Project Portfolio Management Software

More money and time gets wasted trying to automate project portfolio management (multiple projects) than on any other project management tool. The reason for the waste is that decision-makers lose sight of the purpose of portfolio management. Other agendas, purposes and goals take over and lead to all the waste and kill the effort. These killers include:

  • giving everyone access to all the project data
  • giving the accountants earlier control of expenditures
  • improving the communications between project team members and project managers
  • letting the sponsor spot problems before the project manager see them

The process of project portfolio management should have these objectives:

  • Managing the utilization and availability of people working on projects
  • Allocating resources to projects based on their priority as set by management
  • Reallocating resources based on new projects, change requests and variances
  • Tracking actual results versus the plan and distributing the results to managers and project managers

Project Portfolio Management: Software Selection

Searching for the best project portfolio management software can be a daunting task. Many choices exist and many people have their own requirements. But there’s one piece of advice I always use in these situations. It’s the answer answer of my university professor when asked whether there is a best programming development language out there.project portfolio management

“The best tool does not exist. The better tool is the one that serves you best in the situation at hand.”

There are a rapidly growing number of tools currently available to help organizations manage projects. Some are provided by big market names, others are cloud-based services or open source. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

I will not talk about comparing the tools; I do not have such knowledge. My point today is to tell you a story of how we have used simple tools to achieve our short term and mid-term goals. And we got rid of the added complexity of an off-the-shelf software.

In 2008 we had to work with many parallel projects in a matrix organization with resources shared among several projects. Demand, especially for specialized resources, had increased steadily over the preceding years. At the point when the demand outgrew the capacity, the lack of a proper portfolio and resource management methodology became obvious and painful. We had issues with over-promising, managing priorities, impact analysis of changes, and the snowball effect of delays in all the projects sharing the same resources.

We established the Project Portfolio Management role to streamline the process. The process we designed established a work pipeline matching the PMI project phases. All the new project requests were queued at the start following initiation, planning, work-in-progress, quality control/management and close out. On the other side, we created the catalog of resources and skills in order to calculate the “supply.” This would serve as our supply-demand chain. The available free capacity would be shared with the senior management to help the decision-making for new projects and approval of changes.

The first question from the portfolio team was, “What tool do we use to manage this complex process?” We started to use MS Project. As it came out, rolling out a brand new, still unstable process, directly into a complex tool was not such a good idea. I think the tool is a good one but instead of helping us move faster, it was getting in the middle. Instead of focusing on the process, we were spending our energy on discussing the technology. It became a source of excuses and justification for failure. We heard things like, “I could not do my work because the tool is not good.”

After 4 months, we made the decision to drop the system for the time being and focus hard on the process. To tackle the need for reports and KPI’s, a simple Microsoft access database was created. It contained all the milestones of the projects, their interdependence and the assigned resources. We kept information in the portfolio database only to the level of the WBS and milestones, not to the full details of a project plan. It meant more manual work, but it was a simple tool, flexible and adaptable to the fast changes of the process. And it left no room for excuses. The tool, together with the process and the maturity of the team, kept improving and growing.

Today we are using commercial software to manage single projects but our capacity for planning, portfolio management is still running on a custom developed system. It has evolved much from the first version but is still simpler and more flexible compared to the commercial systems we have evaluated. It incorporates our specific requirements for reporting, risk management, internal workflow, organization structure, approvals, status reports, escalation, etc.

As a final note, technology is very important, but in the end it has to serve you, not the opposite. And it’s a technology guy who says this.

Project Meeting Agenda

As a Project Manager on any size project, one of your most important tasks is to regularly communicate with your team by following this project meeting agenda.  It is a very simple set of rules that tell your team members and stakeholders what to be ready to discuss and what decisions they should be prepared to make. It will train the attendees at your project meetings to look at the materials you send them prior to the meeting and come prepared for the discussions and decisions. It will substantially reduce the amount of wasted time in a project meeting. If you also enforce the discipline of limiting the conversation to topics on the agenda, you further gain in the efficiency of the meeting.

project meeting agendaThe term “communication” certainly implies a dialogue, so conducting regular meetings with your project team to discuss issues, status, priorities, direction, etc., is not just a good idea. It’s a genuine opportunity for information to be exchanged between you and your team members.  Effective teams are enabled by a solid communication plan that offers every team member multiple channels for receiving and sharing information important to the project.

One of the easiest ways for a Project Manager to facilitate the flow of information is the Project Team Meeting (aka, Project Staff Meeting, Project Status Meeting, or any of several other names it might go by).  While team members will always complain about meetings (it seems to be necessary for camaraderie), a well-managed project meeting is something they will privately look forward to.  Why?  If done right, the project meeting clears confusion, addresses priorities, provides direction, and updates everyone on project status.  A poorly managed project meeting—or worse, none at all—squanders time and opportunity, and can do more harm than good for morale and motivation.

Project Meeting Agenda Tips

Here are some simple tips from experience to keep your project meetings on target:

Schedule regular meeting times.  Project team members may have a tough time juggling their activities, so meetings that are scheduled regularly (e.g., every Monday at 8:00 a.m.) provide members a chance to work around scheduling conflicts and make an effort to participate.

Don’t be afraid to cancel a meeting that isn’t needed.  If the content doesn’t warrant it, don’t have a meeting just because it’s on the schedule. That a waste of everyone’s time. Your team members will appreciate your consideration and they’ll be more willing to make the effort to attend meetings that are scheduled, knowing you believe it’s important.

Agenda in advance.  Distribute an agenda in advance whenever possible.  This does two things:  (1) It forces you, as the project manager, to think the meeting through.  Is it worthy?  Can it wait?  Is the agenda sufficiently meaty to warrant a team meeting, or will an email do?  And, (2) it alerts team members to topics that may be important to them and may help them choose between working on a task or attending the meeting.

Keep the meeting short.  Most of the tips being offered here are intended to make your meetings something your team wants to attend.  And keeping meetings crisp, meaningful, and as brief as possible will encourage that response.  You will need to find that sweet spot between too short to be useful and too long to retain their attention.

Make your meetings relevant and timely.  If you have the same agenda every week, you are transmitting “nothing new” before the meeting even starts.  Work hard to make your meetings fresh by covering current issues and priorities, achievements, and near-term goals.  Don’t dwell on topics of limited interest but try to tailor your discussions so everyone on the team can be engaged.  Keep the team apprised of milestones and deliverables so that each person can connect their work with the project’s major schedule points.

Encourage dialogue.   Your team members need to feel that project meetings are intended to exchange information, not just receive it.  Of course, as a project manager you’ll have your own objectives for the meeting, but some of those should be to:

  • clear the air on team concerns or issues
  • provide a forum for good ideas
  • seek group consensus on problems and solutions.

If the team senses that your meetings are simply a device for you to dictate policy or direction, you are setting the stage for larger problems that develop when communication becomes one-sided. While you want to encourage dialogue, don’t let the meeting get diverted into narrow subject areas of limited interest to your team members, or pass over an important topic so fast that its significance is missed.  Finding that balance between sufficient depth and breadth is an art form that will take some time to develop but your team will appreciate it.

Provide status, concerns and near-term focus.  Your meetings may be the only opportunity for some team members to fully understand the overall status of the project and their contribution to it.  A software developer, for example, may not have a clear concept of her role in delivery of the first article that occurs months later.  Providing a periodic “big picture” status review recalibrates the team and allows each member to appreciate his/her own contribution, as well as that of other team members.  In discussing status, focus on the near-term and use the opportunity to discuss your concerns and priorities with your team.

Acknowledge successes, address problem areas, and reinforce the rules.  Public recognition of your team’s successes can pay huge dividends in commitment and respect.  When your team does good work, both individually and collectively, and it is recognized, they are motivated to maintain that higher standard.  Never pass up an opportunity to compliment a team member who has earned it. The return is far greater than the investment.  But your meetings are also a great opportunity to address team problem areas or performance issues. You should have established your operating rules in the project plan.  If you’re having a problem with the team complying with the rules, your meetings are the best way to personally and directly remind team members why they exist.

Make sure information is disseminated.  There are two very good reasons for designating someone to capture notes from your meetings.  First, you can be assured some members of your team simply will not be able to be present. Leaving them out of the information loop can start a cascade of problems if they aren’t aware of changes in how the project is to be executed and its products delivered.  Second, because project plans are only current on the day they’re prepared, your meeting notes may quickly become an archive of real-time decisions and direction that the team can refer to.

Learn how to implement an effective project meeting agenda in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager and practice running meetings in live online conferences, just the 2 of you. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Project Sponsor Role – Video

The project sponsor role is the most important one. It’s more important than the project manager or project team member or project stakeholder. Why is the sponsor role so important? Because of the accountabilities that go along with it. These are:
  1. Set the goal of the project in measurable terms with acceptance criteria
  2. Secure funding from the organization for the project
  3. Secure the organization’s approval to proceed with the project and expend people and financial resources
  4. Approve the project plan and then approve any changes to that plan.

However, in many organizations the role of the sponsor is not clearly defined and executives who start projects are not held accountable for the results. This project sponsor failure is what accounts for organizations that have 70% of their projects fail.

Getting Executives to Fulfill the Project Sponsor Role

Oftentimes one of the biggest challenges on a project is getting the project sponsor role played properly.  What the sponsor is supposed to do is issue a statement of work defining the business result the project should produce. Then the sponsor should get organizational approval to use resources to get the project done. Later in planning, the sponsor should work with the projecproject sponsor rolet manager and some of the stakeholders to define the high-level requirements. Those are the roles the sponsor should play during planning. Project Sponsor Main Page

Now let’s talk about a situation that happens all too frequently. The sponsor requested movement on an initiative without any clear scope or deliverables. Instead, he wanted the project manager to assess the initiative’s performance and provide him with a clear understanding of the performance measurement/reporting implications surrounding the initiative. No background information was provided and the project manager’s attempts to have a meeting to discuss his needs were met with avoidance and delay tactics. Instead, the sponsor insisted that the project manager be held accountable for meeting the undefined deliverables.

The project manager was requested to provide 2-3 scenarios: “the Ferari, the Cadillac and the Toyota Corolla” options to meet the initiative’s performance monitoring requirements. No opportunity was provided to clarify expectations. To the project manager, this request violated all the best practices about good project management and was a recipe for project failure. 

In the end, the work was not completed because the sponsor did not make themselves available to clarify the scope and requirements for the initiative. The project manager documented everything and followed PMI best practice procedures. Stakeholder involvement was critical for this project to be successful and that was lacking from the beginning.

This experience emphasizes the importance of holding sponsors accountable for the work they assign to project managers.  Project managers need to be constantly vigilant about not starting work on projects without clarity up-front on the scope and measure of success for the projects. Failure to do that will result in project managers being held accountable for something that is just a figment of someone’s imagination. Consequently, their professionalism is compromised. Productive discussions are required upfront to define and clarify project deliverables and key stakeholder involvement is critical. You need to follow best practices procedures and get clarity upfront. You must also hold the sponsor accountable for clarity about expectations and deliverables. Anything less is a recipe for failure.

Project Sponsor Role: Authority With Accountability

Unfortunately many organizations tolerate executives who enjoy initiating projects. This is particularly true when they are not accountable for the end results that the financial and resource expenditures should produce. That creates situations where project managers are unjustifiably blamed for the failure and the organization wastes significant resources. The only sure fix is to control the initiation of projects so the sponsor commits to producing the business benefit that is the basis for the project being authorized to begin.


How to Estimate Project Cost and Duration – Video

Project managers must know how to estimate project cost and duration. The first questions a sponsor or boss always asks about a project are:

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon
  • How long will it take?
  • How much it will cost?
  • When will you finish?

They might ask that after just 5 minutes of discussion about a new project. Whenever you hear those questions, you need to keep your mouth shut while you formulate a carefully worded answer.  Those executives not only want the data on cost and duration but they will regard your answer as a commitment.  They will carve any numbers you mention in stone. They will take them as a rock solid commitment about when you’ll finish the project and how much you will spend to deliver the results.

You need to become adept at using project estimating techniques and even more adept at presenting your estimates. You also need to learn the first lesson of estimating which is to keep your mouth shut.  The reason that estimates are so tricky is that every estimate has risk and uncertainty until all the work is complete. Because of that uncertainty, you need to present estimates in ways that communicate that the estimate is not a commitment to finish the project in precisely 171 days. Instead of saying 171 days, you say you estimate the project will take between 150 and 195 days.  Executives will always take the lower number in that range. That’s why you should always present estimates in writing. That way the higher number, 195 days, is also on the document, just in case the executives and project sponsor forget.

The Right and Wrong Way to Estimate Task Duration

When Do You Estimate Project Cost and Duration?

Another issue is that you do estimates of cost and duration at different points in the project lifecycle. You make the first estimates during project initiation. These first estimates, done before the scope and deliverables are clearly defined, are obviously the riskiest ones to make. It is a difficult situation because the executive wants precise numbers to rely on and you want to hedge the estimate as much as possible. The best practice is to state duration and cost estimates in ranges which, during initiation, are usually + or – 50%. As an example, during initiation you might give an order of magnitude estimate of a duration between 100 and 150 days and a cost of between $15,000 and $20,000.

Needless to say, the wide ranges of those estimates do not satisfy executives. However, initiation is the time of greatest uncertainty about the project and only a foolish project manager would commit to a precise date or budget.

You continue to estimate project cost and duration at several points; during project planning, and every week while the project team is executing the plan. The amount of uncertainty in the estimates decreases as planning is complete and you execute more of the project plan. The estimates at initiation may be plus or minus 50% but by the time the project is half-complete, the ranges of the estimates might be plus or minus 5%.

The Right and Wrong Way to Estimate Task Duration

What Techniques Do You Use to Estimate Project Cost and Duration?

There are three principal project estimating techniques that project managers use to prepare their cost and duration estimates.

Estimate Project Cost and Duration Technique #1: Analogous Estimating

The first technique is called analogous estimating and it is based on information from prior projects that are similar to the current project. At its simplest, these analogous estimates use the duration and cost data of previous projects or phases within those projects. You make adjustments up or down for the relative difficulty of the current project.

Estimate Project Cost and Duration Technique #2: Parametric Estimating

The second project estimating technique is parametric estimating. You use published data about how much work, duration and cost particular tasks take. As an example, we might find public information stating that painting an interior wall with an 8-foot high ceiling requires 1.3 hours per 100 feet of wall surface. Using that reference source, you make the duration and cost estimates for the current project using this data from similar type projects.

Estimate Project Cost and Duration Technique #3: Bottom-Up Estimating

The third project estimating technique is bottom-up estimating where you meet with the people who will be doing the work and develop estimates based on their judgment. These bottom-up estimates have many advantages. One is that they are usually more accurate because the team members have experience doing the tasks. The other is that the team members have some commitment to the estimates because they helped develop them.

You can learn proven techniques for estimating cost and duration in our online project management courses. You’ll work privately and individually with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Critical Path Tasks


People who manage projects, either full-time as a project manager or part-time as a department manager, know that the critical path is the longest path of tasks in a project. It determines the duration of the entire project. They also know which of the tasks in the project are Critical Path Tasks. But knowing the definition and actually using it to finish your projects earlier are two entirely different things.

How to Manage Critical Path Tasks

When you actively manage critical path tasks you can do these important things:
  • find ways to shorten the duration of the project without increasing costs or risks
  • quickly identify variances you don’t have to do anything about
  • spot places where you can decrease the assigned resources and make better use of them elsewhere.

To actively manage the critical path tasks, you need to identify which tasks in your project are on the critical path. You also need to know how much slack (float) the no-critical tasks have.  The slack number tells you how many days the task can slip before it becomes a critical path task and increases the project’s duration. You can shift resources off tasks with significant slack and move them onto critical path tasks. That should shorten the duration of the project without adding costs or risks. This fine tuning or optimizing of the project plan takes minutes and can yield important decreases in the project duration.

Identifying the plan variances you have to do something about is as valuable as identifying variances where you don’t have to do anything. Obviously a variance or slippage on a critical path task is going to ripple all the way through the project and affect your finish date. However, if you have a variance of 3 days on a task that has 13 days of slack , you don’t need to be terribly concerned. You want to make sure that the 3 day variance is not symptomatic of a larger problem. But if, for example, it is a minor error in the estimate then you don’t need to take time to solve the problem because you still have 10 days of slack left on that task. This allows you to use under-estimating as a teaching tool with the team member when it occurs on a non-critical path task.

Additionally, you can look at tasks with slack as a pool of available resources. Let’s look at a simple example. If we have a task with 21 days of slack and three team members assigned to it, you might be able to reduce the staffing by one or two team members. If their skill sets are compatible, you can add those people to a critical path task during the weeks when they were scheduled to work on the task with all the slack. Obviously, this kind of fine-tuning depends on staff compatibility. You’re not going to transfer two engineers to a task that requires a graphic artist. But moving available resources gives you the ability to shorten the duration without increasing the project’s risks or costs.

Critical Path Tasks – A Real Example

As an IT project manager in the planning phase of a system upgrade project, I had been trying to write a perfect plan for managing the critical path activities. There was a task in the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and users could not work during that task execution. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

I spoke to the upgrading implementer who said during those two days we would enable the backup system on the backup server and have it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users must redo their work transactions on the live production system once it is ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the backlog. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task. I contacted the HR manager, explained the issue and asked for a solution. The HR manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said overtime was a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget. The PM methodology does not recommend it. But I suggested talking with implementers and asking them to work an additional two days, then letting them add two days to a future weekend so that they could go for long weekend vacation. We would  count the business hours they work during the weekend. The HR manger thought it was a good idea. I got approval & commitment from their direct manager, the HR Manager, and the functional Department Manager. I documented all these commitments.

Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was uploaded as a project lesson learned.

Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Status Meetings: Info-free, Macho or Micro-detail

Your Status Meetings quickly earn a reputation, and it’s usually bad. First we’ll discuss three types of bad status meetings. Then we’ll explore ways to make your status meetings short and effective.

status meetings
Dick Billows, PMP

Status Meeting Types

Some status meetings are info-free, meaning no one knows much about anything. The project manager doesn’t know where the project should be and is blissfully ignorant about any variances between where it should be and where it is. So the project manager provides no information to anybody about this. The team members are left to self-report, sometimes at great length about where their task is and what problems they are encountering.
In other info-free status meetings the project manager utilizes a three color system. Greenlight status is good, yellow light status is a warning and red light status is deeply in trouble. Greenlight is used 99.99% of the time because people know that anything else gets them in trouble. Yellow light is used to signal minor problems like the moon has crashed into the surface of the earth. Red light status is not used until the due date for the task was more than a month ago.
These status meetings waste a lot of time because there is little or no information.  The project would be better off not having any status meetings. Unfortunately, these are predominant types of status meetings.
The macho status meeting doesn’t use any cutesy status reporting tools like the red light/green light system. Instead, the people plan what they are going to do during the next week. Why do they do that in the status meeting? Because it wasn’t done before they started work.  They try to figure out what to do next and when they do, it is accompanied by rock-solid commitments to be finished by next week’s status meeting. No one thinks much beyond that. If one of the team members feels a little uncertain about what their going to deliver by next week’s meeting, they are criticized by everyone for letting the team down. With this macho insistence on committing to due dates that aren’t tied to factual information, the people on these teams work a lot of overtime. And many of those costly hours are wasted.
The third popular type of status meeting focuses on micro-detail of tasks and deliverables. These projects are usually headed up by a project manager who is (or thinks he/she is) a technical guru. This expert is uncomfortable with other people making decisions. They believe everyone should come to the guru to receive direction and assignments from “on high.” Status meetings revolve around the guru’s detailed investigation into exactly what was done and what was created. This grilling is mixed with angry lessons about mistakes that were the result of a team member “going rogue” by making their own decisions. As a result, the team members’ feelings of dependency on the guru grow with each status meeting. Soon the team is afraid to make any of their own decisions or solve any of their problems. They go to the guru instead. Unfortunately this type of project manager is incapable of managing teams larger than two or three people. How to Write a Weekly Status Report

Status Meeting Organization

You can fix the problem with whatever type of status meeting you have by learning how to organize your status meetings. We all have heard these statements: What is the purpose of meeting every week? Don’t we have enough meetings? We project managers have asked ourselves this question: How can we organize a status meeting that gets results and doesn’t bore people to death? Lately I’ve tried something that takes a little more work on my end but boosts the productivity of my status meetings. It also cuts down the time that status meetings take. Let me tell you what worked for me…  How to Write a Weekly Status Report

First, I prepare the agenda for the project status meeting ahead of time. Let me explain. What is the purpose of the status meeting? It is to provide your team with the overall status of the project and to learn the status of their activities. It is also to identify potential problems. The emphasis is on identification, not on solution. So I prepare a standard project status report meeting form. That sounds bureaucratic, but it isn’t. The first section just lists the people who are expected to show up and those who are not. Those who are not expected to show up, will receive the meeting minutes. Next, I add a graph about the project status. For this status I graph the information from my Earned Value Analysis. It shows a comparison between the percentage of work actually completed vs. the percentage of work planned to be completed. Next, I add sections for activities that are overdue, that are due this month, and that are active throughout this month. For each activity, I list only the following information:

  • The owner of the task
  • The original due date
  • The current estimated completion date
  • The current % complete
  • Three lines for status text

Every week, I update the status for each of the tasks according to the status reports I received throughout the week.

Second, I organize the meeting using MS Outlook’s meeting organizer. I know it sounds trivial, but I need to make sure people know there is a recurring status meeting.

The actual meeting follows a simple routine.  We discuss what’s new on the project. Next there is a general status report of the project, followed by a status update of each of the tasks listed. Going through the task list is rather simple. I state the task and ask the task owner where they are on the task. I do not go into details during the status meeting. I don’t want to start lengthy discussions. If I sense a problem, I will schedule a private meeting with the task owner. Going through the task list usually takes no more than 20 minutes. Once this is done, I ask the team if there is anything else we should add to the protocol. Once again, my goal is not to solve all these issues. It is to bring topics to the table and organize additional meetings for the problem solving process.

Lastly, I make sure that the updated meeting protocol is available for everyone to view no later than 48 hrs. after the meeting.

Using this method, the time spent in status meetings went down to about 30 minutes, just enough to keep everyone focused.

If your team has problems with the status meeting, try structuring the meeting in a similar way. By doing so, you provide a protocol and agenda that you can enforce. And you actually boil down the meeting’s purpose to what it is: Getting a status, not solving all problems and issues.

Learn how to lead effective project status meetings in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager and practice running meetings in live online conferences, just the 2 of you. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Three Point Estimates – Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Three point estimates are a best practice in project management because they produce accurate estimates and stronger team member commitment. They also provide us with risk data on the probability of more or less work, and duration, on tasks than we had planned. See a PM do three point  estimating the right way in the video.

The improved estimating accuracy in three point estimates comes from the fact that we are considering the risk inherent in any task. We identify with the team member the risk factors that can make a task take more or less time than the best guess estimate. Then we give the team member the opportunity to estimate the work load if adverse risks occur. We also ask the team member to estimate the work if positive risks occur that affect the task. From those three estimates; best guess, worst case (pessimistic) and best case (optimistic), we can calculate the probability of various task durations. That allows us to talk with the project sponsor about the level of certainty the sponsor wants on the project duration.

How To Do 3-point Estimates With Your Team

Example of Three Point Estimates

As an example, we might discuss a task that has a best guess estimate of three weeks duration. The probability of completing the task within that best guess estimate is 50%. We can also offer the sponsor probabilities of 60, 70 and 80% certainty. As always, there is a cost to increasing our certainty and that often comes in the form of increased labor costs. Having this data allows us to give the project sponsor the opportunity to pay for more certainty.

The improved team member commitment in three point estimates comes from the fact that we engage our team members in estimating the work and duration of their tasks. When team members are given the opportunity to participate in the estimating process, the final estimates they have more confidence in the numbers. That is in sharp contrast to the PM simply telling the team when they must be done . Having this discussion with the team about the risks on the task also gives us another big benefit. If we identify the risks that could cause the task to take longer than the best guess estimates, we try to mitigate those risks very early in the project lifecycle. Early risk identification and mitigation is always preferable to firefighting when we’re halfway through the task.

As you watch the video on Three Point Estimates, observe how the project manager teaches her team to come up with the three estimates. Then you’ll see the project manager use the estimates with the project sponsor to give him choices and also fend off arbitrary cuts to the project’s duration.  Finally you will watch private interviews with the team members so you can see their reaction to the three-point estimating process.

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Small Project Plan

Do I Really Need a Project Plan for a Small Project?

So they assigned you a small project to straighten up the supply room. Only two of you are going to work on it. It shouldn’t take more than two weeks. Everybody’s talking about how you need to get this one out of the way so the company can start the really important projects. These factors create the temptation to quickly begin work without a project plan because it’s just a small project.  You’ll “plan as we go,” and get this little project out of the way. Besides, the sponsor and everybody else who even knows about this will be very happy if you start quickly. They say, “Hell, you know how to straighten up the supply room so just get started!” But starting fast without a plan is always the wrong thing to do.

Is the Project Plan for a Small Project the Same As the Plan for a Big Project?

The plan for a small project is very different from the plan for a large project.  The project plan for the effort described above will fit on one side Small project planof a piece of paper. It will contain just these elements:

  • the project scope defined by an acceptance criteria
  • the resources required to deliver that scope
  • the major risks
  • the project constraints
  • the sponsor’s and stakeholders’ sign offs

Let’s talk about these elements one at a time. Why do you need the project scope? It would be foolish to begin work without having the sponsor’s agreement on the deliverable you have to produce.  So you go to the boss and say, “I need to get the scope of this project pinned down.”

The boss gives a sigh of exasperation and looks up at the ceiling before saying to you, “Clean up the office supply room. I’m wasting way too much time dealing with people’s complaints about it.”

Your ears perk up at the mention of complaints about the supply room. So you ask, “Do you want me to just clean it up or do you want to reduce the number of complaints you’re getting?”
The boss says, “You’re right. I don’t want you to just give the supply room a fast cleanup. I want to reduce the number of complaints.”
You ask, “How many complaints do you get now and what would be an acceptable number?”
The boss consults the computer on his desk and says, “I got 25 complaints last week. I don’t expect perfection but if you could cut that down to 3 I’d be real happy with this project.”
“Great,” you say. “So the scope is 3 or fewer complaints a week about the supply room.”
The boss nods agreement and you enter that in your tablet. Then you ask, “What are they complaining about?”
The boss leans back to think and says, “A lot of different things. But 15 of the 25 complaints are about us being out of stock on the items they need.”
You reply, “So if we want to get down to 3 complaints, we have to solve this problem of “stock-outs” and some of the other problems. That may take a lot longer. Can you be satisfied with cutting the complaints to 5 or less a week?”
The boss says, “Yes, I’ll take that. Just deal with the stock-out problem.”
You say, “Okay, I’ll be back with a short, one page project plan for you to sign off. Then we’ll start work.”
Asking a few questions to define the scope and having a conversation to learn what the boss/sponsor wants is always worth the effort. Think about what would have happened if you had done a fast job straightening up the supply room but the number of complaints didn’t change?  The boss might’ve been very unhappy with you. That’s why you should always do a project plan that specifies the scope.

What Is the Rest of the Small Project Plan?

The rest of your small project plan is specifying the high-level deliverables. On this project, they might include setting a reorder point for every item and keeping track of the withdrawals from the supply room.

Then you do a rough estimate of the amount of work that you and your assistant have to do. That might be 20 hours.

Next you identify the constraints on the project. They might be a budget of $5,000 and a duration (completion date) of 2 weeks from the start date. You and your assistant combined can work on the project 10 hours a week.

Then you identify the risks the project faces. They might include lack of cooperation from people in signing out what they take out of the supply room.

Finally, you ask the boss and possibly some of the affected department heads to sign off on your small project plan. Then you start work.

Learn how to create a small project plan in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Project Sponsor Types: Political Operator – Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

There are many project sponsor types. Some are focused only on delivering business value to their organization and have excellent strategic vision. They know how to support the project manager and the team so they can be highly effective. Unfortunately, not all project sponsor types operate like this. There are a number of project sponsor types whose behavior is destructive. Project Sponsor Main Page

In this video we’ll examine an interesting project sponsor type. We’ll look at this political operator whose primary interest is in playing one upmanship with other executives and ensuring that he has someone else to blame if things go wrong. The person who usually gets the blame is the project manager. Watch the video and see a number of tactics that project sponsors who are political operators use with project managers. After each little scenario, I’ll suggest the best way to respond to this type of project sponsor to protect your project and yourself.

Project Politics: Dealing with a "Political" Sponsors

You may be saying, “I don’t have to deal with this crap.” But the strategy of putting your head in the sand and ignoring the sponsor’s games is very unlikely to succeed. Why? Because every project and project manager is dependent on the project sponsor. When you think about the amount of time you’ll spend working with the project sponsor, you’ll realize how critically important it is to handle that individual effectively.

The project sponsor and project manager spend the majority of time together during the initiation and planning phases. Then the sponsor is actively engaged in securing organizational approval for the project,  and defining the overall scope and major deliverables that they want. Sponsors are also involved in identifying the project stakeholders and assessing the overall risk of the project. Once the charter for the project is approved by the organization and the project manager begins detailed planning, the sponsor’s role changes to approving each element of the project manager’s work. After the sponsor gives approval to the project plan and the project management plan, the sponsor’s role changes again. Following that approval process, the sponsor’s role becomes one of approving changes to those plans. The sponsor also is involved in reviewing and approving all change requests which can increase the cost and duration of the project.  As well, the sponsor approves changes to the scope, the risks and the quality of the deliverables that are to be produced.

You can learn these skills for working successfully with project sponsors in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Accurate Project Estimating – Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Making accurate estimates of project duration, cost and completion date are critical to your project manager credibility and career. No matter how good your technical skills and judgment are, if decision-makers can’t count on your estimates of cost and duration, your credibility will inevitably suffer. Accurate estimating is not primarily a matter of knowledge or intelligence.  Making accurate estimates requires the correct techniques and the ability to decide when to use each project management estimating technique.

Here’s a video on estimating techniques.

The Right and Wrong Way to Estimate Task Duration

Estimating Data

Good data, an important piece of information we need for estimating, is often the most difficult is to get. We also need to know how to use the data once we get it. There is no need for sophisticated statistical techniques or databases. I’m talking about assembling estimating data from one or more readily available sources. The first source of this estimating data is historical information from previous projects. This is the easiest to get of the three sources of data and it costs very little. In fact, you can review the data from your previous projects and have a decent start. The data is better if all the project managers in the organization archive their project data. The estimating technique that uses that historical data is called analogous estimating.  Gathering the data is a simple a matter of using your project management scheduling software to collect it. You need the project software to store data about the actual hours of work and cost on each project.  You also need to use the software to create a schedule based on hours of work, not by plucking completion dates out of the sky. If you have this data for every project you manage, you’re off to a great start.  If the organization has every project manager generate this information on all projects, estimating becomes much easier and much more accurate. It’s simply a matter of archining the data on completed projects.

Another source of estimating data is published information, particularly in certain industries like construction and information systems projects. The estimating technique that uses this published data is called parametric estimating. There are some downsides to the published estimating data that we will discuss below; but don’t overlook it.

The third source of estimating data is the project team members who are doing the work on your project. The estimating technique that uses this data is called 3-point estimating. It is also called PERT estimating, which stands for Program Evaluation and Review Technique. You must properly train and manage your people in estimating the cost and duration of their work.  Their 3 estimates of the work – optimistic, pessimistic and best guess – will give you a valuable source of information. Getting estimating data from the project team members increases their commitment to those estimates. It also supports the team building that goes along with the team members participating in the estimating process. But you must also train yourself to accept their estimates and any errors. If you become an hysterical maniac every time somebody exceeds their estimate, all you will do is train the team to pad their estimates.  But if you treat each estimate overrun or under-run as a learning opportunity for the team member, you can end up with very good estimators who don’t play games with the process. Professional firms do this very well and that is why they can make money on almost all their projects.

Every project manager needs to have several estimating techniques in his or her project toolkit. Another technique is used during initiation when very little is known about the project. It’s called order of magnitude estimating and executives and project sponsors hate it. That’s because the order of magnitude estimating has ranges of numbers. It’s entirely appropriate at the very beginning of the project when we have little knowledge about the nature of the project and the level of risk.  The PM is in the dark about the required work and the resources available to do it. A project manager would be foolish to estimate the duration or budget that early in the project. If pushed by the executives, the PM should very carefully hedge their bets by saying, “This project may take between 100 and 200 days.” I think you can see why executives hate that kind of estimate.  When they hear this, they remember the low number and forget the high number. So you should always put estimates in writing.

What Estimating Techniques To Use 

Which estimating technique to use at each point in the project lifecycle depends on a number of factors. First, the scale of the project and its importance to the organization. That will affect how much time you spend on the estimates. On a large project, you might invest substantial time in unearthing historical data to use in analogous estimating. On a small project, you might make quick 3-point estimates with the project team and limit the effort to that. You can also use parametric estimating and rolling estimates weekly as the project progresses. We apply those at specific stages of the project lifecycle to give the project sponsors the data they need for decision-making.

Project managers should use these estimating techniques starting during initiation, then during high-level and detailed planning. They also use them weekly during the project to give executives accurate data about the project’s duration and cost. The key here is giving the executive the best data you have, while recognizing that your certainty about the cost and duration is the worst at the beginning and gets better as you progress through planning and then begin to implement. By reporting your confidence in the numbers, you can give estimates without making commitments that you can’t deliver.

During initiation, you would use analogous estimating based on historical data from other projects that are similar to the one currently working on. The estimates you would give at this point might be within the range of -25% to +75%. As an example, you would say that a duration estimate might be a range of 75 to 175 days. That confidence range would narrow as you move through the planning process. They would narrow further when you finalize the plan.  Each week as you execute the range the estimates would with become tighter and tighter until you are able to offer a -5% to +10% estimate of duration. In the example, that might be 95-110 days. As you know more about the project, these rolling estimates can become increasingly precise.

You can learn proven techniques for accurate estimating in our online project management courses. You’ll work privately and individually with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.

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