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.

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.

“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.

The Clash of the Priorities

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.

Project managers juggle a multitude of priorities. Often, the number and magnitude of priorities may seem overwhelming and even in conflict with one another. How project managers deal with numerous priorities can make or break a project and can directly influence the perception of the success of a project. It can be difficult to objectively apply one standard to a wide variety of priorities, but that is what project managers must do. It is especially challenging when several projects have to be managed simultaneously. The following decision criteria can aid in sorting through a mountain of priorities whether on one project or on multiple projects.

Life or Death

This criterion may sound overly drastic, but it crisply focuses one’s perspective. Unless the activity/event will doom or lead to the demise of the project (or the project manager), it is probably not a top priority item. People who have faced death and survived have been known to say after such experiences that everything else is “child’s play”.

Source of the Priority

Is the priority being driven by personal or political whim? Is the priority “driver” someone who specializes in creating crises? In these types of situations the project manager should assess the strength and importance of the priority driver as well as the impact on the overall project. Treating the cause of the priority rather than the symptomatic pressure is more effective in reducing the number and severity of high priority items. Jumping from one “top priority” item to another only encourages the drivers of the priorities and may actually prolong the agony by increasing the volume of priority items.

Conflicting Priorities

It is often only the project manager who realizes that priorities are in conflict. For example, one department involved in a project may be incentivized to complete its activities rapidly ahead of schedule without regard for quality. Another department involved in the project may actually experience delays in completing its assigned tasks due to inferior handoffs from the other department. In this type of situation it is the project manager who must educate project participants in the realities of not sacrificing the project for the benefit of a single component.

Rapidly Shifting Priorities

Sometimes priorities are changed so quickly and so often that a project manager can feel that he/she is “twisting in the wind”. When priorities shift constantly, a project manager must exercise judgment to determine if the current shift is just part of the ongoing decision instability or is actually a necessary change. This situation calls for the project manager to be the “calm in the storm” in objectively assessing the need for the shift in priorities. Otherwise, stakeholders quickly learn to bombard the project manager with urgent priority requests.

In conclusion it’s a fact of project management that effective priority management is crucial to “staying the course” through the turbulence that accompanies projects.

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.

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