Like being in Meetings with an Expert Project Manager
Author: Dick Billows, PMP
Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology.
Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on Amazon.com
People’s expectations of the project results are the primary factor in their level of support for your project and their final judgement as to the level of your success or failure. Stakeholder Management sounds pretty simple. I want their expectations high enough to cause them to cooperate but also to be low enough to be achieveable within the budget and duration. Sounds reasonable.
But when you stand infront of of the client executive or your executive stake holders seeking project plan approval its pretty easy for the audience to hear things your didn’t say so we need to be carful. Like this:
Stakeholder, “I understand about the project reducing the error rate on our employee paychecks. But how about the security on the whole payroll system and protection against hackers”
Bad PM answer, “We are going to ratchet up security at every level in the system including the people who take employee phone calls.
Better PM answer, “You are correct our focus is reducing errors to less than 1%. We are going to adhere to all of the security standards the company has set and include every control process presently in place.
Why is the first one bad? It creates expectations you are not going to meet. That stakeholder will be wondering about and asking about all the new payroll security you promised and be disappointed when there is none.
The second answer is much better. You start of by complementing the stakeholder on knowing the scope, which reemphasizes it. Then you say no new security by telling the person that the new process will have all the controls the current one does. The answer may not thrill the stakeholder but you have restricted the expectations.
Steps in Stakeholder Management
This kind of careful speech is something you will use continuously with your stakeholders. But there is a lot more to stakeholder management. Here are the steps:
Identify your stakeholders, anyone who will be affected by your project. You are interested in all of them, but focus on stakeholders in management.
Unearth their expectations for the project and correct those expectations immediately if they are different than your project scope. Letting an incorrect expectation just hang in the air always come back to haunt you.
Regularly monitor the management stakeholders feeling them out for issues they have with the project and any changes in expectations.
Follow those steps and keep good notes of each Stakeholder’s expectations so you can spot changes.
Using the right scheduling software is key to consistently finishing your projects on time and within budget. Project scheduling software lets you do the critical steps more efficiently than using ineffective options like scheduling in Excel or on a yellow notepad. Those waste too much of your time and don’t help you complete these critical steps:
Spotting problems early so you can fix them before it’s too late
Optimizing the use of resources so you can finish as early as possible
Updating the project schedule in a few minutes each week so you know where you are
Updating everyone’s schedule in mere minutes when things change.
There are many more benefits that scheduling software can provide when you’re building a project schedule. But those four items are the minimum tools that every project manager needs. Managing a schedule in Excel or on a yellow notepad give you none of those items. Let’s explore what a you need in a software tool. The best option depends on the scale of the projects you manage. Shorten the Project Duration
Scheduling Software Capabilities
Small Project – Done within your organization for the manager or your boss Medium Project – Affects multiple departments within your organization or done for customers/clients Strategic Project – Organization-wide projects with long term effects
Scheduling Software Capability #1: Draw visual project charts like Gantt and PERT
Small Project – These visual charts are useful for communicating with the sponsor and your team. Medium Project – As the scale of the project increases, you want visuals that compare actual performance to the baseline schedule and cost. You also want to display slack and delay for optimizing the schedule and resources. Earned value reporting is also a tool for this level of reporting. Strategic Project – At this scale, you require sophisticated reporting by task, major deliverable, resources and the lending department. Earned value, cost and time variance reports are also required. Buying Project Software
Scheduling Software Capability #2: Calculate duration based on resource availability and work required
Small Project – Basing the schedule on work and availability, not just start/finish dates, is a best practice. Skip it if finishing on time is not critical. Medium Project – Resource-driven schedules are a must at this level. So is automatic resource leveling which ensures that no resource is assigned more work than they can do. Strategic Project – You need resource-driven schedules and software that can allocate people’s time based on the priority of the task or project to which they are assigned. Project Portfolio Management
Scheduling Software Capability #3: Schedule using predecessor relationships
Small Project – This is not needed on small projects with 2-3 people. Medium & Strategic Projects – This links tasks and establishes their sequence. When matched with resource-driven scheduling, it saves you substantial time. It also gives you tools to quickly quantify the impact of changes the project sponsor wants to make. This can be a life saver for guarding against silly ideas that don’t support the projects’ scope.
Scheduling Software Capability #4: Schedule people for a portfolio of projects based on project priorities
Small Project – Not needed Medium & Strategic Projects – Helps the organization complete a large volume of projects by ensuring that people work on the most important projects.
Scheduling Software Concepts
Scheduling software will provide you with time-saving scheduling and analysis tools. It will also archive data for use on future projects. These tools include analysis of the critical path using slack and delay data. This lets you optimize the use of your resources to finish as early as possible. The critical path should also be used to identify problems early and quickly model alternative solutions. Critical Path Technique
The value of an archive is that it makes future project estimates easier and more accurate. With the appropriate project scheduling software, tracking actual performance in terms of hours of work and completion dates builds a database for estimating on the next projects. Even a small project can waste a lot of a project manager’s time if these tasks are done manually.
Scheduling Software: The Reality
Too many project managers don’t have the tools or the training to track actual performance versus plan, optimize their schedule or make efficient use of their resources. They are regularly surprised by problems that a bit of data would have helped them anticipate. They are unable to provide decision-making data to executives on ways to finish the project early. They also can’t tell executives the cost of changes they want to make. As a result, the project is guided by guesses so the company’s financial and human resources are used inefficiently and project failure rates are high. Keys to Successful Project Scheduling
Scheduling Software: “Best Practices” In the Real World
Project managers routinely deal with sponsors who are several organizational levels above them or who sign their paychecks. In this situation, a project manager can’t really argue with the sponsor about the best way to do the project. What a project manager needs is data from scheduling software that quantifies the impact of changes and models alternative ways of solving problems. Having that data gives the project manager more credibility with the sponsor and executives. It also gives executives solid data on which to base their decisions. They can stop plucking project due dates and budgets out of the air.
Scheduling Software Overview
Scheduling software comes in many different levels of sophistication with prices ranging from $50 to $20,000 or more. The software itself doesn’t make you more effective; it just makes you more efficient. Scheduling software doesn’t teach you how to define the scope, communicate with the project sponsor or make clear assignments to your team members. It just lets you accomplish these and many other tasks more efficiently. So before we look at the different kinds of scheduling software, let’s talk about the kinds of projects to manage and the levels of PM skills. This will enable you to pick a scheduling software tool that’s appropriate for you and the organization in which you work. You can decide which of the following three categories of project manager fits you best.
Managing Smaller Projects
PMs in this category often plan and schedule with only durations rather than work estimates and resource capacity. Many times these PMs have no need to develop or track a project budget because status reports are limited to tracking the completion date. At this level, the organization usually does not consolidate or “roll-up” all of the projects into a portfolio. And it doesn’t manage the overall utilization of the people who work on projects.
In this situation, there is a very broad range of scheduling software choices and many packages will provide Gantt and PERT charts. For project managers who want to automate the process of building plans, preparing occasional status reports and producing some simple Gantt and PERT charts, the low end scheduling software tools are fine. There are plenty of packages that will automate the basics for you. There are also a host of web-based products that operate at this capability level. For under $100 there are products like: Gantter or ZOHO Projects and others.
Managing Larger Cross-functional Projects for Executives or Clients
As the scale of projects grows and their impact reaches beyond one functional unit, the demands on the project management techniques grow. So does the required capability of the scheduling software tool. Software that is a static representation of start and finish dates isn’t enough. You need software tools that simulate the project and optimize the schedule every time you make a change. The budget is an important issue in planning and tracking. So you must build project plans based on the estimated hours of work required and the sequence of tasks, not start and finish dates. You need scheduling software that gives you the capability to budget and schedule internal employees as well as external consultants, vendors, equipment and travel expenses. The scheduling software should provide more sophisticated earned value reporting, slack and delay reports for fine tuning as well as the critical path and resource leveling capability.
The software cost jumps in price to the $300-$700 level and the learning curve for these software tools is much steeper than the first level. The big market shares belong to Microsoft Project and Quickbase (Quicken).
Managing in a Multi-project Environment
At the high-end are PMs managing multiple projects or operating in a mature project organization where resource utilization is managed across all projects. Executives are accountable for portfolios of projects. In this environment, you need project management processes to bring consistency to project planning and tracking. While scheduling software never ensures a consistent project management process (despite all the people who think it can), this environment adds to the software requirements. You now need to consolidate (roll-up) multiple projects and provide consistent information. This allows decision-makers to prioritize projects, allocate resources and schedule and track a pool of people working on multiple projects.
This process is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It requires organization processes for portfolio management and scheduling software that can identify conflicting demands for the same resources. The data it provides will allow the executives to set priorities among projects that require the same resources. They usually want detailed project budgets and have the software come close to mimicking the company’s cost accounting system. But they want actual cost data a lot sooner than the accounting department provides it. Project managers often need sophisticated risk assessment tools and resource loading features as well as detailed performance tracking.
If you want a lot, you’ve got to spend a lot. Scheduling software for these multi-project users runs from $4,000-$20,000 with network versions to run on your LAN and lots of team communication capabilities. There are dozens of products in this range and some of the packages from the second level also provide the needed capabilities. They include: Microsoft Project, Primavera, and other products.
Scheduling Software Training
You can learn how to use scheduling software in our basic and advanced project management software courses. At the beginning of your course, you and Dick Billows, PMP, will have a video conference to design your program and what you want to learn. The two of you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage: business, or marketing, or construction, or healthcare, or consulting. That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.
The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks in a project. It determines the project’s duration and completion date and it can change minute to minute. It’s easy to use the project critical path method to cut the duration and optimize your project plans to finish as quickly as possible. Let’s see an example of how to correctly use the critical path method. Schedule & Software Main Page
Chris Pimbock, the Impudent Project Manager, took a vacant seat the crowded passenger boarding area at gate #63. The seat was near to two sullen business travelers waiting to fly home on a Friday evening. They were staring through the big plate glass windows of the terminal at a mechanic standing atop an aluminum ladder working on the jet’s port engine.
The blue-suited professional sitting to Chris’ left muttered, “The gate attendant better wake up. Those dopes have to get another mechanic working on that engine pronto! That’s a critical path task. Without working engines, we won’t go anywhere!”
The thoroughly wrinkled passenger across the aisle growled, “Nah, that captain and his crew sitting near the gate keep looking at their watches. I bet they are about to go off duty. Without a crew, we won’t go anywhere. Getting a new crew is what that gate attendant should work on. That’s the critical path.”
Feigning ignorance, Chris Pimbock asked, “How do you know what’s on the critical path?
With an exasperated sigh, the guy in the blue suit said, “Experience. Hey, I do this stuff for a living and I know a critical path task when I see one.” The other passenger nodded agreement.
Chris casually looked over the boarding area at gate #63 and the tarmac. The fight crew was still sitting in the corner chatting. A food truck was sitting on the tarmac with the driver reading a magazine. A fuel truck waited and that driver was watching the mechanic. The gate attendant had left her station and gone to help at the next gate, #61. She was helping get the passengers for that flight checked-in and on board.
The rumpled guy mumbled to Chris, “Is that stupid gate attendant gonna get more mechanics? Wait, look the food truck just drove off. That gate attendant is an idiot; ignoring us and working at another gate! Now we’ll have to wait even longer for another food truck while she helps her buddy at the next gate.”
Chris said, “Ahh, give the woman some credit, she knows what she is doing.”
“That’s crazy. Look the fuel truck is leaving too!” the wrinkled PM snorted. “All she cares about are the passengers at gate #61!
Chris frowned and asked, “So the gate attendant should assign more mechanics to the critical path task and get another fuel truck. Is that critical too?”
The two PMs sneered at Chris. One muttered, “Duh.” The other nodded sadly and said, “Sure. You’ve got to really watch the project critical path tasks like a hawk. And when you add more people you get the tasks done faster.”
Just then the first PM said, “Look,” and pointed out the window at the mechanic who was waving frantically at the gate attendant and holding up a broken wrench and mouthing the words, “Need a new wrench!”
The gate attendant was too busy at the other gate to look out the window. Failing to catch the attendant’s eye, the mechanic picked up his broken wrench and tried to work with it, shaking his head in frustration.
Chris said, “What happened?”
“Thanks to that moron gate attendant, the flight will be delayed even longer. The mechanic needs a new tool and she couldn’t see him because she has abandoned us and gone to gate #61. I’m gonna tell her what a dope she is!”
As the wrinkled PM rose to walk to the counter, Chris noted that the plane at gate #61 was leaving. He said, “I would give it a minute or two before you make a jerk of yourself.”
The wrinkled PM slumped back down and said. “That gate attendant has really botched this flight. We’re going to be here for hours.”
They settled back into their chairs and in a moment the gate attendant picked up a black microphone and cleared her throat.
The blue suit predicted, “Now, that dope is going to cancel the flight.”
The loud speakers in the waiting room hissed as a new food truck arrived and the attendant said, “Our new airplane will be pulling up to gate #61 momentarily. Please move to that gate now. We will board in 5 minutes, the plane has fuel, the food is on board and we’re ready to go.”
Chris said, “I guess that gate attendant did the calculations and decided that the sequence of tasks involved in fixing the plane, fueling it, loading the food and replacing the crew was longer than getting us a new plane that was ready to go. She used the duration data, not just guesses, about what task was critical. She kept her eye on the right critical path the whole time. Most importantly she focused on the correct scope; getting us home tonight, not just fixing the plane.”
You can learn to identify and optimize the project critical path by taking one of our online, instructor-led courses. You’ll get personal coaching from an expert project manager as you practice applying the best practice techniques to realistic project case studies. You can work at your own pace and fit your schedule.
A highly motivated, problem-solving team is a key reason for every project success. These teams are committed to completing their assignments on time and within budget so the project goal is met. The proven techniques for leading teams to success include:
selecting the right team members
crafting the right-size assignment for each person
accurately estimating hours of work and duration
gaining team member commitment
receiving status reports
giving constructive feedback.
Leading Teams: Techniques for Three Sizes of Projects
The techniques are different for each project, depending on the size and scope. Here are the project size definitions:
Tier 1: Small – they’re done within one department Tier 2: Cross-functional – they affect multiple departments and cross organizational boundaries Tier 3: Strategic – they’re organization-wide programs or projects for clients with strategic impact.
Leading Teams Technique #1: Selecting Team Members
In the selection process, you’re trying to get the best people for your project team. But you’re also gathering information about their work habits and personality so you can craft the right assignment for them. Tier 1: Small projects: You are usually familiar with the potential team members’ work performance and quality standards when you all work in the same department. During the project planning phase, you need to ask the boss for the people you want on your team. That’s when the boss is focused on the project and can give you hints about the correct assignment for each person. Tier 2: Cross-functional projects: When you have to borrow your team members from other departments or organizations, it is more difficult to make sure you get productive team members. If possible, you should interview potential team members to assess their work ethic, problem solving ability and quality standards. Tier 3: Strategic projects: On large projects for your organization or your clients, you may not be able to select the team members. If personal interviews are possible, you can gather information about potential team members’ experience and work standards. You will use that information to design the right assignments for each person. If interviews aren’t possible, you will have to make an on-the-spot judgement about the right assignment for each team member. Leading Remote Project Teams
Leading Teams Technique #2: Designing Appropriate Assignments
You must design the assignments so they fit the capabilities and personality type of each team member. You want to give larger/longer assignments to people who have solid technical experience and are skilled problem solvers. They will appreciate the assignment’s challenge. You should give shorter assignments to people who are inexperienced and/or less capable. This will let you easily track their progress and help them when it’s necessary. Tier 1: Small projects: You usually have flexibility about the duration of assignments. For trainee-level team members or less capable people, you want assignments that are 1 to 3 days long. For the average team member, 5-day assignments are usually the right size. For experienced professionals, you should design assignments that are 2 weeks or longer to give them a challenge and independence. Tier 2: Cross-functional projects: With people borrowed from other departments, it is often acceptable to talk with their boss about the right-size assignment and the level of challenge you should give them. If that’s not possible, then you will adjust the complexity and length of the assignment as they work on the task and you learn their capabilities. Tier 3: Strategic projects: On larger projects with people who are accountable for major deliverables, you need to engage them in the design of their assignments. You must avoid micromanagement of these experienced people who are very capable. On the other hand, you should give “rookies” assignments that are within their capabilities in terms of time and complexity. Team Micromanagement
Leading Teams Technique #3: Work Packages
You must clearly describe, in measurable terms, the deliverable(s) the team member should produce. And you must document their availability, as approved by their boss. Tier 1: Small projects: This level of documentation is often skipped on small projects with three or four team members working on a project within a department. On the other hand, giving a simple work pack to each team member avoids confusion about your expectations for their deliverable. Tier 2: Cross-functional projects & Tier 3: Strategic projects: For larger projects, you should document a work package for each assignment. It will make the assignment clear and document the deliverable you expect the borrowed person to produce. The work package also provides a standard information base for estimating the tasks’ hours of work and identifying their risks. It is best to document the work estimate and give a copy to the borrowed team member’s superior. Team Building Techniques
Leading Teams Technique #4: Estimating Task Work and Duration
A project management best practice is to estimate the required hours of work so you can measure progress during the assignment. All projects: Regardless of the size of the project, you should engage the team members in the process of estimating the amount of work their assignment will take. The work package is the basis for the estimating effort. You should always estimate the amount of work (50 hours, for example). You should never estimate just the duration (Oct. 21 through Nov. 7, for example). Estimating the amount of work required for the task provides you with the ability to more accurately track progress and spot problems. Their team member’s availability to do the work (halftime or 2 days a week, for example) is also documented. Team Building
You should also discuss the assignment’s potential risks with the team member and what can be done about them. This helps you avoid, eliminate or mitigate those risks. Finally, the work package should list the task’s required deliverable, the approach to take on the task and the inputs the team member requires to finish their task. Team Building video
Leading Teams Technique #5: Status Reporting
Team members should report status on their tasks every week. This allows you to find problems early so you and the team have an opportunity to fix them before the task or project is late or over budget.
All Projects: Data can come to you by phone, e-mails, a form, template or on “sticky notes.” The important thing is that each week you get the hours of work competed, as of that date, and the estimated hours required to complete the task. No narrative is necessary. You should make status reporting easy so people will do it. It is a best practice to give all team members updated status data on the entire project.
Leading Teams Technique #6: Giving Feedback
All projects: You must give feedback to team members on a timely basis. People want to be praised for a job well done. Remember that public praise is the most effective. People also need to be told when their performance does not meet your expectations. This should be done in private and include what they can do to improve. You must deliver feedback in a way that encourages people to tell you about problems early, when you and the team can define a solution or a “work around.” Constructive Feedback
It is extremely ineffective for you to get angry with team members who report bad news. This action (or reaction) causes team members to hide problems. Then you are doomed to find out about problems when it’s too late to fix them. Dysfunctional Project Team video
Leading Teams Summary
Use these proven techniques to successfully lead project teams:
select the right team member for each task
assign the right size task for their capabilities
create a work package to define their deliverable
involve the team member in estimating the amount of work required and the duration of their task
receive weekly status reports from the team members
give team members constructive feedback and praise
You can learn these techniques and enhance your skills for leading teams in our online project management courses and certifications. You begin whenever you wish and control the schedule and pace. You work privately with an expert project manager and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.
What is project leadership? It consists of proven techniques that project managers use to:
set standards of behavior and performance
motivate the team members to high performance and
rally the team members when the project has problems to overcome.
The number one challenge to project leadership is the fact that the project manager has no formal organizational authority over the project team. Another factor that makes project leadership difficult is that project managers are usually technically-oriented people with little experience or skill in motivating others.
Project managers must tailor the interpersonal techniques they use to fit the personality of each team member and stakeholder with whom they work. That’s the only way project managers can make up for their lack of formal authority. Once they have “typed” the person’s personality and selected the right techniques for dealing with them, they have won half the battle. Here is a video on Team Member Personality Types
Another technique of effective leadership is to apply the best practices in terms of how the project manager trains and treats their project team members. Watch this video of a PM dealing with a situation where a team member has been pulled off the project and assigned elsewhere. In the first video, you see the PM use a technique that does not fit the personality of the team member. The result is complete failure. Then watch an analysis and see the PM do it the right way, using the right technique for the team member. Leading Teams
Communicating with the team member who has a problem
You can learn all of these skills in our online project management basics course. We individually tailor this course for business, IT, construction, healthcare and consulting specialties.
You can use this project planning template to define the project scope and identify major deliverables. You can also use it to manage the project risks and constraints as well as the resources it requires. On every new project, you need to decide what Project Planning Template elements to include, what to exclude and how to develop them on each particular project. For 90% of the projects done in most organizations, your project plan should be 1–2 pages long. Managers are more likely to read a short, concise document.
Project Planning Template 1st Step – Define the Scope
You need to define the project scope as a deliverable with measurable acceptance criteria. To do that, you talk with the project sponsor, ask questions and then develop the scope statement. Next you define 4 to 7 high-level deliverables and their associated acceptance criteria. Those criteria tell everyone exactly what the project must deliver. They also help you control expectations by making it clear what the project will and won’t deliver. Fast Track Project Plans
When you ask the sponsor what he or she wants, they might say something like, “We really need to have this project cut costs for us.” You immediately try to get to quantified acceptance criteria by asking, “How much cost reduction would make this project a success?”
When the sponsor says, “$15,000 of cost reductions,” you have the scope definition with an acceptance criterion that tells you how much cost reduction the project has to deliver. This is the key to the project plan template. You can then drive the rest of the project from that number. (On larger projects consider the scope reach) How to evaluate a project plan
This is a simple example of top-down planning but most project managers don’t ask the right questions. They are satisfied with a To Do list of the first dozen things the project sponsor wants them to do. That is a terrible basis for your a project plan and it’s disastrous if you start work with no more information than a To Do list. To successfully plan a project and have high odds of project success, you need to know what the boss wants in measurable terms. How to Plan Top Down
Project Planning Template 2nd Step – Define Major Deliverables
You then break down the measurable project scope into its major supporting deliverables. There are several different ways to do this. The simplest is where the high-level deliverables literally add up to the scope and its acceptance criteria. Therefore, in a conversation with the sponsor, you might talk about how to break down the scope. The sponsor might say, “I want each department to develop their share of the overall savings.” During further discussion, you might identify the savings amount for each of those departments. You use them as your high-level deliverables with the acceptance criteria being the dollar amount of savings each department has to produce.
You see the major deliverables below and how they add up to the project scope of $15,000 of cost reductions.
Reduce order intake monthly operating expense by $4,000
Reduce production monthly operating expense by $2,000
Reduce order production monthly operating expense by $3,000
Reduce inventory monthly operating expense by $2,000
Reduce shipping monthly operating expense by $4,000
Project Planning Template 3rd Step – Identify Major Risks
Depending on the size of the project, you may invest a great deal of time identifying the risks that threaten the project. You can do this in brainstorming sessions with the project team and stakeholders. But on a small project, you might develop your list of risks over coffee. In either case, you’ll include them in the project plan along with ideas for mitigating those risks. See example risks you would enter into the project plan template below:
Layoffs may result in labor actions which disrupt operations
Production may drop as much as 25% for 3 – 5 months.
Using the major deliverables, you now identify the number of hours of work and the skill sets required to create each deliverable. You would total those estimates up to the level of the entire project and make very rough estimates of the people and skills required. Below are examples that you would enter into the project plan template.
Bill – full time 3 months
Mary – half time 2 months
Raj – full time 3 months
Sharmaine – quarter time 4 months
Henry – full time one week
Project Planning Template 5th Step – Break Down to Individual Tasks
The last of the five steps in creating the project plan is to decompose those major deliverables developed in the second step. You break them down into smaller deliverables until you reach the level of a deliverable that’s an appropriate assignment for one team member. That’s the level of your work breakdown structure (WBS). It completes the project planning process in the project plan template. Then you can move on to the scheduling process.
Project Planning Template in Practice
In many organizations, project planning is a combination of vague generalities about the objective of the project. But the one thing that is often rock solid is the completion date. That date is frequently the only measurable project result. Because project managers don’t know what the executives want them to deliver, they have no ability to exercise control over the scope of the project. As a result, the objectives change weekly. Project team member assignments are vague and ever-changing. That is why estimating is inaccurate and why 70% of projects fail when they are planned that way. Let’s look at the best practices for project planning and then look at a project plan template for projects of different size.
Project Planning Template “Best Practices” In the Real World
Very often, project managers face a difficult organizational environment. The organization lacks the processes to do project management right and the executives don’t know how to play their role correctly. In these situations, the PMs need best practices that allow them to do things effectively, even though the executives and the organization’s processes are obstacles and not assets. The project plan template will help. The purpose of this intense project planning process is to make all the decisions before starting work. The approach of making the project plan and then executing it is much more efficient than a “plan as you go” process. However, it is very difficult in many organizations.
For this approach to work, the organization, its executives and project managers must do things correctly. That is, the executives must specify exactly what they want the project to deliver. They cannot make the project assignment using vague generalities where the only thing that is specific is the due date. The organization must have processes for evaluating and prioritizing projects and giving them access to resources based on those priorities. Last, the project managers must know how to do top-down project planning. That means they are able to take the clear acceptance criteria, specified by the executive/sponsor, and decompose it down to the level of specific assignments for each team member. Most organizations fail to meet one or more of these criteria and that is why we rarely see an ideal project planning process. There are two major ways to go Large Project Planning Techniques or for less paperwork and meetings, Small Project Planning Techniques.
Project Planning Templates by Scale of the Project
We utilize three tiers of project plans techniques in the project plan template. They depend on the scale and complexity of the project:
Tier 1: Small Project Plans – Done within a department with the boss as the sponsor.
Tier 2: Medium Project Plans – Affect multiple departments or done for customers/clients.
Tier 1 – A 1-page broadbrush plan with achievement network, risks, resources and PM authority.
Tier 2 – This project charter addresses the project acceptance criteria, business justification and rough estimates of the resource requirements (human and financial).
Tier 3 – The size of the investment in these strategic projects usually requires extensive documentation of risks, benefits and impacts on other strategic initiatives and the entire organization.
Gather Project Requirements
Tier 1 – Usually limited to a meeting with the boss where the PM defines the project’s scope and decomposes it into the major deliverables.
Tier 2 – We survey project stakeholders for their requirements. Each requirement is reviewed and either included or explicitly excluded from the project.
Tier 3 – We follow an extensive process of identifying and analyzing requirements gathered from the stakeholders. It includes assessing stakeholders in terms of their interests and their ability to influence the project’s success.
Project Scope Statement
Tier 1 – A short statement of the project’s desired result and the acceptance criteria.
Tier 2 – A more detailed scope statement that also covers assumptions, constraints and the major deliverables.
Tier 3 – A full scope baseline development with exploration of alternative means of delivering the project scope.
Tier 1 – Decompose high-level deliverables into the deliverable for each team member’s assignment.
Tier 2 – Decompose high-level deliverables and use WBS sections from previous projects that are similar.
Tier 3 – Usually developed in sections with the people responsible for that major deliverable doing the decomposition.
Project Planning Template Summary
This project plan template uses a five-step project planning process. You can modify the planning to fit projects of different sizes depending on their complexity. You can learn to use this template in our online Project Management Basics courses. You’ll work privately with Dick Billows, PMP, an expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.
During an introductory video conference, you and Dick Billows, will design your program and what you want to learn. You will choose you course and select your case study from business, marketing, construction, healthcare, or consulting options. Your case study-based assignments that include project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your project specialty.
A Project management career offers you a fast growing profession, world-wide demand and high incomes. A Project Management career gives you mobility between employers because your skills are applicable in any company.
Project Managers who have the ability to deliver business results on time and within budget are needed in every organization. Project managers are in demand in both public and private sectors. Salaries are high with the average income of a certified project manager (PMP®) averaging $114,000 US. In this article will summarize the steps in a project management career: from first getting into the profession, to learning the basics, to your first certification and then up the ladder to multi-project and portfolio management. First let’s do a quick overview and then we’ll get into the details.
Project Management Career Progression
More than half of the project managers in the profession were pushed into it. Executives noticed they were good performers so when a hot project came up, the executives dumped it in their laps. Learning on the job and on-the-fly, these people got through that first project and then decided they liked the work. They learned the “right way” to manage a project later on.
Other people consciously decided to enter the project management profession. They prepared themselves for their first job as a project manager by learning the basics of project management. Then they got an entry-level project manager certification for credibility. These steps helped them get their first chance to manage a small project. How To Get into Project Management
No matter what route people take to start their project management career, they need to have training that teaches them the fundamentals of planning, scheduling, executing and tracking projects. Many people also get their first certification at this point because it helps in job hunting. That first certification is often the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM®) from the Project Management Institute (PMI®). That certification requires no project management work experience. But it does require learning the processes, definitions and terms of the profession and passing a 3-hour exam. Pass the CAPM Exam
Project Management Professional (PMP)® Certification and Beyond
After you have several years of experience managing projects, you will be qualified to earn the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI®). This is an internationally recognized credential for experienced project managers and is highly regarded in all industries. You must apply and get PMI’s approval to take the PMP exam. PMI requires you to document 4,500 hours of project management work experience if you have a university degree or 7,500 hours of project management work experience if you don’t have a university degree. They also require 35 hours of project management education. You need an exam preparation course to teach you PMI’s best practices in project management. Then you must pass the very difficult 4-hour PMP exam. About 50% of the people who take the exam world-wide fail.
The next step in a project management career is to earn a Program Manager Certification which prepares you up for positions managing multiple projects and larger, strategic programs. Program Management
Following that, your next move will be into senior management in a position like Chief Project Officer, CPO.
Project scheduling is not about developing and printing a schedule and then hanging it on the wall. Good project managers use their dynamic schedules daily to model options, assess alternatives and forecast completion dates and costs. Here’s how a project manager who is a good scheduler operates:
A stakeholder stops the project manager at the entrance to the cafeteria and says. “Sorry but I have some bad news for you.”
While listening, the project manager flips open his portable PC and opens the project to which this stakeholder is lending people.
The PM asks, “Oh, what’s happened?” while scrolling to a list of the tasks to which this executive’s people are assigned.
The stakeholder replies, “I have to pull those three engineers off your project to work on something the Marketing VP dumped in my lap. I need them for 4 weeks.”
The PM scrolls down the list, finds the three engineers, changes their availability for the next 4 weeks to zero and clicks enter. On the screen Gantt chart a lot bars turn red and shift to the right (later finishes). The PM says, “As long as you’re talking to the Marketing VP about removing the three engineers from this projects, you can tell her that her tracking system will be 6 weeks latter than currently scheduled.”
“Oh no,” the stakeholder moans.
“That’s the consequence,” the PM replies. “I’ll tell engineering and accounting about the delays this causes on their deliverables. You may hear from them.”
The stakeholder says, “Wait awhile before you do that. Let me see if there is another way.”
The PM smiles.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Techniques
Successful project managers use dynamic project scheduling because it saves them significant amounts of time. It also lets them quickly model the impact of changes to resources, work or costs. Dynamic scheduling automatically recalculates the duration and budget for the project every time you make a change in the resources, hourly rates, hours of work and predecessor relationships.
Many commercial project scheduling software products allow for dynamic scheduling. Here are the critical elements required for the dynamic schedule to work.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Element #1: Predecessors
Your dynamic project schedule must not be based on fixed start and finish dates. It must be based on predecessor relationships between tasks. There are three primary kinds of predecessor relationships and the entire schedule must be built on these relationships.
First is the finish-to-start predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that task B can’t start until task A has finished.
Second is the start-to-start predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that tasks A and B can start at the same time.
Third is the finish-to-finish predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that tasks A and B must finish at the same time, even though they may not start at the same time.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Element #2: Work Durations
Your schedule must be based on work durations that are calculated from resource availability and work estimates. You enter the amount of work required for a task and the availability of the resource assigned to the task. Availability is how many hours a day each resource can work on their task. As an example, say there is 80 hours of work for a team member who works on the project half-time, or four hours a day. The dynamic project scheduling software calculates the task’s duration as 20 working days. That’s because the half-time team member can only complete four hours of work a day.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Element #3: Track Work & Duration
You use dynamic project scheduling with predecessor relationships and work estimates to track progress on the tasks in your project plan. As an example, you may specify a finish-to-finish predecessor relationship. That tells the project management software that you want to schedule two tasks and their resources so both tasks finish at the same time. When you specify all your predecessor relationships, your project plan becomes a network of tasks, linked by the predecessor relationships. The result is often called a PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) chart. It displays your project plan and its network of tasks.
You link each task bar to the project network. That allows our dynamic project scheduling to control the sequencing of tasks based on the predecessor relationships and the amount of work in each task. It also gives you early warning on problems. When a task is completed late, the software shows the revised completion date(s) of that task’s successor tasks. You have an opportunity to correct a situation that can impact the entire project’s schedule.
You can learn how to use dynamic project scheduling in our online project management courses. You work one-to-one with your instructor at your pace and as your schedule allows.
Organizations need lessons learned review processes to make sure they don’t relive project failures. But these processes are ineffective in most organizations. So they make the same mistakes on one project after another. Even worse, the bigger the project failure, the less likely the organization is to learn from it. The same issues that cause a project to fail also prevent the people involved from learning from that failure. Let’s examine a typical Lessons Learned review session. Then we’ll talk about the right way to do it. Project Lessons Learned Main Page
Lessons Learned: Poking Through the Wreckage
You shuffled into your Lessons Learned review session, sick and tired of the political games and the finger-pointing. Twenty minutes later, you trudged out with the voices still echoing in your head:
“No, you’re responsible for us finishing late!”
“Me? You kept making changes. I’m surprised we ever finished!”
“You still aren’t finished. The crap you gave us still doesn’t work!”
“What? We gave you what you asked for! You just didn’t train your people to use it“
“They’d need PhD’s to use what you built!”
You walked down the hall knowing the project failure was your fault. Sure, there were some jerks involved in the project and it would be easy to blame them. But you knew that a good project manager could structure things to make even the jerks be productive.
As scenes like this repeat themselves after each project, the organization’s processes for doing projects don’t improve. The same problems wreck project after project. But there is an alternative.
Living Lessons Learned
What you need instead is a “living” lessons learned process that gives the organization and its project managers an opportunity for continuous improvement. The time you invest in your post-project review should also positively affect projects that are underway. It should reinforce the use of a consistent project management methodology. You gain these advantages with a living lessons learned process conducted in three stages.
Lessons Learned: Step 1 – Pre-Launch Peer Review
Many of our clients use peer reviews of projects that are ready to launch. That sounds fancier than it is. This just means that PM’s get feedback on their project plan from other PM’s. Sometimes they hold a live web meeting to discuss a recent plan. That gives PMs the chance to share ideas and renew their understanding of the methodology.
While the pre-launch stage is a busy time for project managers, it’s also the point at which correcting mistakes is least expensive. The process is straightforward. Early in the project lifecycle, the other project managers review the business situation faced by the user or client. Then they independently critique the project’s strategic plan, scope statement, requirements, WBS, charter, accountability structure, team assignments and schedule. If the organization’s project management methodology places a premium on thinking rather than paperwork, it doesn’t take the other project managers very long to review several project plans.
In the review session itself, the other PM’s ask questions and offer ideas, which the project manager whose work is under review may use or ignore. The project manager gets the benefit of the thinking of other PM’s engaged in the same type of work. Every project manager suffers from tunnel vision as he or she works through the final development of their detailed project plan. So the thinking of other project managers who are not buried in all the details is enormously helpful. They can spot disconnects between the user’s or client’s business problem and the project plan details. However, it is important to keep this conversation up at the project management level, focusing on “Are we doing the right project for this business problem?” and “Does the planned control process make sense for the desired business result and resources involved?” The conversation should not sink into a technology debate.
Sessions like these are effective in building consistency in the use of a project management methodology. Compliance with project management standards tends to slip under the pressure of all the work that must be done just before launch. But when project managers know their peers will be reviewing their work, they tend to comply with the standards.
These pre-launch peer reviews are ideal for reinforcing the organization’s project management methodology. The right people are dealing with real business situations and projects, not theoretical ideals. As a result, these sessions are good opportunities to renew people’s skills in using the organization’s project management methodology.
Lessons Learned: Step 2 – Corrective Action and Changes
The second step in the lessons learned process is regular (usually weekly) review of project variances. The PM and team members will decide on the corrective action they will take on variances at the weekly status report meeting. Then the PM should go through the variances again. During this second round, they focus on how to avoid the same variances in the future. They also identify other tasks that are likely to have the same issue. The focus is on ways to avoid a repeat and it doesn’t take long to identify the options.
To do this review, the project methodology must give PM’s a reliable method of identifying changes to the approved baseline schedule. The organization needs a methodology that gives the PM objective measures of project progress plus the work and cost estimates to measure the variance.
Lessons Learned: Step 3 – Team Culture and Leadership Style
The last step in the lessons learned process is the periodic assessment of the culture of the project team and the project manager’s leadership style. Obviously the project team members’ work attitudes and effectiveness are strongly influenced by the leadership behavior of the PM. But even a professional team may suffer in silence about the PM’s leadership rather than take the risk of providing constructive feedback.
Constructive feedback is very useful so you have to offer a “safe” environment for team members to give it. An effective technique is to ask the team to have lunch together once a quarter without the PM. They write a summary of the PM’s strengths and weaknesses on which they reached agreement. The PM should digest the information but ask no questions about it. Most importantly, the PM should not ask them to justify any of the negative feedback. That makes the PM appear defensive. Good project managers act on negative feedback and make themselves better. Bad PM’s can’t handle the criticism and learn nothing.
Lessons Learned Review Summary
The lessons learned review is a three-step “living” lessons learned process for project management improvement. It is an important element in moving the organization toward delivering consistently successful projects because it is a process through the entire project lifecycle. It also contributes to developing a cadre of consistently effective project managers who get better over time and don’t repeatedly relive failures.
The Project Initiation step is often crushed by executives who hysterically shout, “Get started quickly! We’ll plan when we have more time..this project is critical.” This hysteria saves them from having to commit to exactly what they want. Avoiding a commitment about what they want the project to deliver makes it easy to blame other people when the project fails. To be fair, however, the executive may not know what the project should produce. A person higher up the chain of command may have dumped the project in their lap.
Experienced project managers know the bitter consequences of skipping Project Initiation. They include scope creep, time wasted on pointless tasks and significant overruns. So experienced PMs try to stop the freight train and say, “Sir, if the project is that critical, we can’t take short cuts. We have to initiate the project properly. I certainly wouldn’t want to explain why we skipped the initial planning step if the project fails.” That approach works some of the time. Project Phases Main Page
A professional project initiation process for small or large projects addresses the following important decisions:
The sponsor tells the PM how he will measure the result of the project at the end. That is the scope of the project. It’s how will the sponsor will measure the success of the project. In other words, he defines a good job on the project with metrics (costs are reduced 23%, sales are up 10%, turnaround time is reduced 1.5 days, error rates are reduced 4%). The end result is the target the PM and team aim for. You will waste a lot of person hours if you don’t know the project’s scope.
With the scope defined you can talk about the path to reach it from where you are now. You define this path with measured deliverables. These are numbers that define success, just like the scope. Each deliverable must be a metric.
Next you breakdown each deliverable until you reach the level of a task that our team can deliver in less than two weeks.
The Project Initiation Drive-through
Failed projects are often initiated like the sponsor ordered at the drive-through window of a fast-food joint. In this situation, you, the project manager, can’t control the scope so the project finishes late and produces very little business value. Consistent project failure usually starts when PMs and sponsors initiate projects with fast food order-taking techniques. Let’s see how this order-taking process works.
The project manager stands at the drive-through window wearing a red and yellow cap that says “Projects Are Us.” The executive drives up in a shiny black car, stops at the drive-through window and says, “I want to clean up customer service by March 30th.”
The project manager nods eagerly, gives the executive the “thumbs up” signal and screams at the project team:
“You two, put some new software on the grill!”
“Dan, dump some training into the deep fry!”
“Monica, we need more service rep cubicles and new computers, now!”
The executive smiles, “Wow, you know how to manage a project; no needless meetings or endless paper work.”
The order-taker project manager gives the executive another toothy grin and says, “We are cranking and everything is in green light status. We’re already about half done.”
The executive leans back thinking, then says,”I’d like a network with 30 nano-second response time and 50 gigamondo disk drives. And…can we add mauve wall coverings in the computer room? How about multi-lingual training?”
The order-taker project manager grins and says, “No problem; we’re flexible. I can make any changes you want.”
The executive frowns, “I’m in a hurry, so speed it up.”
The order-taker project manager whirls and whispers to the project team, “Let’s go! Get something slapped together by the due date…we can tweak it later. Let’s get to it!” Then he smiles at the executive and gives the thumbs up sign.
The executive returns two weeks later and says, “Your crappy software doesn’t work. No one knows how to use it and the new computer room is a fire hazard. The customers are still howling about being on hold too long. That’s what I wanted fixed. This is another project disaster!”
Happy Executives at Project Initiation… or at the End of the Project
The sad thing about this order-taking technique for Project Initiation is that it makes some executives and users happy. When you initiate projects like this, you and the team start work quickly. Executives like that. They also like that they can avoid deciding exactly what they want the project to produce. That lets them off the hook for committing to the project scope. However, the odds are nearly zero of the PM delivering a successful project and having satisfied executives/users/customers when the project is complete. This order-taking approach begins a process that allows changes every week. Why is that? Because the order-taking process does not produce a scope definition that is objectively measured or controlled. Order-taking does not make the executives commit to what they want. Even worse, when the PM acts like an order-taker, that’s how the executives perceive them. So what is the best Project Initiation process?
The Best Practice for Project Initiation
First, you must abandon the order-taking process of listing vague requirements and starting work quickly. Instead, you must ask questions to learn enough about the executive’s business problem so you can help them define the project scope.
Executives who are not used to project managers asking questions may resent it. But a successful project manager responds to these objections with a reasonable statement like, “How can I deliver the business end result you want if I don’t know precisely what it is?”
Executives may not like that push back. But it’s worth some early executive dissatisfaction because it helps you define a measured business result for the project scope. It helps you avoid a list of ever-changing requirements. Let’s return to our story and see how to do this correctly.
How to Use the Best Practice for Project Initiation
The executive stops at the drive-through window and says, “I want to clean up customer service by March 30th.”
The project manager answers, “Exactly what result are you looking for?”
A flash of anger washes across the executive’s face, “Just get started. I’m in a hurry. When are you going to start work?”
The project manager says, “We’ll start immediately after I understand the results you’re looking for. What’s the result you want from the project?”
“I need better efficiency,” snaps the executive.
The PM says, “I understand. How much improvement in efficiency?”
The executive frowns in anger again, “Why are you asking all these questions instead of starting work?”
The PM politely responds, “Because you won’t be pleased with our work if it doesn’t help you achieve your objectives. So I need to know what they are. What amount of efficiency improvement do you need?”
“Enough to cut costs by 12% from the customer service department. We need training, new systems, new cubicles, etc,” the executive says.
“Well, if you want to have a 12% cost reduction by cutting staff, each customer service rep will have to be able to handle 12% more customer calls.”
The executive smiles, “Right. Then we could gradually let attrition reduce the staff. Now let’s get into the details of how to do that…”
Using this approach, the project manager avoided starting a project that was almost certain to fail. A results-focused approach to project initiation and planning produces benefits for the entire portfolio of projects. Learn more about how to initiate and plan projects.