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A 4-Step Stakeholder Management Process

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

For a long time stakeholder management has focused on the need to identify your stakeholders so you can surface their requirements for the project. The rationale behind this was that requirements that spring up late in a project cost many times what they would cost early in the planning process. But the new focus adds to that “requirements orientation” and provides tools for building and maintaining support from your stakeholders. This involves engaging them in the project management process itself. It also includes identifying their project expectations early and managing those expectations so they align with the project’s deliverables. Stakeholder Main Page

Those of us who manage projects in the “real world” know that strong executive stakeholder support for your project is critical in several areas. First, broad support for your project helps you keep your project team together rather than having them be pulled off for other projects. In a very real sense, every project is battling the other projects in the organization for priority on resources. If your project to loses priority because of poor stakeholder support and unmet expectations, you’ll find your team members being reassigned to higher priority projects.

Second, most projects involve implementing changes, whether it’s following new procedures, using new software, or installing new hardware. Those changes have to happen in operating/user departments and they always cause pain and take time. If you have lost stakeholder support for your project, the implementation of those changes in the operating departments will fall behind schedule, at best, or will be ignored, at worst. The impact on your ability to deliver your project’s scope is enormous if those changes are not implemented.

Third, engaging your stakeholders in the project and the project management process yields significant benefits. As an example, stakeholders who are involved in your risk management process are more likely to support and participate in your risk responses. Engaging your stakeholders also helps you gain support with operational areas that are lending you team members. As I mentioned above, borrowing those resources faces competition from other projects. You are also competing with their “real jobs” and projects that may be launched in their home departments. Engaging the operational area boss in your projects helps ensure that those resources are available when you need them.stakeholder management

For all these reasons, we recommend this four-step stakeholder management process.

First, during initiation you identify the people and organizational units who will be affected positively or negatively by the project. These stakeholders can come from outside the organization as well as the internal players. You’re identifying not only who they are but what interest they have in the project, what their “hot button” issues or project requirements are and their potential influence over the project.

Second, during the project planning phase you also plan how you will manage your stakeholders. You identify what techniques you will use to meet the needs of each stakeholder and to keep them engaged in the process.

Third, during your execution of the project, you implement the stakeholder management plan and the communications strategies required to engage the stakeholders in the project and build their ongoing support.

Fourth, as you execute and control the project, you’re also monitoring the stakeholders and identifying problems/issues to which you must respond to maintain their support. Those issues would include things like new requirements or requirements that are not being met.

This four-step process may take an hour on a small project or weeks on a large one, depending on the size of the stakeholder group. But it’s a proven fact that active stakeholder management builds a foundation for your project success.

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Keys to Successful Project Scheduling

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Every project manager does project scheduling. Some do it on a yellow note pad, others use an Excel spreadsheet and still others use software specifically designed for project management. Some project managers have very little data to help them successfully managing their projects, deal with change orders or respond to variances. They may not even know when they have a variance.

Other project managers are able to quickly gather information about problems and opportunities. This allows them to profitably handle change requests and control variances. The PMs using project scheduling software can also optimize their schedules. In this article we’ll show you how to do these things

Previously, project managers justified not using project management software on the basis of the software cost and the amount of time they would spend learning how to use it.  Those two excuses are no longer valid. There are some adequate project management software programs that are free and easy to learn. It only takes 30 to 40 minutes to learn how to use the software through the entire project lifecycle.  Gantter is a free program with your Gmail account. There are editions for smart phones, tablets and desktops. This software provides all the capabilities you need for small and medium-size projects. The learning curve is short considering the benefit you get. Project Schedule & Software

More capable software for larger project scheduling includes Microsoft Project®. It is almost $600 but provides more capabilities and a tremendous amount of decision-making data. It includes the ability to do budgeproject schedulingting and cost tracking and also manage multiple projects. These features are adequate for even large projects. You will need to invest a few hours of time to learn it.

Advantages of a Software-based Project Scheduling

Now lets talk about how a project manager using a yellow note pad, an Excel spreadsheet, or project scheduling software would handle three common situations.

Project Scheduling: Telling the Client the Finish Date, Changes & Status

The project manager doing project scheduling with a yellow note pad can quickly tell the client the finish date by using his or her ability to pick a number out of the sky. There is no basis for this completion date other than a guess about how long the project will take. This “yellow pad project manager” makes a similar guess about the cost. Projects scheduled on yellow pads usually finish late and cost more than anticipated. This means the project manager and their company lose money if they’re doing a project for a customer or client. This project manager uses the same approach when the customer wants to change the project or the deliverable in some way. The project manager guesses about the impact the change will have on the finish date and the cost. And they are usually wrong. The yellow note pad project scheduling technique gives project managers a very limited career future.

The PM doing project scheduling with an Excel spreadsheet does a bit better. He or she enters start and finish dates for all the tasks they can think of. Then they let the program give them an idea of how many days or weeks it will take to complete those tasks. The problem with using Excel spreadsheets for project scheduling is that if the client wants to make a change, the project manager has to redo the entire spreadsheet. The same is true if the client adds a task or alters a finish date. The “Excel spreadsheet project manager” spends endless hours laboring over their PC instead of managing the project.

The project manager who uses project scheduling software does the best of all. If they are using the software correctly and following best practices, they base the project schedule and budget on work estimates. Instead of picking a finish date with a Ouija board, this project manager works with historical data, published estimating information, and the opinions of the project team members. They use this data to build a schedule based on estimates of the amount of work required. Then the project manager lets the software do all the calculations. They decide how much work each team member can do and the project scheduling software will assign the work to the team members so the project finishes as soon as possible. This takes about two seconds. This project manager can work with similar speed on a change request. They merely change the amount of work for the task(s) the client wants to alter. Then a nano second later, the software re-schedules the entire project and gives the project manager a new completion date reflecting the change request. If the project manager has entered hourly rates for the team members and the material costs, the software will also calculate a budget and give the PM data on the cost of that change request.

Finally, the project manager can give accurate status reports based on the team’s estimates of the amount of work they still have to complete on their tasks. This lets the project manager anticipate problems early, not after getting hit in the face with them. There is a very good reason consistently successful project managers use project scheduling software. It allows them to spend their time managing the team and solving problems. They don’t have to spend their time making guesses or laboring over an Excel spreadsheet or a yellow note pad. And when project managers also use work estimates, they gain all the benefits of the project scheduling software.

Project Scheduling: Optimizing the Schedule

Too many project managers control the sequence of tasks in their projects using the start and finish dates. They should use project scheduling software with predecessor relationships. For example, these relationships tell the software that Task B can’t start until Task A is finished.  Or that Task A and Task B must finish at the same time. Entering start and finish dates wastes an enormous amount of time during the original creation of the schedule and every week after that. Project managers who don’t use project scheduling software with predecessor relationship spend hours updating their schedules and changing all the start and finish dates.  Even worse, the schedules they create with this fixed date technique almost always have longer durations than they should. However, project managers can experience these problems in project scheduling software like Microsoft Project®. This happens if they use start and finish dates to control the sequence of tasks rather than using predecessor relationships.

Dynamically Scheduled Projects Make the PM More Efficient

Predecessor relationships are the key to building dynamic schedules. These are schedules that update themselves whenever you make a change.  As an example, if you discover that Task D is going to finish two weeks early, or two weeks late, you merely enter that fact into your project scheduling software. It will automatically change the start and finish dates for every one of Task D’s successor tasks.  The alternative is to manually change each task’s finish date. Using predecessor relationships saves you hours in the initial project scheduling and significant time every week for the duration of the project.  That is reason enough to use this project scheduling technique. How To Use Dynamic Project Scheduling

Dynamically Scheduled Projects Finish Earlier

Using dynamic scheduling, you set up our predecessors in the software by identifying the type of relationships that each task has with its predecessors and successors.  There are three types of predecessor relationships:

  • A Finish-to-Start predecessor relationship between Tasks A and B is scheduled by the software so that Task B starts after Task A is finished.  You’ll use this type of predecessor 85% of the time. That is why it is the default in project scheduling software.
  • A Finish-to-Finish predecessor relationship between Tasks A and B is scheduled by the software so that these two tasks start at the time that’s required for both of them to finish at the same time.
  • A Start-to-Start predecessor relationship between asks A and B is scheduled by the software so that these two tasks start at exactly the same time.

You can get fancier with predecessors by using leads and lags.  But these three types are the basics and are a great way to get started.

Parallelism and Concurrency Also Let Projects Finish Earlier

You make a project take less time to finish when you sequence the tasks by building in parallelism. This means you have many things happening at the same time.  It makes sense that if a project has three or four tasks going on at the same time it will finish earlier than a project that has only one task happening at a time.  In other words, you don’t want the whole project to be a long sequence of FinishtoStart relationships.  Instead you want to design the predecessor relationships for each of your major deliverables so as many tasks as possible are occurring at the same time.  The simplest way to create parallelism using the project scheduling software is to give a task multiple successors.  Here’s an example of a task with multiple successors that creates three parallel paths in the project. Whenever you can do that, you will shorten the project duration.  A parallel design is always going to take less time than scheduling those three tasks to occur one after another.

There are obvious limits on parallelism, such as limits on how much work a person can do and the technical or physical dependencies between tasks (e.g.: the materials must be delivered before they can be installed).  But using predecessor relationships lets you avoid unnecessarily long task sequences. That makes reporting and updating faster and saves you hours of time.

Take a look at our online Project Management Basics course where you can learn these techniques from an expert PM. In this instructor-led online training you have as many phone calls, e-mails and live video conferences with your instructor as you need.

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The High Stakes Game of Project Management Estimating

Dick Billows, PMPProject estimates are tough for every project manager and doing it well is often the difference between consistent success and frequent failure. Let’s look at some of the fantasies surrounding project estimates and then how to do it right. In the real world, estimating a project’s duration and cost is a high stakes game. The client or executive wants an accurate estimate of the project costs and duration with a commitment from the PM to hit those numbers.When asked for those project estimates by an executive during the initiation process, a project manager may answer with any of the following:

  1. I’m 60% confident that we can finish the project within a duration range of 3-8 months and a cost between $50,000 and $250,000.
  2. We’ll be done in 5 months or so and the cost will come in at about $110,000, but that’s just a rough guess!
  3. I will have no idea until we detail the deliverables, estimate the work and find out how many people I will have to do that work.
  4. When do you want us to finish and what’s the budget?

Answer #1 – It’s truthful but enrages executives.
Answer #2 – Executives quickly forget “rough guess” and are happy.
Answer #3 – It’s the whole truth but it’s useless for executives.
Answer #4 – It’s very ingratiating but a project deathtrap.

Which choice do most project managers make? Choice #2. It deals with the reality of the situation. Executives are under the gun to make cost/benefit and priority decisions about projects. There are also strategic realities that force certain completion dates on everyone.

The project manager is caught in a narrow vise when asked to provide estimates, particularly when the scope of the project is vague and the availability of resources is largely unknown. However, we make this situation a little better for everyone with a four-step estimating process that we announce during the initiation process. We explain the estimates executives will receive in each of four stages in the project lifecycle.project management estimating

The Four Stage Project Estimates Process

  1. Initiating: Project level analogous estimates based on similar projects.
  2. Early in planning: Project level and major deliverable analogous estimates.
  3. Final project planning: Bottom up estimates from the team members.
  4. Weekly status reporting: Rolling estimates weekly until completion.

Let’s look at a four stage estimating process that we might use on a very simple project. An executive invites you into the conference room and says, “All these weekly reports from the branches come in with different data in different formats and I want you to develop a consistent template, pronto. This is a high priority for me and you’ll get everyone’s cooperation. Listen, I have to run to a meeting right now but come back at 3:00. I want to know when you and your team can get it done.”

So the PM thinks through prior experiences with similar projects and accesses the archives for similar project estimates. At 3:00 the project manager is ready and says, “During the project I will give you 4 different estimates. The accuracy will get better and better as we know more and more. The best I can do now is give you a project-level, order of magnitude estimate based on prior experience. I’m 60% confident we can have that done in 18 to 35 working days.”

The executive gives the PM a poisonous look and says, “Okay, come back when you can give me a better estimate.”

The PM says, “I can give you a better estimate as soon as we have finalized the scope and major deliverables and you have signed off on what you want.”

The executive frowns and replies, “I was planning to delegate that.”

The PM smiles, “I would still need a sponsor’s signature on the scope and deliverables.”

The executive nods glumly, “OK lets get to it tomorrow at 8:00 am.”

After the following day’s 8:00 o’clock session, the executive frowns at the PM and asks, “Now, how long will the project take?”

The PM looks over the notes on a yellow pad and says, “At this point, I can give you a better project-level estimate. We’re still working top-down based on similar projects, but I can give you a somewhat tighter estimate and also apply some ratios to that so I can give you project estimates on each phase. I’m 75% confident we can finish in 23-30 working days. Using my experience and the ratios between phases on previous projects, I can also say that I’m 75% confident on the following phase estimates:

  1. Branch office managers sign off on requirements: 4-7 days
  2. Development test – Test group can complete the template < 60 minutes: 5-8 days
  3. Training- User can complete template in 45 minutes: 4-5 days
  4. Roll-out and enforcement – 95% compliance: 10-15 days.”

The executive scowls again and asks, “When will I get better numbers?”

The PM answers, “As soon as I detail the work estimates and get commitments on the people here at headquarters and in all the branches. Then, I can give you a bottom-up estimate, which will be more precise than the top-down estimates we’ve been using. Bottom-up is more accurate because I’ll be using estimates from the people who will be doing the work and aggregating them into the overall numbers.”

A few days later, the PM returns to the executive’s office and says, “Here’s the bottom-up estimate I mentioned. With the work breakdown structure done and the resource commitments I’ve noted, I’m 60% certain we can finish within 24-28 working days.”

The executive gives another slightly less venomous sigh and says, “Okay, this is getting better but I’d still like really tight project estimates.”

The PM nods and says, “The fourth type of estimate I’ll be giving you is a rolling weekly estimate. As we progress further into the process, the uncertainty will decrease and I’ll regularly give you new estimates. We call these rolling estimates. As an example, once the requirements are approved the uncertainty in the development work will go down a lot and that estimate will get much tighter.”

Are These Project Estimates Statistical Hocus Pocus?

The simple four-step process we’ve gone through illustrated how a project manager gave project estimates and changed estimating techniques as the uncertainty about the project declined. In the example, the PM used analogous estimates based on information about previous projects. Next working top-down, the PM estimated by major deliverable using ratios from previous projects. However, this information could have come from an organizational project databank, from commercial estimating methodologies or from elaborate statistical analysis of previous projects. Whatever the source of the data, the top-down estimates provided relatively broad ranges in the overall estimates.

In the third and fourth estimating techniques, the PM used the work breakdown structure and duration/work estimating techniques at the level of individual assignments. Then the numbers got a lot better because the PM could use a bottom-up approach and aggregate the estimates of project team members to develop the overall project estimate. In this bottom-up approach, the PM based the estimate on the team member’s own estimates for their individual assignments. The fourth estimate type was the rolling estimates, also based on a bottom up approach, with the team members making regular weekly re-estimates of their work/duration. As we complete tasks, the uncertainty decreases each week and the estimates become more accurate.

The one consistent thread through each of the steps was that our PM had the benefit of a clear and unambiguous scope definition and equally measurable outcomes for each of the deliverables and assignments in the project. Estimating is difficult enough without the burden of a vague project scope or mushy team member assignments.

Enterprise Project Estimates Process and Data

A major step to consistent project success and vastly improved project estimates comes from a modest investment in archiving data from previous projects. This whole estimating process becomes more effective when the organization stops playing those fantasy games with project estimates and adopts a consistent methodology for developing the kind of “better and more accurate” estimates we’ve been discussing.

To learn more about these estimating techniques consider our advanced project management courses over the Internet as well as our in-person seminars for organizations.

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Project Plan Approval – Video

Every project manager must get Project Plan Approval before they begin work. That includes getting the “go-ahead” for the plan, schedule and budget for a new project. Even if you have been working closely with the sponsor and stakeholders, there is still the need to persuasively present the information you have spent so much time developing. Too many project managers approach these meetings as “data dumps” where all they have to do is recite the scope, budget and schedule highlights and the executives will automatically give their approval. Project Planning Main Page


A better approach is to anticipate the questions the decision-makers will ask you about your data. There are two questions that have been asked in every project approval meeting since

project plan approvalthe dawn of time. First, the executives want to know how the project can finish earlier. Second, they want to know how the projects’ cost can be reduced. If the project manager doesn’t have answers to these questions, in the form of alternative ways of doing the project, the executives will make arbitrary changes to the budget and schedule. Then they’ll tell the project manager to find ways to make it happen.

You need to be prepared to handle these questions with “trade-off options” so your project has a chance of success. The trade-offs will give  the executives data about how the project can finish earlier and deliver the scope for less cost. Specifically, you need to have modeled options for finishing 10% and 20% earlier and delivering the scope for 10% and 20% less than the budget you submitted for their approval. You need to have these alternatives ready to present in the project approval meeting. If you don’t provide the data, the executives will arbitrarily decide that you can finish the project 20% earlier without additional people or budget.

The result of being unable to respond to the inevitable questions about finishing earlier and spending less money is that you leave the project approval meeting with a project that is doomed to fail.

Here is a video about how to answer difficult questions from executives.

How to Answer Executives' Questions

You can learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your industry specialty.

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