Project Management Best Practices – Define Your Project Well
Project – work that is not normally done [what we normally do is operations, not a project]. A project will have to meet four criteria-
- Temporary – it has a beginning and an end; so its project team will only exist for the purpose of that project
- Unique – the outcome is one of a kind. However, projects might well be similar, so planning will consider what others have accomplished that is similar, and the way those other projects might have elements that are the same or different. And a SWOT Analysis will consider whether these similarities and differences are Strengths or Weaknesses.
- A Creation – because you are creating something that did not previously exist, you are probably going to go through phases of development, and there will be many people and even other organizations who have a stake in the outcome. Communicating the project’s status and progress through the phases will be important.
- A Product [or Service] – is the goal of the project. You measure the project’s value by how it met the goal of producing the product or service.
Now, with the basics out of the way, let’s look at some project management best practices.
Project Management Best Practices – Apply to Any Type of Project Activity
The obvious types of projects come to mind – huge civil engineering projects like bridges and power dams; construction of residential and commercial properties; implementing or upgrading computer systems.
But project management best practices and techniques can and should be applied to any activity that meets project definition:
- the annual marketing plan;
- all of the corporate budgets;
- developing or upgrading human resources manuals and policies –
- designing and installing a new CRM (customer relations management) system
- starting online business
- overhauling your bid-response system
- preparing for the annual audit
- virtually every consulting engagement whether you are hiring the consultant or are the consultant
– you get the picture.
Look again at the definition of project above, and if your activity meets the criteria, use the project management best practices.
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Project Management Best Practices – Don’t Cut Short on the Planning Phase
Fast-Tracking, Rapid Application Deployment, Rapid Deployment and many other euphemisms started appearing on the project management scene a few years ago. One can’t really argue with their objective – speed up projects and therefore reduce cost.
Those cases where the goal was accomplished have our respect and admiration…but they are few and far between. Why?
Fast tracking is usually accomplished by gutting the planning process. Sure, if you shorten the time here, you are underway faster. But let’s look at some components of a good planning phase and see if they can safely be dispensed with…
- target audience, customer, recipient
- why the project is needed
- individuals and organizations who need the project or are affected by it
- what quality level is required: perfect, workable, just get it running?
- whose standards: internal policy, external like government or regulators? written or implied?
- key people or resources not available
- authority: project manager often gets as much authroity as s/he takes
- autonomy: team members need approvals from their respective organizations?
- stakeholders: are there others who think they should be stakeholders but haven’t been included?
- goals: does the whole organization agree with the goals?
- has a SWOT Analysis been done?
- what steps have been identified to overcome the risks?
- should be written, clear and detailed
- need to be signed off by all stakeholders before execution commences to avoid later confusion
Can any of these steps be left out? We don’t think so!
Speeded up? Sure…as long as it is not accomplished by glossing over them. For example, a SWOT Analysis is often done casually by a small section of the project team…and the result is that only some of the threats are identified. The key is to keep each step to a perspective that is appropriate for the overall project. The extent of risks to consider can be different for a trial launch type of project than for one that demands virtual perfection.
Project Management Best Practices – Hints and Tips
- You can have goodYou can have fastYou can have cheapBut you’re not likely to get all three, so Pick the Two that are most important to this project!
- Define project correctly, and do a Postmortem at each major milestone and after completion
- Without a plan, your project will be impossible to control
- People who must execute a plan should be involved in its preparation
- Use a Project Notebook to fully document a project
- Project plan should be signed off by all stakeholders in a meeting. Use a Change Order form, signed by affected stakeholders, to record significant changes to the project.
- BEWARE SCOPE CREEP!
- Mission statement should be developed for larger projects before goals and objectives are established.
- Satisfying the customer(s) of a project must be a primary concern.
- Objectives should be written out and placed in project notebook.
- Objectives should contain actual calendar deadlines rather than being specified as “within x months”
Estimating Time and Cost
- Padding is legitimate to reduce risk, but should be done above the board
- An estimate is not a fact
- Reduce time available for a person to work on a project to allow for meetings, breaks and other interruptions
- Use chart-of-accounts to track labor costs.
- Record time daily to ensure accuracy.
- Gantt chart is most useful to see who is responsible for which tasks.
- Scheduling considers both duration of tasks and sequences in which work must be done.
- Break work down only to level needed to develop an estimate sufficiently accurate for intended use.Don’t plan in more detail than you can manage.
- Bar chart = Gantt ChartBar charts do not usually show interrelationships of work, thus do not permit easy analysis of impact on a project if one activity slips
- Software can show how vacations and holidays will extend working times in order to assess their impact
- You must consider your own Organization Structure when planning and staffing your project.Hierarchical structure has serious disadvantages for running multi-discipline projects.Matrix is almost synonymous with project management because of its advantage in dealing with many disciplines.Success in matrix requires very good interpersonal skills on the part of all managers
- Look for a leader, not just a manager. People skills are important.
- Negotiating skills and flexibility will be important attributes. No project ever goes exactly according to plan and the PM has to negotiate the adjustments.
- Problems “go with the territory” and must be resolved. Avoiding conflict and technical problems only lets them fester and build.
- Communication skills are critical. PM will often have to bridge a gap between technical and non-technical stakeholders. And credibility is always at stake.
- PM really has to be “everybody’s friend…and nobody’s friend” in order to lead the project to the desired conclusion.
Project Management Best Practices – Decide Early Where You Will ManageTime, Costs and Budgets
One of the most significant project management best practices revolves around the fact that most projects involve non-financial and financial factors.
Non-financial includes things like defining tasks, and their sequence and duration; scheduling; resource planning for people and equipment; organizational planning; risk identification; quality planning; staffing; reporting; problem-solving; controlling changes.
But projects also have financial factors: they generally have a finite cost limitation so estimates and budgets and cost control are needed.
To the extent that the Project Manager has to interact with other sections of the organization and even outside agencies for resources, they become stakeholders in the project, but the manger is relatively independent in managing and reporting on their use – they come under his control for the duration of the project.
However, with financial factors, it is a certainty that the project manger will have to interact somehow with the financial or accounting function. Eventually all financial information finds its way into the general ledger and the financial statements of the organization. So project management best practices recognize and deal with this inevitability right up front.
It amazes us how often a project plan does not recognize that the finance / accounting function is inevitably a stakeholder of every project that has cost / budget constraints – and what project doesn’t have those constraints?!
Financial Information Model
Your organization might not fit this model exactly, but here is a general model to help you visualize the different ways financial information can be collected and flow through your system.
Time sheets for people might be entered into a specialized time and billing or project accounting module; or into a payroll subsidiary ledger. Costs of equipment and expenses might be entered into the time and billing module or accounts payable subsidiary ledger.
Both time and expenses might go in through a job-costing module.
In some older and inflexible systems, entry might be right into the general ledger module.
Also, your organization should have a system of internal control to ensure that information flows smoothly and accurately between the components of the model.
Notice that this has become complex already – and we have only considered what might happen given the existing systems that could be in place in your organization.
There are so many possibilities…
and your project manager has to work with whatever system your financial function has in place…
One of the first project management best practices is that the Project Manager needs to consider the financial function as a stakeholder and get briefed as to how the existing system works.
This briefing must include the reports that can be made available to the Project Manager and the timing for the processing cycles that the financial function uses to process information.
In general, newer systems process transactions more frequently and closer to real-time, while older systems have less frequent cycles such as weekly, biweekly or even monthly. While a Project Manager probably doesn’t need up-to-the-second information, he also probably can’t control his project with just monthly information either.
In general, newer systems have better reporting available, while older systems have less flexible or extensive information. Also, newer systems can often obtain or produce specialized information quite easily through report writers whereas older systems don’t have that flexibility.
Armed with this knowledge, the project manger can now deal with one of the most important and basic of the project management best practices – deciding where to manage time, costs and budgets.
Other things being equal, if the existing financial system can provide the information, it is going to be much simpler to rely on that than to maintain another whole system. Conversely, if the existing system is not capable, then he has to look to alternatives. Either way, making this decision early leave more time to prepare for whatever approach is selected.
Remember that whether you choose or are forced to go outside the financial system for part or all of your project management information, you still have to have enough controls and reconciliation to ensure the integrity of the data you are using. Costs in your project system must be the same as costs in the general ledger.