How to manage projects effectively
Aside from specialist project managers, more and more operational managers are involved in delivering via projects. Projects, irrespective of their duration, are parcels of work that are 'one-off' activities, as opposed to the ongoing functional requirements of a team or department.
Given the different nature of project work, a separate set of skills needs to be brought to bear to manage it effectively.
The foremost requirement for managing projects is in the planning. The most common mistake is to dive in and get started, which will inevitably lead to rework.
What follows is a step by step approach to the planning. The separate steps ensure that your thinking is focused on the various elements that will need to be considered.
Project Specification (Scale and Scope)
Different terms may well be used in different organisations (scale and scope being another one). In effect, this is about trying to get the project as clearly defined as possible from the outset. When a project hits your desk it may well be in rather broad-brush terms. The first thing you need to do is make a list of questions that should be asked for clarification. These should be closed questions (see communicating effectively
) in order to obtain specific information. The more closely defined your project at the outset the less likelihood there will be for slippage.
The next step is to see whether the project really is feasible. Many projects seem like a great idea, yet in reality, organisations should be spending their resources elsewhere.
To do this you need to examine the project from as many different angles as is possible, including the broader context within which the project exists. Information must be gathered and the pros and cons weighed up, not unlike the drivers and resistors dealt with in "Managing Change
Project Task Identification
Assuming your project passes the viability test above, the next stage is to identify all of the individual tasks associated with the project. Project management is all about managing these various activities to bring about a successful conclusion.
Note that in project management, a task is anything that consumes time, whether action is required or not. For example, 'wait 3 weeks for delivery of components' is a task, as it consumes three weeks, even though no action is required on your part. The plan will still have to show three weeks delivery time prior to the use of those components.
Project Activity Management
Having identified the various tasks you will now have to gather information about each of them. This may include things like how long each task will take, and individual costings of each undertaking to allow for budget management.
Even more importantly, you will need to examine the relationships between tasks. These relationships fall into two categories. Operational relationships are those where you have no choice in the matter. Some tasks simply have to be carried out in a particular order. I cannot take my shirt off until I have taken my tie off is a simplistic example. The plan will therefore, have to show these tasks in that order.
The second type of relationship is what is known as a resource relationship. This is where two tasks require the same resource, be it material or human. As each task is a separate entity with its own duration, you as the project manager, need to place them in an order, as they will not be able to be carried out simultaneously. I cannot do the dishes and hang out the washing at the same time exemplifies this.
You can take all of this information and put it into a flow chart, a diagrammatic representation of the project. For large-scale, long-term projects, you may want to use a full-blown Gannt Chart, but this is often the preserve of specialist project managers.
For most 'incremental' projects a simple plotting of tasks against time, taking into account their duration and any relationships between tasks, should suffice.
Project Problem Prediction
No project will ever go smoothly. This final phase of project planning is all about identifying realistic potential problems. Note here that we need to be realistic on the basis of historical precedent. It is equally wrong to over-manage a project as it is to under-manage it.
This is actually something we all do naturally anyway. If the journey time to, say, the airport takes an hour and we have a flight to catch, we invariably build in some slack to our plan to allow for the roads being busy. The same thinking applies to projects. If you establish potential problems that are realistic you need some form of management intervention, such as a contingency plan.
Having gone through this step by step planning process you are now in a position to start work on the project. Here, you will simply bring to bear your other managerial skills: communication
; performance management
and so forth.
Project Management Summary
In the end, project management is all about doing the thinking first. In most projects that go astray, you can point to one of the steps above and say, 'That's where we went wrong.'