As both an active project manager and a project management trainer, people often ask me what are the fundamental aspects to successful project management. Whilst there have been many great books written on the subject, I always summarise why I believe implementing best practices are at the heart of good project management.
This article is the first of a two part series about project management best practices. The second article in the series Implementing Project Management Best Practices on Small Projects can be found here.
Define the scope and objectives
For any project to be successful you need to understand what the project is supposed to achieve. Suppose your boss asks you to organise a campaign to get the employees to donate blood. Is the aim of this to get as much blood donated to the local blood bank? Or, is it to raise the profile of the company in the local community? Deciding what the real objectives are will help you to determine how you go about planning and managing the project.
The project manager also needs to define the scope of the project. Is the organisation of transport to take staff to the blood bank within the scope of the project? Or, should staff make their own way there? Deciding which activities are within the scope or out of scope of the project has a big impact on the amount of work which needs to be performed during the project.
An understanding of who are the stakeholders is also crucial if you are going to enlist their support and understand what each person expects to be delivered from the project. Once you've defined the scope and objectives, you will need to get the stakeholders to review them and agree to them. So, defining the scope and objectives is the first of our project management best practices.
Define the deliverables
The second of our best practices is to define the deliverables.
To achieve the desired outcome from the project, you must define what things (or products) are to be delivered by the end of the project. If your project is an advertising campaign for a new chocolate bar, then one of the deliverables might be the artwork for a newspaper advert. So, you need to decide what tangible things are to be delivered and document in enough detail what these things are. At the end of the day, someone will end up doing the work to produce the deliverable, so it needs to be clearly and unambiguously described.
Once you have defined the deliverables, you will need to have the key stakeholders review the work and get them to agree that this accurately and unambiguously reflects what they expect to be delivered from the project. Once they have agreed, you can begin to plan the project. Not defining the deliverables in enough detail or clarity is often a reason why projects go wrong.
Now we come to the third of our project management best practices - project planning.
This is the time when you define how you will achieve the desired outcome of the project embodied within the objectives and definition of deliverables. Planning requires that the project manager decides which people, resources and budget are required to complete the project. You will need to decide if you will break up your project into manageable phases, decide which products will be delivered in each phase, and decide the composition of your team. Since you have already defined the deliverables, you must decide what activities are required to produce each deliverable.
You can use tools such as Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) to help you to achieve this. You will need to estimate the time and effort required to complete each activity, dependencies between related activities and decide on a realistic schedule to complete the activities. It's always a good idea to involve the project team in estimating how long the activities will take since they will be the ones actually doing the work. Capture all of this into the project plan document. You also need to get the key stakeholders to review and agree that the plan is achievable and realistic.
When developing the project plan, a project manager is often under pressure to produce a plan which meets the (unrealistic) expectations of some of the stakeholders. It is important here that the project manager comes up with a realistic schedule - one which he/she thinks is realistic to achieve. You will be doing nobody a favour if you succumb to pressure and agree to deliver the project in a totally unrealistic schedule.
Communication & project communications planning
Even the best made project plans are useless unless they have been communicated effectively to the team. Everyone on the team needs to know exactly what is expected of them, what their responsibilities are, and what they are accountable for. I once worked on a project where the project manager sat in his office surrounded by big colour print outs of his latest plans. The problem was nobody on his team knew what the tasks and milestones were because he hadn't shared the plan with them. Needless to say the project hit all kinds of problems with people going off and doing the activities which they deemed important rather than doing the activities assigned by the project manager. Project communications planning is the fourth of our project management best practices.
A project communications plan consists of a simple matrix which lists each stakeholder, their information requirements during the project, the names of the people who will produce that information, the frequency and method of communication. For example, you might identify that a key stakeholder requires a written weekly status report of project progress. This report will be produced by the project manager, and will be circulated via email to the appropriate stakeholders. Project communications planning is vital to ensure that everyone concerned gets the right information at the right time from the right person.
The fifth project management best practice is tracking the scope, schedule and cost.
Once your project is underway and you have an agreed plan, you will need to constantly monitor the actual progress against the planned progress. To do this, you will need to get reports of progress from the team members who are actually doing the work. You will need to record any variations between the actual and planned cost, schedule and scope. You will need to report any variations to your manager and key stakeholders and take corrective actions if the variations get too large.
There are lots of ways in which you can adjust the plan in order to get back on track (rearrange the order of tasks, assign tasks in parallel if the variation is small, or add more staff or reduce the scope if the variation is very large).
The project manager must constantly juggle three things: cost, scope and schedule. If he/she increases one of these, then one of the other elements will inevitably need to be changed as well. So, for a project which is running behind schedule to recover so it can be delivered to it's original planned schedule, the budget might be increased by employing more staff (although this invariably never achieves the desired result of reducing the time left to complete the project), or the scope will need to be reduced. It is the juggling of these three elements - known as the project triangle - that typically causes a project manager to tear their hair out in frustration.
All projects change in some way and managing changes is the next of our project management best practices. Often, a key stakeholder in the middle of a project will change their mind about what the project needs to deliver. On projects of longer duration, the business environment has often changed since the start of the project, so assumptions made at the beginning of the project may no longer be valid. This often results in the scope or deliverables of the project needing to be changed. If a project manager simply accepted all of these changes into the project, the project would inevitably be delivered late (and perhaps would never ever be completed) and would inevitably go over budget.
By managing changes, the project manager can make decisions about whether or not to incorporate the changes immediately or in the future, or to reject them. This increases the chances of project success because the project manager controls how the changes are incorporated, can allocate resources accordingly and can plan when and how the changes are made. Not managing changes effectively is often cited as a major reason why projects fail.
The final best practice is about managing risks. Risks are any events which can adversely affect the successful outcome of the project. I've worked on projects where some of the risks have included: staff lacking the technical skills to perform the work properly, hardware not being delivered on time, the control room being at risk of flooding in a major thunderstorm and many others. Risks will vary from project to project but it is important to identify the main risks to a project as soon as possible and to plan the actions necessary to avoid the risk, or, if the risk cannot be avoided, to at least mitigate the risk in order to lessen its impact if it does occur. This is what is known as risk management.
Do you manage all risks? No, because there could be too many to manage, and not all risks have the same impact. So a simple way is to identify as many risks as you can, work out how likely each risk is to occur on a scale of 1 to 3 (3 being the worst), estimate its impact on the project on a scale of 1 to 3 (3 being the worst), then multiply the two numbers together. The result is the risk weighting. A high risk weighting is the most severe risk. Just manage the top ten risks i.e. the ones with the highest risk weighting. Constantly review the risks and constantly be on the lookout for new risks since they have a habit of jumping up at unforeseen moments.
Not managing risks effectively is also often cited as a major reason why projects fail.
So in a nutshell, implementing best practices are the main things that I would expect all project managers to do. They are applicable on all projects big or small. Project management is not rocket science. Applying best practices on your project cannot guarantee that your project comes in under budget, on time and exceeds all the expectations of the stakeholders, but this article has shown that implementing best practices will certainly give you a much better chance of delivering your project successfully than if you don't apply them on your project.
Simon Buehring, is a PRINCE2 Practitioner, project manager and trainer and has worked for a range of FTSE 100 companies and public sector corporations. He can be contacted via the KnowledgeTrain website.
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