yes” is often followed by a backend “we need a little more time”.

To focus on needs not wants
I will ask questions that cause the client, customer, and/or user to dig deep beyond the surface symptoms to get at the real problem or opportunity. At that point we can all focus effectively on addressing the actual issues rather than spinning off on tangents that will hinder project performance. I will also identify relevant measures of success that are meaningful to the project sponsor.

Let’s not forget the project manager’s need for a “just for today” assessment:

 Just for today . . . I will focus on the strengths that make me a good project manager. I will think about the many good things that have happened on the projects that I have managed. After all, there are always plenty of people who are willing to criticize but few who are willing to praise.

May all of your 2012 projects be successful . . . and if not, remember the upbeat thought of the “Gone With the Wind” heroine, Scarlet O’Hara, . . . “tomorrow is another day!”

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 as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com

Controlling Project Costs and Risks – Fall 2011

Course Code: BUSA-40358
Full Title: Controlling Project Costs and Risks
Primary Instructor: FROHNHOEFER, RAY

Term: FA11    Units: 3.00
Start Date: 09/19/2011   End Date: 11/27/2011

Contact: JeanMarie Bond   jebond@ucsd.edu

Since 2002 I’ve been offering Controlling Project Costs and Risks as part of the UCSD Extention Project Management Certificate Program.  For the past three years it has been online, and the next offering is scheduled for 10 weeks beginning September 19.  Each week offers a new lesson which you complete at your own pace over the course of a week — it’s a true anywhere, anytime learning course with a guided, asynchronous discussion.  I’ve had students that were able to access the course and materials on their SmartPhone, though a regular desktop or laptop computer is recommended.

The PMI Educational Foundation offers a number of scholarships for training and professional development programs.  Please visit their scholarship site at http://www.pmi.org/pmief/scholarship/scholarships-professional-development.asp for additional information.

Project management and control is simplified by good planning right from the start. The course, offered a limited number of times each year,  is totally online and includes 27 hours of instruction.  Topics include:

  • Introduction to the BlackBoard System and Course
  • Selecting and Planning Projects
  • Controlling Project Costs with Estimates and Contracts
  • Measuring Project Financial Progress
  • Controlling Project Scope and Changes
  • The Role of Communications in Controlling Costs and Risks
  • Controlling Project Risks
  • Risk Management Tools
  • Cost and Risk Case Studies
  • Miscellaneous Topics
    • Conducting Project Reviews
    • Relationship Between Schedules, Costs, and Risks
    • Managing Projects with Fixed Constraints
    • Why Do Managed Projects Fail?
    • The Relationship Between Projects and Products

More information and online enrollment is available from the course catalog at: Controlling Project Costs and Risks.

Here’s what learners had to say about the Spring 2011 edition:

“No doubt, Ray is the best instructor for this course!”

“Ray was informed and knowledgeable on the topic at hand and presented informative lectures. Participation was encouraged and the class responded to that expectation very well. One of the most participating classes I have participated in . It really aided in the delivering the intended lessons.”

“I only can say that I haven’t had an instructor whose knowledge on the matter and his ability to teach in an online environment was perfect as with Ray.”

“I thought this was a very well executed class. There were no surprises. I look forward to another class with Ray.”

Hope to see you online at UCSD Extension soon!

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