Project Management For Dummies
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In today’s time-pressured, cost-conscious global business environment, project management skills are essential. This Cheat Sheet offers you some key pointers to maximising your effectiveness in project management.

Avoiding project management pitfalls

The key objective in project management is to complete your project successfully. That often means steering clear of the potholes in the road. This handy list of ten common pitfalls helps you avoid some of the problems that plague unsuccessful projects.

  • Lack of clear objectives: Nobody’s really sure what the project is about, much less are people agreed on it.

  • Lack of risk management: Things go wrong that someone could easily have foreseen and then controlled to some degree or even prevented.

  • No senior management ‘buy in’: Senior managers were never convinced and so never supported the project, leading to problems such as lack of resource. Neither did those managers exercise normal management supervision as they routinely do in their other areas of responsibility.

  • Poor planning: Actually, that’s being kind, because often the problem is that no planning was done at all. It’s not surprising, then, when things run out of control, and not least because nobody knows where the project should be at this point anyway.

  • No clear progress milestones: This follows on from poor planning. The lack of milestones means nobody sees when things are off track, and problems go unnoticed for a long time.

  • Understated scope: The scope and the Project Plan are superficial and understate both what the project needs to deliver and the resource needed to deliver it. Project staff (often team members) then discover the hidden but essential components later in the project. The additional work that is necessary then takes the project out of control, causing delay to the original schedule and overspending against the original budget.

  • Poor communications: So many projects fail because of communication breakdown, which can stem from unclear roles and responsibilities and from poor senior management attitudes, such as not wanting to hear bad news.

  • Unrealistic resource levels: It just isn’t possible to do a project of the required scope with such a small amount of resource – staff, money or both.

  • Unrealistic timescales: The project just can’t deliver by the required time, so it’s doomed to failure.

  • No change control: People add in things bit by bit – scope creep. Then it dawns on everyone that the project’s grown so big that it can’t be delivered within the fixed budget or by the set deadline.

Understanding the four project stages

Every project, whether large or small, passes through four stages of project management. It’s important that you get a handle on these four key areas.

  • Starting the Project: This stage involves generating, evaluating and framing the business need for the project and the general approach to performing it, and agreeing to prepare a detailed Project Plan. Outputs from this stage may include approval to proceed to the next stage, documentation of the need for the project, and rough estimates of time and resources to perform it, and an initial list of people who may be interested in, involved with or affected by the project.

  • Organising and Preparing: This stage involves developing a plan that specifies the desired results: the work to do; the time, the cost and other resources required; and a plan for how to address key project risks. Outputs from this stage include a Project Plan documenting the intended project results and the time, resources and supporting processes to help create them, along with all the other controls that the project needs, such as for risk management.

  • Carrying Out the Work: This stage involves performing the planned work, monitoring and controlling performance to ensure adherence to the current plan, and doing the more detailed planning of successive phases as the project continues. Outputs from this stage may include project progress reports, financial reports and further detailed plans.

  • Closing the Project: This stage involves assessing the project results, obtaining customer approvals, assigning project team members to new work, closing financial accounts and conducting a post-project evaluation. Outputs from this stage may include final, accepted and approved project results and recommendations and suggestions for applying lessons learned from this project to similar efforts in the future.

Grasping the role of the project manager

To be an effective Project Manager, you have to know what your job involves. This list summarises the main tasks in project management. Some things on the list involve consultation with others:

  • Sketch out initial ideas for the project, with the justification, outline costs and timescales.

  • Plan the project, including mapping out the controls that will be put in place, defining what quality the project needs and how it will be achieved, analysing risk and planning control actions.

  • Control the flow of work to teams (or perhaps just team members in a smaller project).

  • Motivate and support teams and team members.

  • Liaise with external suppliers.

  • Liaise with Project Managers of interfacing projects.

  • Liaise with programme management staff if the project is one of a group of projects being coordinated as a programme.

  • Ensure that the project deliverables are developed to the right level of quality.

  • Keep track of progress and adjust to correct any minor drifts off the plan.

  • Keep track of spending.

  • Go to others, such as the steering committee, if things go more significantly off track (for example, the whole project is threatened).

  • Report progress, such as to the sponsor or steering committee.

  • Keep track of risks and make sure that control actions are taken.

  • Deal with any problems, involving others as necessary.

  • Decide on changes, getting approval from others where the Project Manager doesn’t have personal authority to make a decision (for example, when changes involve very high cost).

  • Plan successive delivery stages in more detail.

  • Close the project down in an orderly way when everything’s done.

Producing a basic business case

One of the key documents needed in project management is the Business Case. You can adjust the contents of the Business Case to suit the project and also any organisational standard or methodology you’re using. The basic contents that you need as a minimum for any project are:

  • Benefits: Information on the benefits, but usually also when they’ll come on stream, when they’ll be measured, buy whom and how.

  • Context: For example, the fit with the organisational five-year strategy or just to say it’s a small stand-alone project to improve performance in a particular area of the business.

  • Cost: Ballpark at first, but kept up to date as better information comes to hand.

  • Justification: Is the project solely benefits driven, or does it have any element of compliance, such as there being a legal requirement to run the project?

  • Timescale: A rough estimate at first, but updated from better information later.

Knowing who to involve in planning your project

Knowing early on who you need to involve in managing your project allows you to include the right people in your initial objective setting. It also allows you to plan for their participation at the appropriate stages in your project. Involving these people in a timely manner ensures that their input will be available when it’s needed and lets them know you value and respect their contributions. Think about:

  • Budget holders: People who hold the purse strings and can dictate the form of the project, and those who may not have budgetary control but have the organisational position or personal influence to block things.

  • Providers: Those providing any staff resource that you need. For example, do you need IT staff input, which may be difficult if the IT department is mostly committed for the next two years!

  • Stakeholders: People who have an interest in your project’s results. You may need to resolve conflicting objectives.

  • Supporters: People who can help your project succeed.

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