The Five Steps to Successful Project Management

There are no “secrets” to project management success. It’s a combination of education in PM best practices (the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK), communication skills, and staying confident, focused and cool under fire. Most successful Project Managers follow these five steps:

Step 1: Know Your Outcomes

In the Project Charter topic I mentioned the first and most important step in your project is to properly define the business and project outcomes. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know you have arrived? This is as true for personal projects and goals as it is for business projects.

Step 2: Have a Plan and Take Action

You can speak passionately about your desired outcomes but unless you do something about it they are as worthless as having no outcomes at all. Taking action starts with good planning and the topics on the “Project Management Plan” and the “Project Plan” are excellent places to start. Once you have a plan, you can begin execution.

Step 3: Collect Relevant Information Regarding Progress

It is a rare project that goes exactly according to plan. You need to regularly evaluate whether your outcomes are still achievable and the level of progress towards achieving those outcomes. Having this information leads to the next step …

Step 4: Be Flexible and Change Plans as needed

If your project is not proceeding according to the plan, be prepared to change the plan and do whatever it takes to achieve your desired outcomes. This could mean some combination of the following: changing the order of activities, reassigning resources, changing the scope, crashing the schedule, etc.

The Marines have a motto: “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome”. This is also a good motto for Project Managers.

Step 5: Look and Feel Confident

Your project team will take its cue from you. If you are expressing doubts, look worried and anxious, or show uncertainty, your team will start to feel the same. Using PM best practices and following Steps 1 thru 4 in this post will allow you to proceed with confidence.

 

 

The Project Schedule Part 7: Schedule Adjustments

Planning

After you have created your initial cut of the schedule, you will often find that this schedule will not meet the target date. Adjusting the schedule and adapting to changing circumstance is where a Project Manager earns their money.

Here are some of the actions you can take:

  • Focus on the tasks that are on the Critical Path
  • Revisit the estimates – do some of the estimates have more safety time built in than is needed? Where can you reduce estimates and not take on more risk?
  • Fast-Tracking – look at activities that you have scheduled in sequence due to assumed dependencies. Can you do some of these in parallel or at least have some overlap? For example, you might have “Solution Construction” following “Design” but in reality you can start building some of the solution after some (but not all) of the design is completed. Fast-tracking is a very common practice and you will use this on most large projects.
  • Crashing the schedule – this is where you throw additional resources at critical path tasks without regard to efficiency or budget. If meeting the target date is imperative, this is a useful tactic. It is best to plan for this contingency when you are doing your Risk Management Plan in order to have contingency funds in the budget that you can draw on in case the schedule risk is triggered.
  • Obtain stronger resources – you can examine the critical path task assignments and look for opportunities where more experienced and knowledgeable resources would allow you to substantially reduce the task estimates.
  • Reduce Scope – review the ranked requirements and obtain Sponsor approval to remove or delay requirements that are not essential for the initial go-live date.
  • Sacrifice Quality – you can ask the Sponsor for approval to reduce test time for functions that are used rarely or are not business critical.

You are likely to use some or all of the tactics listed above in any project of significant size. It is a critical skill for Project Managers.

The Project Schedule Part 6: The Critical Path

Planning

With tasks, resource assignments, durations/effort and dependencies defined, your project scheduling software will create a schedule. The path of dependent tasks that in aggregate take the longest amount of time is called “The Critical Path”. This is because if any one of these tasks is completed later than originally scheduled, your project end date will move.

When you are in the “Execution and Monitoring” Phase of your project, regular examination of the state of your critical path tasks is a top priority. It is important to routinely check in with the assigned resources to determine if the “days to completion” is still valid. If you wait until the task is late, it will be too late to do anything about it. Your only choice would be to examine the other tasks on the critical path to see if any task times can be reigned in to make up for the lost time. We will examine techniques you can use for this in the next post.

A technique you can use to make your critical path less volatile is to estimate your individual tasks more aggressively and aggregate the extra time you would have assigned to individual tasks into one “critical path buffer”. If critical path tasks come in early, you can add the time saved to the buffer. If critical path tasks come in late, you subtract time from the buffer. Using this technique, your schedule will not move with any one late task and it will encourage team members to work faster and ignore distractions. Also, the health of the buffer would be the key metric instead of the health of each individual task.

You can measure the health of the critical path buffer with two metrics:

  1. % or original buffer remaining
  2. Divide the “% of elapsed project time” into “% of buffer used”. If this is a number less than one you are tracking well. If it is greater than one it is an early warning sign to take action

For example: Your project has used 30% of it’s original buffer but you are only 10 weeks into a 50 week project (only 20% of the project schedule has elapsed), You divide 30%/20% and this equals 1.5 (greater than one) meaning you need to take remedial action.

If your project only used 15% of your original buffer, 15%/20% = 0.75, which is less than one indicating a healthy schedule.

When using this technique, it is very important to regularly update the “days to complete” for each critical path task so you can have confidence in the status of your buffer.

Whatever technique you use, constant monitoring of the health of the critical path is one of the most important tasks for the Project Manager.