The Project Health Scorecard Part 1 – Project Schedule Health

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

Here is the suggested guidance for the status of the Project Schedule Health:

Your Schedule Health is Green if:

  • You have a schedule and…
  • It is actively managed and…
  • The forecast matches the published completion date

Your Schedule Health is Yellow if:

  • It is early in the project and you don’t have a schedule but are working towards one, or…
  • You have a schedule and the forecast has a greater “live date” than the current published date but corrective action is defined and probable, or…
  • The schedule is not being actively managed.

Your Schedule Health is Red if:

  • You don’t have a schedule, or…
  • You have one but the published live date cannot be met.
  • Note: Red can turn back to Green when a new schedule is approved and base-lined.

Note: Much more detail on the Project Health Scorecard can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

Risk Management Deeper Dive Part 5 – Contingency Plans

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

In the prior post I discussed risk mitigation strategies, which can reduce the potential impact of risks that haven’t occurred yet. In contrast, risk contingency plans are meant to deal with risks after they have occurred. It is sometimes amusingly referred to as “Plan B” (and “C”, “D”, etc if necessary). Contingency plans answer the question “What will we do if …”.

It can be much easier to create contingency plans in advance because you are not under the stress of the risk having already occurred and you have more time to brainstorm the potential plans. Anticipating risks and having well vetted contingency plans keeps you in control of the project and minimizes “crisis mode”.

Here are a few examples:

  • If there is a risk of testing taking longer than planned, you can have a list of additional testing resources identified to join the effort if testing falls behind.
  • If there is a risk of inclement weather disrupting outdoor activities, you can have indoor activities lined up to keep the project moving.
  • If there is a risk of a key resource leaving the project, you can have a consultant resource procured in advance to step in if needed.

As with all elements of Risk Management, conditions may change over time, so the contingency plans should be revisited on a regular basis to ensure they are still viable.

Note: Much more detail on Risk Management can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

Risk Management Deeper Dive Part 4 – Risk Mitigation Strategies

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

With your risks identified, prioritized and monitored, it is now time to develop strategies for managing the risks. The first type of strategy is “Risk Mitigation”. These are actions you can take before a risk occurs that can reduce the exposure to the risk. You should brainstorm these strategies with the members of the project team you identified in the Risk Management section of your “Project Management Plan” (refer to prior posts on this topic).

There are four mitigation strategies you can employ:

  1. Risk avoidance – this is the most expensive of the risk options. You can spend money or resources to eliminate the risk. An example would be if you have a lesser skilled resource assigned to a task, which raises a risks of on-time completion and/or deliverable quality, you can spend more money for a resource skilled enough to eliminate those risks.
  2. Risk limitation – this is the most common strategy. You take some action to reduce the probability and/or impact of the risk. One example would be if you are concerned about server downtime or performance during peak loads, you can implement redundancy and load-balancing to mitigate this risk.
  3. Risk transference – involves handing off the risk to another (willing) party. Examples are buying insurance, or outsourcing services.
  4. Risk acceptance – if the cost of mitigating the risk outweigh the cost of the risk itself, you may choose to just accept the risk with no mitigation actions. This strategy is typically employed for risks with low probability and/or low impact.

Documenting your mitigation strategies puts you in control of the project. You can manage your risks or they will surely manage you.

Note: Much more detail on Risk Management can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

Risk Management Deeper Dive Part 3 – Risk Triggers

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

In this series Part 1, I addressed Risk Identification. In Part 2, I addressed Risk Probability, Impact and Exposure. In this entry I will discuss the concept of the “Risk Trigger”.

An important aspect of Risk Management is knowing and detecting that the risk has occurred. This is know as a “Risk Trigger”. In some cases it may be obvious. An example of this would be a risk such as “If the project team loses key resource “A”, then the task estimates assigned to “A” will need to be extended which may impact key milestone commitments”. In most cases the PM will know when they have lost a key resource. However, in the case of very large project teams, the key resource may be embedded deep in the project hierarchy, hiding the loss unless there is a communication plan to notify the PM

Your risk triggers must define the method you will use to monitor the risk. For example, if there is a possible change to a government regulation that will impact your project, you can engage your Legal team to monitor the status of this regulation on a regular basis and report any changes directly to the PM.

Here is another example: if there is a risk your server capacity is insufficient to meet peak demand, you might direct your technical team to establish monitors for CPU and disk usage and raise a flag if they are approaching the safe limits.

The lesson here is don’t assume you will just know when a risk has occurred. Define Risk Triggers (even the obvious ones) for all of your risks.

Now that you know your risks, exposures, and when they occur, the next step is to manage them with mitigation and contingency plans. I will tackle these topics in the upcoming posts.

Note: Much more detail on Risk Management can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

Risk Management Deeper Dive Part 2 – Risk Prioritization

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

After you have identified your risks, the next step is to prioritize them. We do that by assigning a probability rating and an impact rating, then combining the two to determine your exposure (i.e. priority).

The Risk Probability is a measure of the likelihood of the risk occurring. In most cases it is difficult to assign an exact probability. It usually will be sufficient to define probabilities as “High”, “Medium”, and “Low” and define these probabilities as ranges. Here is an example of the ranges I typically use:

  • High = 70% or greater probability
  • Medium = between 40 – 69 % probability
  • Low = less than 40% probability

You can use whatever definition you choose as long as all of the parties helping you assign probability are aware of the defined ranges.

The Risk Impact is a measure of the effect of the Risk occurrence on the schedule, scope, budget and quality of the project. Again, since in most cases this may be difficult to quantify, using ranges represented by “High”, “Medium” and “Low” will suffice. Here is an example of range definitions for Risk Impact:

  • High = greater than 10% impact on one or more of schedule, scope, budget and quality
  • Medium = 5-10% impact on one or more of schedule, scope, budget and quality
  • Low = less than 5% impact on one or more of schedule, scope, budget and quality

The Risk Exposure is a product of both the Risk Probability and the Risk Impact. It is also measured as “High”, “Medium” and “Low” if that is the way you defined the probability and impact. Here is how the Risk Exposure can be determined:

  •  Probability (High) + Impact (High) = Exposure (High)
  •  Probability (High) + Impact (Medium) = Exposure (High)
  •  Probability (High) + Impact (Low) = Exposure (Low)
  •  Probability (Medium) + Impact (High) = Exposure (High)
  •  Probability (Medium) + Impact (Medium) = Exposure (Medium)
  •  Probability (Medium) + Impact (Low) = Exposure (Low)
  •  Probability (Low) + Impact (High) = Exposure (Medium – but watch closely due to impact)
  •  Probability (Low) + Impact (Medium) = Exposure (Medium)
  •  Probability (Low) + Impact (Low) = Exposure (Low)

Now that you have your Risk Exposure determined you should monitor and act on them in order of exposure, with the ones rated “High” given the most attention. This will help you allocate your risk management resources appropriately.

Note: Much more detail on Risk Management can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

Risk Management Deeper Dive Part 1 – Risk Identification

Executing Monitoring and Controlling

The first step in managing risk is to identify the risks you need to manage. This is the most important step in risk management and something new project managers tend to struggle with. I will present some techniques that have over the years have worked well for me.

  1. What worries you? – You can ask this question to your project team members and stakeholders. Do this first individually, then in groups. Many do not understand the term “risk” as it applies to projects and may come up with a blank if you ask them about risks. Everyone can relate to the term “worry” and I have found this helpful. You may get answers such as “I don’t have enough resources” or “the timeline is too tight” or “I don’t have enough expertise on my team in this area”. These types of answers are a great start in risk identification.
  2. The “Pre-Mortem” – We are familiar with doing “lessons learned” and “post-mortems” on projects. Doing a “Pre-Mortem” can help identify risks. You ask the project team and stakeholders  “It’s 9 months from now, the project is over and it was a disaster. What are the reasons?”. Your mind works better at identifying risk when looking backwards so this technique can be very effective. You may get responses like “The Sponsor wasn’t involved in decision making” or “We didn’t train the staff on the new tools”. These types of answers are risks that need to be managed. You can also ask the opposite question: “It’s 9 months from now, the project is over and it was wildly successful. Why?”. Responses like “Mary Jones was assigned as the technical lead” or “The Steering Committee made prompt decisions” will help you identify risks and mitigate them.
  3. Risk Breakdown Structure(RBS) – if you Google this term you will find many examples. An RBS is simply a hierarchy of areas in which risks can occur. You would present each of these areas to the team and brainstorm potential risks for each area. Here is a sample RBS:
  • Technical
  • Technology
  • Complexity of Interfaces
  • Performance and Reliability
  • Quality
  • External
  • Vendors
  • Regulatory
  • Market
  • Customer
  • Weather
  • Environmental
  • Government
  • Internal
  • Dependencies on other projects
  • Resources
  • Funding
  • Requirements
  • Resistance to change
  • Inexperience
  • Schedule
  • Equipment
  • Quality
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Project Management
  • Estimates
  • Plans
  • Controls
  • Communications
  • Scope

You should state your risks in a consistent manner. A common way to phrase your identified risks are: “If (risk event occurs), then (impact to project in terms of scope, schedule, cost, quality)”

Here is an example: “If the vendor is late delivering Component X, then we may not be able to meet the project milestone for the first build”. Note that I stated “may” not “won’t”. Remember, risks are probabilities, not certainties. If it is a certainty, it is an issue, not a risk.

Note: Much more detail on Risk Management can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

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 Project Managers earn 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.

Note: Much more detail on creating a Project Schedule can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

The Project Schedule Part 6 – The Critical Path

Planning

With tasks, resource assignments, duration/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. % of 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.

A side benefit of tight task estimates is that it should keep the task owners focused and minimize distractions.

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

Note: Much more detail on creating a Project Schedule can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

The Project Schedule Part 5 – Dependencies

Planning

Now that you have your lowest level scheduled tasks defined and have assigned resources, it is time to define the dependencies between tasks. This is where MS Project really comes in handy as it will create the schedule for you based on task dependencies and resource availability.

There are four types of dependencies:

  • Finish to Start – This is the most common and the default in MS Project. The predecessor must finish before the successor can start. For example, “Applying Primer” must finish before “Painting” can start.
  • Start to Start – Predecessor must start before the successor can start. For example “Mortgage Application” must start before “Credit Check”.
  • Finish to Finish – Predecessor must finish before the successor can finish. This can be true of tasks that run in parallel but both are needed for the subsequent task.
  • Start to Finish – Predecessor must start before the Successor can finish. This one is rarely used and frankly should be avoided.

When you initially define the dependencies, take care to only define “true” dependencies. If you have one person assigned to all the tasks you may be tempted to make all of the tasks dependent since the resource must complete one before starting another. Don’t do this. Let MS Project do this via resource leveling. The reason for not doing this is you may get additional resources later so some tasks can run in parallel. If you made them all dependent, the schedule will not show this possibility.

MS Project can now take your tasks, resource assignments, estimates and dependencies and create an initial schedule. I say initial because you often will find with your first cut that the finish date does not occur within the Sponsor’s expected time frame. In the next post I will discuss the concept of the “Critical Path” and what the Project Manager can do to rein in the target date.

Note: Much more detail on creating a Project Schedule can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera

The Project Schedule Part 4 – Resource Assignments and Estimates

Planning

Once you have defined your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) the next step in creating a schedule is to assign resources and estimates to each task (the lowest level items in your WBS). A starting point in assigning resources is to consult the “Roles & Responsibilities” matrix you created as part of the Project Charter. You are looking for the stakeholders that are in the category of “helping you execute your project”.

You may find that some WBS tasks need resources that have not yet been specifically identified as assigned to the project. In this case you will meet with the managers of the areas that have the resource expertise and agree on the assignment. In other cases you may need to contract for professional services. This should have been included in your Project Budget and the Procurement Plan. If not, you will have to use the formal Project Change Management process to alter the budget to include these services.

Microsoft Project allows you to assign resources to a task. You can also assign the percentage of the resource’s time that will be dedicated to the task. In addition, you can assign more than one resource to a given task.

Once you have resources assigned to a task you can attach estimates. You can estimate using “Duration” (the length of time the task will take independent of the resources assigned) or “Effort” (the amount of hours or days a task will take given undivided attention of the resources). Which one you use will depend on the type of project, type of task and organization culture. As a general rule I like to use “Effort” and let MS Project calculate the duration given the resource percent allocation and other tasks assigned to that resource.

When defining estimates, take into account the expertise of the resource(s) assigned to that task. An expert resource may complete a task much faster than a novice. Sometimes estimates are placed on a task prior to the resource assignment to get an idea of how the schedule will look. If you do this, remember to re-estimate once the specific resource is assigned.

There are many techniques to creating estimates. I will not address them all here. The most common are:

  • We’ve done this task before so we know how long it takes
  • The assigned resource supplies the estimate. Be careful with this one. People tend to be overly optimistic on how much time a task will take.
  • A small group of people with expertise in that task are asked to independently estimate the task, then the group discusses the discrepancies and comes to a consensus
  • Management may dictate the duration of the task in which case the PM may have to assign resources with more expertise or add resources (if feasible) to meet the deadline.

You can also use a 3-point estimate (optimistic, pessimistic and most likely) and calculate your estimate using PERT (I recommend you Google this term for the details). For a more advanced scheduling technique, you can investigate “Critical Chain and Buffer Management”. This technique that will need organizational buy-in from the top down.

Note: Much more detail on creating a Project Schedule can be found in my Kindle book “Project Management For The Real World”, available at

https://www.amazon.com/author/lettera