Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What is the perfect Project Plan?

In a previous post I wrote about “The Committee Chairman is the Project Manager”. This post concentrates on building a successful Project Plan using standard project management tools.

In the world of project management, it often falls to the project manager to articulate clearly what may be unformed thoughts floating around in the minds of the participants, customers or stakeholders. This is one of the greatest challenges in a project: coordinating the ideas, thoughts and agendas of this diverse group of Brothers and have them focus on the goal and the eventual success of the project. Brothers have different and sometimes conflicting measures of success. Brothers may also measure success in different ways. Therefore it is of great importance to articulate in a measured manner how the project will be deemed a success.

Building the Project Plan

When you have identified a clear project objective and how the success of the project will be measured, you need to build a project plan that will use resources and create tasks towards the objective. Using a chart, spreadsheet or flow diagram, you outline how resources and tasks will be used by each member of the project within a specific time period.. Each objective is considered a milestone or a dependant task that can be measured and identified for modification or adjustment. There are various methods of identifying how best to outline and measure each objective. Most project plans incorporate many of the following elements:

Top-down and Bottom-up

The Top-down estimate of a project includes all tasks, events, and resources and applies an overall timescale and costs. It is created at the beginning of the project to determine how long the project will take and how much it will cost. It is usual to add some contingency resources or funding to allow for risky assumptions or cost overruns due to lack of proper resources or personnel. The Bottom-up phase of the project refines the timescale and costs as each milestone or stage of project is completed. It allows the project manager to adjust all upcoming tasks, events and resources in light of actual measured tasks. Top-down and Bottom-up estimating allow planning to take place at both project and stage levels and help anticipate challenges or issues before they evolve into problems or emergencies.

Work Distribution

Many projects may utilize complex tasks or specialization to achieve success. As a project manager, you cannot be expected to be an expert in every task. Nor can the project manager perform every task or handle every event. Therefore, each task and event must be assigned a resource or person to oversee it to completion. Each task or event must have a deliverable (a due date) and measureable achievement (cost, completion, success, failure). The project manager updates each task in the project plan with new data provided by the resource (person, expert, specialist) and achievement (cost above/below budget; within or out of the timeline; within or out of expectation). Continuous updating of the project plan gives the project manager an indication as to whether adjustments are required to meet the project’s final goal.

Estimating Time and Costs

The project manager’s ability to estimate the duration and cost for each task or event can determine how the project goal is achieved. For example, if a committee member suggests it will take seven days to complete a task when the project plan indicates that it should take three days, you will only have one opportunity to challenge – and improve or revise – the estimate. The project manager’s failure to review and revise the project plan and hold people accountable to their deliverables will doom the project to inevitable disaster and failure. An ineffectual, inefficient, uncooperative, undisciplined, non-communicative manager is a poor manager and recipe for failure.

Identify and Manage Risk

So what is a risk? Former US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, famously said:
“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.”

This is an excellent understanding of risk and project management:
• 'There are known knowns.' Rumsfeld was referring to things that have ceased to be preventable because they have happened and thus it is not possible to stop or circumvent them. Project managers call these 'issues'. Put another way, 'the stuff has hit the fan'.
• 'There are known unknowns.' These are the problems that have been identified and which it may be possible to mitigate (perhaps preventing a problem arising or reducing its effect if it does). To continue the analogy, you know where and how much stuff is out there, the fan is running, but one has not yet been introduced to the other.
• 'There are unknown unknowns.' These are the problems that have not been identified or anticipated. They are the threats to a project's successful outcome which are not yet even known about. The analogy concludes: no one yet knows how much stuff is out there, where it is (or if it even exists), or how fast the fan is running.

So, a risk is something that may place the success of the project in jeopardy. Or an assumption or a guess that, by virtue of being unknown, is also a risk and places the project goal into jeopardy. When a risk is identified the focus should be on doing something positive to moderate the risk. There are several potential options: Accept, Lessen; Avoid; Share. This forms the convenient (and possibly appropriate) acronym, ALAS.

excerpts taken from Effective Project Management by Paul Roberts, KoganPage Press, 2011.

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