It’s the time of year when project managers (and everyone else) are looking to make resolutions. You know, the kind of promises you make to yourself in the dark days of winter and then have completely forgotten by Easter.
On the off chance that you’ll be making resolutions this year, here are some you could consider. They all have a money-related theme, so if you want to brush up your budgeting or polish your financial management skills in 2013, these could be great resolutions for you to adopt. So here we go: 5 promises for better money management over the next 12 months.
1. I will look at historical data for forecasts
When you are managing projects that are repetitive in nature and that the team has a lot of experience of, it’s very tempting to simply let them estimate the length of tasks and assume that they know what they are doing. Most of the time, they probably will. But it is worth validating their estimates against historical data from timesheets and previous project schedules. Use your online project management software to pull up reports of how long things took the last time you did them.
This could be at the level of an individual task, like completing a particular piece of coding, or a project phase, like testing. Or both. The purpose of checking is to make sure that your estimates really are sound and that the people who are estimating are not making the same mistakes about task duration on every project.
2. I will do my timesheets in a timely fashion
This is a personal resolution for you, although you could extend it to all your project team members. The risk of not doing your timesheets on time is that you forget exactly what it was that you were doing. As a result, you block out 8 hours per day for a task called ‘project management’ which doesn’t give you any breakdown of how you actually spent the time. Worse, you could be booking time to one project when in reality you got pulled off that project to spend half a day on some other project. These things happen in real life, to you and your team members.
By aiming to complete your timesheets at least weekly you’ll not have long enough to forget what you were working on!
3. I will understand Earned Value Analysis (or teach someone else how to do it)
If you don’t understand EVA, make 2013 the year when you get your books out and study how it works. If you do understand EVA, make a resolution to share your knowledge with someone else this year. Even if you don’t use EVA on your projects, it is a very useful skill to have.
4. I will do my expenses on time
Most project managers will incur expenses in the course of their job, such as travel to meetings. Not doing your expenses on time means that you are out of pocket. Many companies only pay expenses once a month in the monthly pay run, so don’t let your expense bill mount up – that’s effectively a loan to your company.
Get your personal paperwork in order by keeping receipts together, noting down your mileage after every trip and understanding the schedule for submitting expenses so that you don’t miss the deadlines.
If your expenses are being cross-charged to your project it is even more important to get your expenses in on time. If you don’t, your project budget will reflect that you have more ‘in the bank’ than you actually do.
5. I will review my budget quarterly
You do this already, don’t you? If not, make 2013 the year when you review your project budget forecasts regularly. If your project runs over two quarters you’ll probably be asked to do this by your finance team anyway, but even if you are not, it is still good practice to get out your spreadsheets and just check that you are still on track to stick within your budget tolerance limits.
Have you chosen any of these as your resolutions for 2013? If not, what are you having as your resolutions instead?
At Synergy, the UK’s main event for International Project Management Day earlier this month, Louise Hardy, infrastructure manager for the construction work for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games, gave a presentation about how the budget for this vast piece of construction was managed.
The construction involved all the civil engineering works required to get that area of London ready for the Games. It required building:
The Games team had committed to developing the site in a sustainable way, which was a challenge in itself given the level of contamination in the soil and the risk of unexploded ordnance left over from the Blitz. Needless to say, that area of London wasn’t used for much before the Games bid was won, and a strong focus of the construction work has been on making sure the investment leaves a legacy for the surrounding area.
Louise said that there were 3 things that kept them on track.
1. Rigorous change control
Louise said that clear reporting at project level was one thing that helped keep the whole project on track. Changes were discussed at this level. When the project started, there were 60-80 people in the project reporting meetings, which took about 4 hours. A strong change control process, with everyone involved, meant that the cost of change could be properly analysed.
2. Rigorous management of cost
Cost management involved a firm hand establishing and monitoring contingency spending. Contingency levels were based on quantitative risk analysis (QRA) with an 80% level of confidence. All contingency budgets were identified as part of a project or programme; there were no general buckets of money to be drawn from at a later date.
Cost management was particularly important because “the media were fierce in the early days.” Louise said that there was wide belief that the UK in general was not capable of managing the civil engineering works required to put on an Olympic and Paralympic Games. The media were on the look out for examples of where projects were overspent or poorly managed.
3. Performance management
The most important area for controlling cost seemed to be performance management. There were several techniques in use at the Olympic Park for performance management, including project reporting meetings. The reports did not just focus on historical information. While this was useful, it doesn’t help the stakeholders see what could happen in the future, so Louise and her team put some effort into preparing monthly trend reports. “It’s given us good visibility and enhanced reporting at government level,” she said. She also showed us an example of the monthly report, which was a graphic representation of the project’s performance that fitted on piece of A3 paper. Variance analysis, total cost and key milestones were also reported.
Once stakeholders felt that the project was being well managed and the performance was on track, the number of people attending these meetings dropped significantly. In the end, the project reporting meetings were only attended by 6 people, and they took about an hour.
The main message from Louise was that earned value analysis was a critical part of keeping the project on track. “It was absolutely essential to undertake earned value analysis on all areas of the programme,” she said. “There was a surprising amount of resistance.” She knew it was the only way to generate trust and belief in the schedule and the project’s achievements. In order to overcome the resistance, the project team undertook a training and education initiative to bring everyone on board with EVA.
It all paid off. The construction work is already complete, and it finished a year before the Games begin. This gives the other Olympics teams plenty of time to make the final preparations before Olympics fever descends on London in 2012.
Accounting cycles rarely match up with project lifecycles and that is a fundamental difficulty for project-based organisations and project teams. It is particularly difficult at times like now when project managers have to deal with their Finance departments working on half-year forecasts.
What is half-year forecasting?
Half-year forecasting is the process that Finance departments use to look at what the company/division/department has spent so far through the year. They compare this to what was budgeted, and use these numbers to predict what the full year financial forecast is likely to be. Sound familiar? It’s similar to processes used in Earned Value.
Half-year forecasting is simply a method of finding out if the company is on track to hit its financial targets. If the organisation has spent a lot more money than planned (or a lot less), it is likely that the overall budgets have not been set effectively. Half-year forecasting is the opportunity to review the figures and make changes to the budgets to ensure the company hits its targets.
When do you do half-year forecasting?
Er… at the half-way point through the year. It is only half-year forecasting time now if your financial year runs from January to December. Some companies have financial years that run from January to December and cover the same time period as a calendar year. Some companies don't.
If your company doesn't have a financial year that coincides with a calendar year the other options are:
If your company falls into the ‘some other arrangement’ box, you might be able to find someone to explain to you why your company manages its financial year the way it does, but frankly it doesn’t much matter when the year starts and ends as long as you know. In many cases the reasons why your financial year runs the way it does will be lost in the mist of times.
How does this affect my projects?
Your project could be at any point in its lifecycle at the point that half-year forecasting is taking place. During the forecasting process, the company is looking at how much it has spent and what it has left to spend from the budget for the remainder of the year. You may get asked to provide project budget information to feed into this forecasting process.
What, even my small project?
No, maybe not small projects. Half-year forecasting tends to deal with company profits and so the numbers are quite big. If your small project has a tiny budget then it probably won’t have an impact on the figures. Forecasting is more likely to affect a big projects running over many years or programmes.
What do I have to do?
If you use Earned Value then sending the Finance team the EV figures may be all that they need. If you don't use EV, then compare what you have spent to what you have forecast for the project. Providing the Finance department with the estimate to complete will also be useful for them as they can use this to refine the forecast for the entire company for the remainder of the year.
If the Finance department are interested in your project budget numbers to the half-year forecasting process then they will ask you for input. The only other point I’d make is that sometimes these requests can come at the last moment, so make sure your budget tracking is up to date!
Not all project managers have the opportunity to handle budgets, but when the moment comes, and the project finances are handed to you, it's good to have a plan about what to do.
I spoke to Claudine Peet, lead trainer at Silicon Beach Training, about what project managers need to know about balancing the books.
Claudine, in your opinion what's the one thing that project managers need to know about project budgeting?
Is the budgeting process the same regardless of how big the project is?
OK, that's helpful, thanks. I know that you run training courses specifically about handling financial information. On those training courses, what is the question you get asked the most?
If you had one final tip for people putting together the team for a project, what would it be?
It is strongly advised that one person with good financial knowledge manages the budget - although this is something many project managers are expected to do, it does not mean that they all have the financial know how to do it.
Claudine Peet is Lead Trainer for PRINCE2 for Silicon Beach Training, providers of project management training and PRINCE2 Training courses in Brighton, Sussex. For more information about public or on-site project management training, please contact Training Manager Colin Welch.