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The Project Management Toolbox- Part two

The Project Management Toolbox- Part two

In our last unspun we looked at successful project qualification and scoping. Now those are agreed, what next? The plan and the people will make or break your project. So, here’s our advice on how to get these right.

Find your balance: the essence of project planning

With funding secured and the scope defined, it is now time to get the project underway. This is where preparing a solid project plan is really critical – it forms the foundations for the project to deliver on. Weak foundations often lead later to slipped deadlines and all the difficult budget and people issues a missed deadline brings.

It is really tempting to dive straight into delivery action when a project is finally approved – but a bit of time spent on focused planning can pay significant dividends later. Often when we are brought in to turn around failing projects, we find that plans haven’t been properly defined from the beginning - either due to unrealistic assumptions around effort needed and resources available. Or we find that dependencies haven’t been fully understood, so the knock on implications of a change aren’t managed properly.

The best way to avoid this is to aim for balance in planning, reflecting both high level ambitions and the reality on the ground. Planning should draw on the top down initial view of delivery phases and objectives from the business case. Based on this, the detailed ‘bottom up’ plan should be developed in conjunction with the different teams, with healthy challenge from the project manager. Drawing on the experience of others will not only foster greater commitment to delivery by the respective teams, it will also ensure you build plans knowing what it will take to get the project over the finish line.

Make a list of all the things that will need to be delivered – and approved – for the project to deliver the targeted business benefits. Make sure that all of these are defined, built, tested and implemented in the plan. Think about all the supporting activities – training, communications, the transition to day-to-day working. This is an ongoing process and there will be more detail for the next phase than for subsequent phases; plans for later phases will be refined as the project progresses.

While planning you need to be realistic and take into account broader project restrictions such as resource availability, internal and external dependencies, and any absolute deadlines.
Consider using multiple sources for effort and elapsed time estimates – using techniques like ‘Wideband Delphi’ (known as “planning poker” in Agile development projects) to understand differences of opinion and establish consensus. Really challenge whether external dependencies need to be external – are there different ways to draw project boundaries to maintain control within the project wherever possible?

The balance of cost, quality and time needs to reflect the priorities of the business case. Compromises are likely to be needed, but if the plan doesn’t feel realistic from the start then it won’t be, so be willing to have some of the difficult conversations up front. Think about building “escape routes” and contingency plans into the plan from the start. If there are immovable deadlines, then how would you respond to a slip in one of the phases? Are there aspects of scope that could be separated or broken out if you need to buy time or resource capacity?

It is important to get the balance right on the level of detail. The aim is to allow the project to be controlled on an ongoing basis. Avoid the temptation to make the plan too complex or it will become unwieldy - – you will need just enough detail to maintain control and be clear who is accountable for delivery and execution. A plan is a key tool to help a project manager deliver the project – but it isn’t the only one so it doesn’t have to include absolutely everything, and it isn’t a substitute for strong broader project management skills.

Learning points:

  • Build the detailed plan with the project team to improve accuracy and commitment.
  • Be realistic and balance constraints against overall project priorities.
  • Strike the right balance on the level of detail.

Having discussed the project plan, let’s take a look at the project team…

Right people, right role: the fundamentals of resourcing 

Saying that the right people are fundamental to a project’s success seems like unnecessarily stating the obvious – and yet we so often see projects fail due to not having the right people in the right roles.

As part of setting up a project, the project manager needs to be clear and upfront on the skills, experience and number of people needed to successfully deliver the project – and to be willing to push programme sponsors hard to get them. If there are key individuals that are needed full time but they are offered on a very part time basis while also juggling demanding day jobs then it is reasonable to assume that delivery quality or timelines will suffer.  If, as is frequently the case, a compromise is needed this should be reflected in plans so that the project isn’t absorbing all the risk and being expected to continue as usual.

Organisational clarity is also critical in designing the project organisation. Who is ultimately accountable for defining business requirements? For the quality of the solution design? For delivery? For Testing? Where is the “tension” in the organisation held and resolved – for example, if a trade-off between the amount of work to be delivered and the delivery date is required, who will make that choice? And at what stage must the decision be referred to the project’s Governance forum? In our assurance and turnaround work, we often see a lack of accountability clarity manifest in the project organisation structure as a root cause of delivery issues.

Projects often require experienced individuals from within the business to adopt key delivery roles. There is a temptation to simply allocate spare resources with the right skills into the available slots. It’s more complicated than that. One of the most overlooked factors is whether resources can work within the unique and nuanced atmosphere of a project.

Unpredictability, frequent change, and demanding requirements are common features of most projects. For many people, this is a very different reality to the one they may be used to working in a ‘business as usual’ role. Therefore, individual success in operational work is no guarantee of success in a project role. Consider trading some degree of technical competence for ability to work within the team, resilience under pressure and comfort with ambiguity when selecting resources. A technical expert, who is otherwise not suited to project work, can always be used as a review resource.

What if the project needs external resources? Putting aside successful supplier selection, the project needs to have the right structure set up to manage the supplier resources effectively on an ongoing basis. Lovely though it would be to just agree a brief then ignore the supplier until they come back with the finished product, the reality is seldom that simple. A common pitfall for projects (and organisations more broadly) is not managing suppliers closely enough at all relevant levels. As part of building the resourcing profile and project organisation, the project manager needs to have the right individuals to ensure comprehensive and credible supplier management. It is also worth considering including senior representatives from lead suppliers on the project’s Governance forum. This is sometimes rejected because of a desire to maintain confidentiality, but it is worth considering the motivational benefit of having a senior representative of the lead partner organisation knowing that they will have to be able to represent their organisation’s progress personally.

Planning and resourcing a project are interdependent building blocks fundamental to the success of delivering any project; time and energy devoted to getting these right from the start will deliver exponential benefits as the project progresses.

Learning points:

  • Be clear on the resources needed and the implications of any compromises.
  • Internal experts may not automatically be suited to project work so consider how best to use them or support them in the transition.
  • Make sure that the project organisation is designed to keep accountability boundaries clear, and maintain healthy tension at the right level.
  • External suppliers need credible management so ensure the right capability is in place on the project - and consider inviting including lead supplier representation on your Governance forum.
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News and Views

The Project Management Toolbox- Part two Part two – What’s the plan and who can make it happen? - Project planning & resourcing

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