Work Packages for Clear Assignments & Estimates

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

A key success factor for project managers is making crystal-clear assignments to their project team members. This ensures the team members understand what’s expected before they start work.

As importantly, clear assignments lead to accurate estimates for their tasks. This ensures the overall project estimates are accurate. It’s important for team members to be committed to those estimates and have some “skin in the game” in terms of hitting their work and duration numbers.  You get all these benefits by using a work package for each assignment.

Work Packages Store Data for Future Projects

Project managers need a vehicle to capture and store historical data on each project. So when you or other project managers have similar tasks on new projects, you can look at the actual assignments in the work packages from completed projects. You can use some of that data for the current project’s tasks. You should be able to retrieve the estimated hours versus the hours actually used and apply that information to the analogous estimates on your project. The use of the project work package addresses several success factors.

The project work package is a simple tool that improves the clarity of project assignments. At the same time, it increases the level of team member commitment to their estimates. In a very real sense, the work package is the contract between you, the project manager, and the project team member. In it, you make clear exactly what you expect of the team member on each task. The work package details the metric you will use to measure the assignment as well as the approach the team member should take to complete it. It also details the input deliverable(s) the team member needs to start their work. Additionally, it specifies the output deliverable(s) which are the things other team members need from this assignment before they can start their work. The work package also allows you and the team member to discuss risks and how to handle them. It is a very important part of the estimating process.

Learn How to Use Project Work Packages

You need to work with your team members to introduce the project work package. Be careful that it’s not viewed as “just another form to fill out.” You want to talk with them about it as a contract or agreement that the two of you will use on the project. It does the following:

  • defines an assignment
  • states their availability to work on the assignment
  • includes their estimate of work and duration.

You should point out that it offers them protection against changes to their assignments that don’t include adjustments to the work and duration estimates. You may honestly explain that the work package is a device to reduce the padding of estimates. That’s because it offers the team member protection against unfair changes to the scope of their work assignment. If the scope of their assignment changes, the two of you can can discuss a change to their work package.

It will take one or two projects for the team members to become accustomed to using work packages but the benefits are substantial. They are helpful on the current and future projects.  The project manager can review completed work packages to use as the basis for estimates on future projects.

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Create WBS

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The WBS or work breakdown structure is not a “to do” list that you can assemble on the first day of a project. It’s a hierarchy of tasks that results from breaking down the sponsor’s major  project deliverables (the scope) into supporting deliverables the team has to produce.

Each of the deliverables in the WBS is a measurable business result, like “Customer hold time reduced to 20 seconds on average.”  It is not an activity like “Lower hold time.” That is ambiguous. How would a project team know when they were done? How would they know if they achieved the goal?

Creating the WBS with team members is always worth the time it takes. It’s a great opportunity to develop the team members’ commitment to the project deliverables and give them a sense of ownership. Unfortunately, on many projects, the team members don’t see their tasks until after the project manager has listed everything they must complete. So the team members don’t understand how their individual deliverables connect to the overall scope. And they don’t have a sense of ownership of their individual tasks and the project as a whole. Don’t make that mistake. Here’s how to create a WBS the right way.      Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

Create WBS: Begin With A Measurable Scope

The starting point for working with your team is after the project sponsor has approved the project’s scope and 4 to 7 major deliverables.  You should develop the work breakdown structure by working top-down from the scope. Do not assemble a list of the things people want in the project. That “to do” list approach yields projects that cost more and take longer than they should. That’s another mistake to avoid.

You and your team members should decompose the project scope by breaking it down into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. Each major deliverable is an entry in the WBS and is stated as a metric. That means it is measurable and has an acceptance criteria. You break each of the major deliverables into its component parts. They are the elements required to produce that deliverable. You work down each level of deliverables, subdividing them into smaller deliverables. You stop when you get down to the level of individual team member assignments. That’s how you develop the work breakdown structure top-down.

Create WBS: Brainstorming With the Team

When your team members participate in defining the deliverables with acceptance criteria they understand how the entire network of deliverables fits together. And they are committed to the project’s success because they participated in the process. Let’s dig deeper into the process of brainstorming with the team to break down a deliverable into its component parts. Let’s say you’re decomposing a measurable deliverable like, “Employees can retrieve items from the supply inventory in less than 180 seconds 90% of the time.” You and the team might identify the following supporting deliverables:

  • install new supply room map that lets 90% of the people locate the shelf with their item in less than 60 seconds
  • reorganize shelves so people can find their specific item in less than 45 seconds
  • automate the supply “signed out” process so people can record the item(s) they took in less than 1 minute and 15 seconds.

There may be many ways to go about achieving the high-level deliverable of reducing the time required to retrieve supplies. During the conversation with your team, you would allow people to suggest different ways of achieving that end result. But it’s a best practice to achieve consensus on the approach to each of the deliverables.

Create WBS: Archived or Expert Information

Another way to develop the work breakdown structure is to use work breakdown structures archived from previous projects.  You may not be able to use the prior project’s entire work breakdown structure.  But very often you and your team can find a section of a WBS that’s close enough to what you’re doing in the present project that you can copy the deliverables.

On larger projects that are more complex, you may bring in experts on certain kinds of deliverables like computer programs, remodeling of workspace and so on. You would use their expertise to help you and the team develop the deliverables for your project.

Create WBS: Sequencing and Assigning Resources

The sequence of tasks in the WBS  is controlled by predecessors. Predecessors  identify the relationship between tasks. They tell the team what tasks are linked to other tasks. For example, Task A must be completed before Task B can begin. Or Tasks C and D must begin at the same time.

Next you assign resources to each task in the WBS. The resources can be people, materials, or contractors. You get input from the team members on the amount of resources required for each task. Their input is invaluable if they have experience with the specific or similar tasks. When you calculate the duration of every task in the WBS you have completed your project schedule. After the project sponsor approves the schedule, you save that approved version as the baseline. As work begins, you keep track of the progress the team makes on each task compared to the baseline. That is the basis for your weekly status reporting.

Create WBS: Best Practices

The WBS is central to the entire process of planning, scheduling and tracking a project. The best practices for developing a work breakdown structure involve these steps:

  1. After the project sponsor defines the scope (overall objective), the project manager and team members begin creating the WBS. They decompose (break down) the scope into 4 to 7 major deliverables that are measurable.
  2. The project manager and team members break down each of the major deliverables into smaller deliverables. Each one is stated as an acceptance criteria metric.
  3. The project manager and team members sequence the deliverable tasks and assign resources to them.
  4. The project manager obtains the sponsor’s approval of the WBS plan and schedule before beginning work.

Project Failure

project failure

project failure
Dick Billows, PMP

Why Projects Fail

Some organizations have project failure rates at 70% or above. In others, they are always late on promises made to customers. In still other cases, they can’t deliver new products and services that allow them to successfully compete.  Enterprise Project Management Hub

Most Organizations Have a 70% Project Failure Rat

Project success = produce planned deliverables, within budget and on time (including approved changes)

Using this definition of success, we find that most organizations have 70% project failure rates.  That project failure rate wastes so much money and human resources that even a small increase in the success rate is worth a lot. But the solution is not easy. Poor performance causes high project failure.  The poor performance is at three levels in the organization: executives, project managers and team members.  To cut the rate of failure, project managers must coach both the executives (subtly) and their team members (directly) about their roles and expected performance.  And implementation of a project process in the organization is vital to reducing the project failure rate to under 20%.

How To Avoid Project Failure: Executive’s Role

Executives set clear measurable(numeric) objectives for projects. They ensure all projects they allow to proceed yield business value and they allocate resources based on that value. Most executives fail at their project role and this contributes to project failure.  Here is an example of how they usually operate.

An executive calls two subordinate managers into a meeting and says, “We have a mess in customer service and we have to fix it. This has to be priority #1.  Drop everything else and clean up the mess. Install new systems and procedures and whatever else we need for World Class Customer Service!  In fact, we’ll call it that – the WCCS Project.”

One of the managers says, “Didn’t we do that last year?  I mean the acronym we used was different but this project sounds familiar.”

The other manager says, “You’re right.  In fact we’ve done this 3 times since I’ve been here.”

The executive snaps back, “Yes, and each earlier attempt failed.  Let’s do it right this time.”

The two managers exchange pained looks as the executive goes on, “Now, I have two other ideas for projects to cut costs and improve service. So here is what I want…”

The first manager interrupts with a groan, “You always have great ideas, boss, but our plates are full.  Our first-line supervisors are already spending half their time on projects and their real jobs are suffering.  The engineering and technical staffs are all working 70 hour weeks.  Something has to give.”

The executive frowns and says, “I know what’s going on down there and there’s plenty of time to squeeze in a few more projects.  Your people just have to work smarter not harder!”

Instead of giving the project managers a clear unambiguous objective, the executive gave them mission statement mush of World Class Customer Service. There was no assessment of the project’s business value. Additionally, he refused to tackle the politically difficult task of setting project priorities for allocating the limited human resources. Project Rescue

How To Avoid Project Failure: Project Manager’s Role

Project managers conceive, manage and control projects. They use best practice techniques to ensure the projects deliver their planned outcomes efficiently. Many project managers also fail in their role and contribute to project failure. Here is an example of how they operate.

A newly promoted project manager enters the cubicle of an experienced project manager and says, “I’m really nervous about my new project.  The way my director was talking this morning, the world may end if this project fails.  My boss said this is priority number one!  I’m gonna tell my family not to expect me to leave work on time for the next six months.  I’m worried that I’ll be in real trouble if I don’t bring it in on time and within budget.”

The experienced project manager laughs and says, “You’ll laugh too after you’ve heard that speech about 50 times.  On the first day they all talk loud and long about how important the project is.  But when you ask them to spend an hour or two planning this critically important project, they’re too busy.  When you ask them to make sure the project team members from other departments actually show up to work on your projects, they’re too busy for that too.”

The rookie relaxes and says, “Okay, you’ve been there and I haven’t.  I’ll take your advice. Can you tell me how the company wants project plans and schedules put together?”

The experienced project manager chuckles again and says, “We have no standard methodology.  Every project manager in the company just wings it.  You can’t possibly put together a plan when executives make you start work before they decide what they want.  When you try to define the scope or even ask what the project is supposed to produce, you usually get a long speech about how we need to react quickly and stay flexible.  The best thing to do is write down what they want you to do first and do it.  Then go back and ask them what they want you and the team to do next.  They want to micromanage everybody anyway. There’s no sense creating a lot of plans and schedules – they’re always a joke.”

The rookie gasps and says, “You’ve got to be kidding.  This is a successful organization.  How can we be successful without project plans and schedules?”

The experienced project manager smiles and replies, “I’ll help you with that. I’ve got a bunch of old project plans and some really big work breakdown structures you can use to copy and paste.  If anyone asks, you’ll have a really big plan and a highly detailed work breakdown structure that no one will ever look at anyway. But you won’t be responsible for project failure.”

Instead of the project managers pushing for the use of best practices, they act like order-takers at a drive thru restaurant. They give little thought or energy to planning or how to avoid problems before they occur.

How To Avoid Project Failure: Project Team Members’ Role

Team members make accurate estimates of the work and time. They report status accurately so problems are identified early. Many team members fail in this role and contribute to project failure.  Here’s an example of  how they operate.

Two technical professionals with heavy project workloads meet at a table in the company cafeteria.  The first technical professional, who is new to the company, grumbles, “They gave me three new project assignments this morning. I was afraid to say anything but there is no way I can get them all done by the due dates. It is more work than three people could do.”

The second technical professional laughs, “They’re always starting new projects and if you try to do all of them on time, you’ll kill yourself for nothing. Just pad the estimates by 50 or 60% so the project manager can’t blame you for the project failure. There are so many half-done projects floating around that no one remembers them all.  My rule is that if no one has talked about a project in the past month, I don’t do any work on it.”

The first professional replies, “But when we start these projects, the boss says I am committed to the estimates and completion dates. That’s exactly what he did on some projects two weeks ago.”

The second professional laughs again, “Oh yes, you’re committed.  Has the boss asked you about any of those older projects recently?”

“Well no.”

“Then they’re dead ducks.  Work on the projects people are screaming about.”

“But I’ve put dozens of hours into some of those old projects,” complains the first technical professional.  “Does the organization want me to just throw that time away?”

Shaking his head, the second technical professional replies, “I think we waste about a third of our time on projects we never finish. And we have high project failure rates on the ones we do complete. That’s why you shouldn’t get excited about flushing another one that’s headed down the drain.”

Instead of making accurate estimates of the amount of work and time required, project team members focus on avoiding blame.

How To Avoid Project Failure Summary

Organizations that consistently succeed with projects perform well at every level in the project management process:

  • They control the initiation of projects; planning, approving and monitoring projects based on the business value those projects produce.
  • They manage the pool of project resources just as they manage their capital budgets; allocating people’s time and money to projects based on the project’s payback.
  • They follow a consistent methodology for all projects; holding people accountable for measurable achievements.

To learn a complete methodology for project success in our private online training.

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Project Portfolios: Managing Multiple Projects

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

As projects multiply in an organization, the number of people on more that one project increases and project performance declines because:

  1. Projects compete for scarce resources
  2. Anyone can start a project on a whim
  3. The organization starts more project than it can finish so it wastes significant work hours on canceled projects
  4. No business value criteria exist for new projects
  5. No priorities exist for using resources 
  6. No consistent tracking of progress exists.

Portfolio Management Process

Organizations can solve these problem by making someone accountable for managing the portfolio of projects. That individual will start the project portfolio process by:

  1. Defining a Project Protocol. This tells everyone how to originate, plan, schedule, budget, track and close out a project. The heart of the protocol is that work estimates are made for each task in the approved projects.  This enables the organization to track actual progress.  The protocol doesn’t need to be more than one page long. Project managers will be trained in this simple methodology for doing all projects.
  2. Securing executive approval of a process for Initiating Projects.  The portfolio manager assesses each new project by comparing the business value the project will produce to the time and money it will consume.  The executive committee considers the portfolio manager’s recommendations and approves certain of the projects. It’s best if the organization sets a project initiation standard so people know what criteria their projects must meet.
  3. Setting priorities using the project initiation data on approved projects. The management committee reviews the portfolio manager’s slotting of projects into priority tiers.  It is our experience that 7 tiers of projects works best. And no tier should utilize more than 15% of the organization’s resources that are available for projects.  The organization also needs to reserve 15-20% of the resources for emergencies.
  4. Scheduling projects by priority tier.  Projects in the first tier get their resources first and can start work immediately.  Lower ranking projects have to wait for their resources. Projects in the bottom priority tiers may not start this year.
  5. Tracking progress weekly.  The portfolio manager and the people assisting him can compare actual progress to the plan and take corrective action. They can also report to the management committee on problem projects.

Training for Portfolio Managers

The portfolio manager role is difficult. He or she must allocate resources across all the projects in the  portfolio they manage. They must deal with executive sponsors and stakeholders frequently. They must try to enforce effective organization-wide processes for managing multiple projects and programs. And that is a significant challenge.  Here is the training we provide for portfolio managers:

Managing multiple projects

The technical skills of portfolio management, setting priorities and allocating resources are straight-forward and rather simple. What’s not simple is handling the politics of managing multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests and priorities. Many newly promoted program and portfolio managers think all they need to succeed is the power of the CEO behind them. However, they soon find out that the senior executive, while backing the idea of doing projects the right way, will not overrule the executives that the program or portfolio manager deals with every day.

Far from using their power to force compliance with the program or portfolio manager’s proposals and processes, the CEO will want them to “work it out” with the executive stakeholders. Thus, managing multiple projects takes program and portfolio managers into the world of political maneuvering, horse-trading and deal-making. They must join in the political deal-making and coalition-building or the executives will quickly ignore them. They will consider the program and portfolio managers irrelevant to the issues and challenges these executives face.

Project Planning from the Top Down

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

In many organizations, managers (and especially senior managers) view project planning as a waste of time. To them, the project plan is needless. They want to “start work immediately without wasting time in useless planning meetings and creating mounds of paperwork.”

Project Planning: A Waste of Time?

Why do many managers and executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time?  Why are they unwilling to invest their time in project planning? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • They have never seen a project properly planned so they have no understanding of how smoothly things can run.
  • Project planning requires that the sponsor and stakeholders know what business result they want the project to produce. Often executives start projects to fix a problem they have just heard about. They have no idea how to solve it or define what they consider to be a fix.
  • The sponsor and stakeholders are unwilling to make commitments about the acceptance criteria for the project’s deliverables. They are unwilling to take the risk of specifying precisely what they want. Project Plan Template Main Page

Project Planning: A Waste of Time Reason #1

The most common reason why they have never seen a project properly planned is that the organization doesn’t exercise control or require justification for starting a new project. There is no reason to plan if people can start a project any time they want. The organization also doesn’t require a return on investment (payback) from a project.

On the other hand, executives must plan their projects if the organization requires the following:

  • a cost-benefit analysis for new projects
  • a clear specification for the business results the project will produce
  • its cost and duration.

Project Planning: A Waste of Time Reason #2

A second and very common reason for these “waste of time” attitudes is that many executives have never sponsored, run or even worked on a properly planned project. As a result, they don’t know the benefits a properly planned project can deliver. Their projects usually miss their planned completion dates and budgets. They rarely deliver the project scope or any business value. Project teams don’t know what they are accountable for delivering, what performance level the project manager expects or how the project manager will evaluate their work. As a result, the project manager must tell the team members what to do each week.

The executives also have no practical experience with change control. They don’t realize that a well-conceived project plan gives them and the project manager tools to manage changes to the scope, budget, quality and resources.

Project Planning: What Is Top-Down Planning?

Despite the reasons why the executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time and resources, you (as the project manager) must persuade them of the benefits of planning a project from the top down. When executives want to start a project, you must describe the right steps and explain how that process benefits the organization. Finally, you must discuss the top-down project planning techniques, documents and meetings. Executives also need to understand that you cannot use the same project planning techniques for every project. You should not bury a small project in needless paperwork. But a large strategic project will suffer if there isn’t sufficient planning, control and risk management.

A well-planned project uses the top-down project planning technique. Top-down project planning starts with a project scope that is defined in measurable terms. That means the sponsor identifies the overall scope of the project and the deliverable(s) the project has to produce. Then you and the sponsor identify the acceptance criteria that the executives will use to approve those deliverables. Next you break the criteria down into deliverables for each assignment. This lets you and every project team member know exactly what the executives want in a deliverable before you start work. On a well-run project, you and the team members don’t have to stop work to figure out what to do next. Each team member’s assignment or task is specifically defined so they know what they must deliver before they begin work.

project planning

Project teams that must stop and figure out what to do next are working on a project with a “To Do” list plan. In this situation, the project manager planned the first thing they’re going to do, then the second and then the third. Things get a little vague after that so the team members must stop work and ask the PM what to do next. That process continues until the planned completion date is looming on the horizon. At that point, the PM and team members must stop work and plan what they can quickly finish before the completion date. This is a disaster for the project and the PM’s career.

Project Planning: Top-Down Benefits

When you use top-down project planning, you make as many of the decisions as possible during the planning process which is before you ever start work. When the team does start work, they focus on executing the plan, not re-planning the project. You save several hours of meetings, talks and arguments for every hour you spend planning before the work actually begins.

Top-down project planning also saves you from doing the wrong things on the project. That’s because you have done all the thinking on the deliverables before you start work. And that means you don’t incur the costs of having to produce “missing” deliverables at the last moment. In top-down project planning you start with a clear definition of the project’s scope. Then you can break it down into high-level deliverables. You continue to break these down into sub-deliverables until you get to the level of tasks you assign to the team members.

Project Planning Summary

You are certain to have a failed project if you fall into the trap of starting work immediately without using the top-down project planning technique. The executives who forced you to start work quickly will be exceedingly dissatisfied with the results as well as the money and the time spent to produce them. The only way out of this situation is to explain to the project executives that success is a direct result of a solid planning effort.  Working from the top down, you and the sponsor must define the scope of the work and the acceptance criteria that the project stakeholders will use to judge its success. The key to top-down project planning is having a clear scope definition that you can break down into high-level deliverables and sub-deliverables. Then you have the basis for a work breakdown structure (WBS) that minimizes the amount of work required to successfully deliver the project’s scope.

Consider our online project management courses to learn how to use all the tools and techniques for top-down project management planning. You’ll work privately with Dick Billows, PMP, as your instructor and coach. You begin when you wish and control the pace and schedule. You can have as many phone calls and live video conferences with Dick as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Team Motivation

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project team motivation is every bit as important as developing a clear plan & deliverables,creating a tight schedule and spotting problems early. Too many project managers assume that their team members are robots that will not be affected by their management behavior.  Thus, they think that how the PM assigns work, solves problems and makes estimates will have no impact on the team member’s attitude about the project. This view of team motivation is comfortable for leaders who believe their technical/creative knowledge make the team want to follow them. That is very far from the truth which is why the technical or creative guru types fail so often;  the think they can ignore team motivation.

The three leadership challenges above are what we call a project manager’s moments of truth with the project team. How the project manager treats the team members and how he values their input, and how he reacts to problems go a long way to determining the teams overall motivation. Let’s talk about these three moments of truth. Project Management Skills Main Page

Are you leading your team from in front or marching behind them carrying a snow shovel like that poor guy marching behind elephants at the circus? There are three moments of truth for project team motivation when leading your project team goes a long way to determining their motivation and if your project will succeed or fail. Those critical moments are; gaining commitment to estimates, handling “bad news” and reporting status. The first moment of truth happens while you’re estimating with a project team member. If you have an open discussion and the team member feels that they were able to participate in setting the work estimate for their tasks, you will get a much higher level of commitment to the estimate than if you arbitrarily set the number. The second moment of truth occurs when you deal with variances on a project. Your behavior in the face of this “bad news” largely determines whether your team members tell you about problems early or hide them from you because they don’t want to be blamed. The last moment of truth occurs when the sponsor is disappointed in the project progress. How you handle this is critical for your credibility, particularly if you blame team members for the problem rather than accept responsibility yourself.


Dick Billows, PMP, GCA

Dick Billows, PMP, GCA

Dick has over 25 years of experience as a project manager and regional partner with the fourth largest international professional firm and a VP of a Fortune 500 company managing a portfolio of project across 14 states. He has managed projects and programs in all 50 states and a dozen foreign countries. Since starting, he has assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project results and trained hundreds of project managers.

Dick began his career in project management with an international consulting firm starting as a technical consultant and move up to project and then program management. He successfully managed performance improvement, cost reduction and systems development projects for clients across the United States and overseas for 12 years. He directed projects in the following industries: computer chips, aluminum extrusion, insurance, local and state government, food manufacturing, restaurant chains, international reservation systems, K-12 education, oil refining, law firms, hospitals, medical practices and construction contracting and sub-contracting in commercial, industrial and residential construction.  Dick’s system development projects include accounting systems, ERP, financial reporting, inventory control, scheduling, personnel management and claims processing.

He made partner at Grant Thornton International (the world’s fifth largest accounting and consulting firm) and later assumed responsibility for the entire regional portfolio of client consulting projects in the western United States. Im that role he was responsible for training and developing dozens of project managers who managed thousands of projects each year.


A Fortune 100 client hired me to manage a 14 state region with responsibility for a portfolio of new products, including new locations, advertising, marketing, research and development. MY division achieved over 40% growth in five consecutive years.

A team of project managers and I formed to provide project management training and consulting for PMs and clients around the world.

My current duties are implementing project methodologies for clients, training project managers and consulting with project sponsors and executives.

Dick teaches in-person seminars for corporate clients and also directs the project consulting practice, helping organizations manage strategic projects and implement 4PM’s Achievement-driven Project Management™ methodology in their organizations.

I hold an undergraduate degree in economics and statistics from Johns Hopkins University, an MBA from the University of Colorado and has done doctoral work in organizational behavior at the University of Colorado.

Dick is the author of 14 books and over 225 articles on project management. He has also written and directed over 50 short project management videos. In 1986, Dick formed where he and his fellow project managers assist organizations in improving their project management processes. They include: Siemens, Intel, Baker-Robbins, Citicorp, TCI, Kaiser Permanente, Sentry Safe, Reader’s Digest, Jones Intercable, US WEST, Norwest Bank and First Data Corporation as well as smaller organizations like Candy’s Tortilla Factory and Colorado Mountain Development. Dick has a BA in Economics and Statistics from Johns Hopkins University, an MBA from the University of Colorado and did three years of doctoral work in Organizational Behavior at the University of Colorado.

I have been managing projects for over 25 years and have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project results. Along the way, I have written 14 books, over 325 articles and directed 36 short videos on project management. I’ve managed projects all over the world as well as managing portfolios of projects and trained 1000’s of project managers. I am president of and directs the firm’s consulting, in-person seminars and web-based individual training programs for professionals.


Dick’s books include:

  • Project Manager’s KnowledgeBase, 10th edition 2012
  • Managing Information Technology Projects, 6th edition, 2010
  • Advanced Project Management Techniques, 4th edition, 2011
  • Construction Project Management, 5th edition, 2012
  • Essentials of Project Management, 11th edition, 2011
  • Managing Healthcare Projects, 3rd edition, 2009
  • Program and Portfolio Management, 9th edition, 2011

Project Plan for Small Projects: Fast Food Approach


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

Creating the Project Plan for a small project is difficult for many reasons.  One of them is that the boss wants you to start as soon as possible without “wasting” a lot of time with meetings and paperwork.  Also the boss usually doesn’t give small projects much thought before dumping them in your lap. You clearly see that this is a recipe for failure.

Good project managers know that for every minute you spend on your project plan you save 10 minutes during the execution of the actual project. The reason for that 10 to 1 payback is that a plan allows the team to focus on executing rather than deciding what they’re going to do next.  A project plan also communicates to everyone what you’re going to do and how you’re not going to do it.  So how do you deal with the boss and still get even a basic plan?

Project Plan: Drive-thru Window at “Projects Are Us” Fast Food

You can do your project plan like the order-taker at a fast food drive-thru window. The fast food approach to planning is focused on getting started quickly by finding out what you. Here’s an example of how to apply that approach to a new Supply Room Project the boss emailed you about. You’d go to his office and the conversation would go like this:

Project Manager: “Exactly what do you want me to deliver on the last day of the project?”

Boss: “I want you to clean up the file room!”

Project Manager: “That’s what you want me to do but what is the end result you want me to deliver?  What should I be able to show you at the end of the project?”

Boss: “I am too busy for games.  I want you to show me a clean file room!”

Project Manager: “What is your standard for a clean file room?”

Boss, irked: “Nothing on the floor and everything stacked neatly in part number order”

Project Manager: “I can deliver that.” But then you remember how the fast food folks at the drive-thru window always ask if they can supersize it. So you add, “Do you also want to make it easier to find supplies? Not everyone knows the numbers of the parts.”

Boss, smiling for the first time: “Good thinking. I get a lot of complaints about things being hard to find.  Let’s kill two birds with one stone.”

Project Manager: “Great. Give them to me and I will suggest some additional deliverables before I leave today!”

What did the project manager accomplish here?  First, he/she improved the chance of project success.  They would have been near zero if the project manager had just started work with a scope of “clean up the file room.” Second, the project manager enhanced their credibility by asking some good questions that earned the boss’s praise. The approach used here appeals to a lot of bosses who sponsor projects. Particularly the ones who often complain about the planning meetings and paperwork that are necessary to start a project. In the fast food approach, you’ll forget all that PMBOK® stuff and reach agreement with the boss on the project’s scope. The project manager’s “supersize” question got a great reaction from the boss and they could continue talking about what business value the project has to deliver. The the project manager can get to work.

You can learn these skills for small projects in our project management basics courses.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from 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.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management


Project Sponsor – How to Train a Bad One

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project sponsors should play a critical role in projects. They should set the goals for the project, use their authority & influence to help the PM get resources and solve problems. When there are conflicts the sponsor should protect the project. While many executives understand their role and play it well, there are many who do not. The bad ones won’t commit to exactly what they want from their project.  They  play it safe politically by never committing to a scope. These sponsors usually want to drive the project to a completion date they often pluck from the sky.  Talk to other PM about a new sponsor.  If the have many failed projects and often blame the project manager and team. You have a bad. Because sponsors outrank the project manager, often by many levels, you have to use a great deal of tact in using these techniques to guide an ineffective project sponsors toward fulfilling their project role. As a project manager, you will routinely face high-pressure situations with sponsors trying to do things that will harm the project. If you let the intimidation get to you, the project will fail. Here’s what to say, and what not to say, in each situation.

Project Sponsor Situation #1 Defining a Project Scope

Number one among the project sponsor’s responsibilities is defining the scope of the project.  Its the reason the sponsor initiated the project in the first place. Project sponsors need to give the you and your team a crystal-clear definition of what the project should deliver. The definition should include the acceptance criteria they will use to accept or reject the project.  If they’re playing political games with the scope, doing friends favors, or won’t committ themselves to exactly what they want, the project manager and the team members are almost certain to fail. When the sponsor demands the project team to start work without knowing what’s expected of them they are headed for delivering an unacceptable product, late and over budget.  There are other project sponsor obligations that project managers have to subtly guide them to fulfill. Let’s discuss them.

This occurs during the initiation of the project. In that first session you need to take a very strong position that the scope of the project must be defined in measurable terms, that is with a measurable metric. Often times you have to “sell” the sponsor on the benefits of a scope that defines what he or she wants with numbers rather than vague, subjective definitions.

Project Sponsor Situation #2

Another make or break situation occurs when you discuss your authority to direct the project team. If you are borrowing team members from another department, you want to be able to give them assignments directly rather than going through their supervisor.  You also want to be able to evaluate their performance and have input into their annual performance review.

Project Sponsor Situation #3

Other critical situations are change orders affecting the project scope, duration or cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Every scope change affects the project’s duration and cost.  Similarly, the project sponsor can’t cut the project’s duration without affecting the scope and cost or cut the budget without affecting the scope and duration. Project sponsors don’t want to hear this so you must be able to show them options for managing changes to the scope, duration and cost.

Project Sponsor Situation #4

Finally, status reports with a bad variance are a critical situation. You must present viable solutions to fix the problems of schedule or cost overruns.

Effectively handling each of these situations is critical to your relationship with the sponsor and to the success of the project.

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

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from 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.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Project Plan: Surface Expectation Differences Early

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

Stakeholders and project managers often judge the success of a project plan meeting by how well everyone gets along. But they are making a mistake. One of the key outcomes from the planning process should be to surface any conflicts about the scope, deliverables and resources.  It is better to have those disagreements aired and resolved during the planning phase than have them erupt half way through the project. Project Plan Main Page

Project Plan Step One: Surface Expectation Differences

First, as the project manager, you do not take sides in the conflict.  Your best position is that you don’t care which side wins. You just want the conflict resolved before work begins on the project. Basically, you are on the sidelines for the whole project plan meeting. But you periodically sprinkle gasoline on any smoldering embers of conflict until they are all put out.

Why should you go to this trouble?  Why not smooth-over any conflicts about expectations and requirements now? That will get the project plan approved and let you start work.  That’s what the boss wants. The answer is that the conflicts you smooth-over in the project planning meeting always rear their ugly heads halfway through the project. Then they slow the work down and may even cause problems with the availability of team resources.  Experienced project managers know that there will be plenty of unexpected conflicts that arise as the project progresses. You don’t need to have known conflicts festering and bursting into flames late in the project. Resolving these expectation differences now, during the planning meeting, is a form of risk avoidance.

Project Plan Step Two: Draft the Project Plan

The second part of this technique is in how you write your draft project plan.  As an example, on a customer service project you would never define a deliverable with wording like, “Improve the quality of answers given to customers who call Customer Service.” That’s a terrible way to define a deliverable. It’s just motherhood and apple pie mush.  It’s not specific enough for anyone to disagree or raise differences of opinion. It allows every stakeholder to define their own expectation for the accuracy level. And their expectations will vary wildly.  You need to surface and resolve these differences, then get agreement on their expectations of the deliverable.

Here is another problem with the “Improve quality of the answers given to customers who call Customer Service” statement. It doesn’t give you or the team any of idea what the accuracy level goal is on the answers given to customers. Here is a better way to define the deliverable; “Improve the accuracy of answers given to customers from 61% to 71%.  Some stakeholders may want 90% accuracy and others will want less.  But now the discussion can focus on the differences in cost and time (duration) between various specific accuracy levels.project plan

Once again, your role is not to take sides or voice your own opinion.  Instead, your job is to quantify the tradeoffs in terms of cost and time between the various accuracy levels. You use project management software to model these options. For example, you would say, “Going to 91% accuracy would increase costs  by $18,000 and increase the project duration by 8 weeks.  Is that what you want?” The one issue you are very firm on is that no improvement in accuracy is free. The tradeoff always has a cost and duration impact. Your stance on this is very important.  If you let your stakeholders believe that they can change the project scope for free, you will face a constant flow of change requests throughout the project. And, stakeholders will be angry if you tell them there is a cost.

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

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from 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.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management