Project Management

The Best-Laid Plans

Edward P. Youngberg

The project plan is the foundation of any project, and the stronger that foundation, the better the chance of your project's success. Each step in the planning process (see "Jargon Review") needs to be carefully thought through and agreed upon before starting any project. Before you even start the process of building a project plan, it's wise to select a qualified project manager and schedule a planning session with the appropriate clients, developers and implementation staff. It is also a major advantage to have the project sponsor attend the project kickoff meeting. In that way, he or she can render active support for the project before it gets off the ground.

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Jargon Review

Anyone who has ever managed a project knows how important the planning phase is. Here's a quick primer on the PM lingo and what it really means: 

  • Defining Description and Scope
    What Will Be Done?
  • The Approach
    How Will It Be Done?
  • Understanding Risks and Concerns
    What's the Worst that Can Happen?
  • Define Acceptance Criteria
    How Will We Know It’s Done?
  • Change Process Management
    How Will Change Be Controlled?
  • Resource Requirements
    What Will It Take?
  • Estimated Time And Costs
    How Much And How Long?
  • Gaining Project Agreement
    Does It Meet Client Needs?
  • Building Project Plan
    Where do We Start?
  • Authority To Proceed
    Do We Have Sponsor Funding/Approval?

 


The Kick-Off
My project planning experiences at Unisys, RCA, R.J. Reynolds, Prudential and The City of New York have continually reinforced the need for a project kickoff meeting and subsequent participative planning sessions with the planning team. It is amazing to see how many projects are started in a relative vacuum. Often, key decisions are being made up front without the advantage of even partially adequate analysis. Someone in management decides something needs doing quickly--usually a reaction to market-related conditions like competition move or a shift in product demand. 

This "sense of urgency" (some might say "panic") and perceived need for some sort of systems or technology solution usually translates to a management-directed plan rather than an adequately considered project plan using a management process. The situation becomes reactive instead of proactive from the start. Ironically, the very thing that brings the project to life is the same thing that can kill it in the long run.

Where things tend to bog down most during project planning is identification of client needs. Major inhibitors to a successful client needs definition usually involve team member opinions about what should be done that are too far ranging or very limited in scope. Often team members get so excited about what they can do for a client, that they forget to listen to what it is the client really needs or wants. It is the role of the project manager, as planning session leader, and the project sponsor to help focus the team. Ideally, the PM and sponsor have the most experience in sorting out needs and addressing issues that are raised. At the end of the planning day, the scope of the project is the project manager and sponsor’s key deliverable.

Let’s face it, a solid, self-directed project manager and supportive, business-savvy project sponsor are key ingredients toward the overall project success. Everyone involved understands the commitment required and direction to be taken, and support from the project sponsor is usually evident. What should be defined during the planning sessions are the necessary steps in the plan (Work Breakdown Structure) that will ultimately meet client needs. The other goals of the meeting are to get the resources and schedule availability agreement from the various managers supporting the project. This must be substantiated with well thought-out estimates.

Risky Business
Once an initial pass at Work Breakdown Structure has been completed, and dependencies linked to various tasks, the team next must consider risks. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, as they say. What can go wrong? What can impact negatively? What are fallback positions, and what are the potential project exit strategies? Identify which of the potential risks are real is important in convincing everyone the plan will work. This is where a detailed understanding of the business processes and technological aspects of the project are critical. Subject matter experts on the team who are well-versed in business processes and technology will help ensure overall project success. 

It is important to note here that members of the project planning team may or may not end up being project developers or implementers. Still, key members of the planning team should always participate in some way with development and/or implementation. This ensures continuity from planning through implementation. Team planning members may take on roles as task group leaders for development, implementation and even client test and acceptance group leaders. Accountability for the success or failure of any project rests with all team members.

Change Is Good
If you've worked on any project (or if you've ever gone on vacation, for that matter), you know that things don't always go according to plan. As part of any project plan, we should always anticipate and welcome change. Since we are addressing the project planning process in this discussion, our focus will be on managing change. However, it is important to point out that changes can, and often do, occur while executing the "plan." 

When developing the project plan, changes to plan content happen frequently. Resources change, tasks get added and subtracted, dependencies are assigned, and funding requirements become more refined. A formal Change Control Process can be implemented as part of the planning, development and implementation stages of any project. This may be as straightforward and simple as e-mail to the project manager. It can be more formalized with a formal Change Request that gets reviewed and approved, based on merit, by the project team leaders.

What Do You Expect?
When developing the project plan, special care must be given to managing client expectations. While the needs analysis is underway, a great deal of client contact continually takes place. This is a good thing! 

What sometimes happens when planning begins in earnest is client communication temporarily wanes. This is usually because focus is on task definition and resource estimation. Granted, the client is represented on the team. However, those representatives are busy and may not always be communicating what’s going on to the rest of the client community.

It is the project team’s responsibility to communicate progress and unresolved issues to all involved and interested parties. If we want to maintain momentum and continuity of hard won client and management support, the team must continually COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE AND COMMUNICATE!

A preponderance of corporation, government and private institution time and money resource savings can be realized with an effective project planning process. Seems simple enough, but this is not always the case, however. Placing emphasis and even high priority on thinking through the process steps outlined in this discussion, will invariably pay huge dividends for your next project.

Mr. Youngberg has more than 30 years' experience in managing large-scale programs and projects as a responsible information systems and telecommunications executive. He owns and manages a systems and telecommunications integration and Application Service Provider firm as well as actively consulting in the discipline of Project Management.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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