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Don’t Say “Ongoing”

In this series of posts, I share what I’m learning as I make my way through Project Management Simplified, a Lynda.com course with management consultant, Chris Croft.

Croft warns against saying “the O word” in reference to a task’s timeline. If you say a task is ongoing, you are essentially saying you don’t know when a task is going to end. Perhaps the task will start on the first day of the project and end on the last day, but it will not go on indefinitely.

The fact that you feel tempted to say the task is ongoing may be a sign that you don’t have sufficient granularity. You need to break the task down into smaller subtasks.

In your projects, are you currently thinking of any of them as “ongoing”? Would breaking them down into smaller sub-tasks allow you to give them more concrete start and end dates? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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List Tasks

In this series of posts, I share what I’m learning as I make my way through Project Management Simplified, a Lynda.com course with management consultant, Chris Croft.

Step 2 of Croft’s The Twelve Steps to Manage a Project Successfully is to list the tasks associated with the project. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, defines a project as any outcome that takes more than one step to accomplish. But Croft lists examples such as “hire manager” or “purchase furniture” that certainly take more than one step. Really, he is talking about sub-projects.

Croft reviews three ways to list these sub-projects: right brain, left brain, and someone else’s brain.

  1. Right Brain: Host a brainstorm party with your team. Set up an environment where people are explicitly encouraged to come up with lots of zany ideas. Aim for quantity over quality.
  2. Left Brain: Take the relevant ideas and put them into an tree-diagram known as a work breakdown structure (WBS). For example if the project is a conference, your categories might be participant recruitment, presenters, site, etc. You can start doing it with paper and pen, but eventually you will want to share your WBS with someone else. I think PowerPoint is good software for creating this kind of document and I used it to create an Idea Tree Template that you can download.
  3. Someone Else’s Brain: Take your new fancy, schmancy WBS to knowledgeable people and ask for their feedback and ask them what is missing. You can also research topics you’re not familiar with and try to determine if you’ve missed anything.

Croft discusses the problem of “granularity.” How detailed should your list be? If your categories are too broad, it will be impossible to determine the costs. But if you get too detailed it becomes unworkable.

Croft’s rule-of-thumb is to break tasks down until they take no more than a week. He suggests that any longer than that makes it hard to hold people accountable—if a task is scheduled for a month, you might not know until the end of the month that the work isn’t getting done.

How do you identify the tasks required for a project? Share your process in the comments below.

Writing Up the Project Definition

In this series of posts, I share what I’m learning as I make my way through Project Management Simplified, a Lynda.com course with management consultant, Chris Croft.

Step 1 of Croft’s The Twelve Steps to Manage a Project Successfully is to agree to the success criteria and major constraints in writing.

For clear communication between the Project Manager (PM) and the client or boss, it’s important to write down the project definition. Depending on the nature of the project, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a signed contract, but at least an email saying this is what we agreed to.

A written project definition has the following benefits:

  • It prevents scope creep during the project
  • At project completion, it is a useful yardstick for measuring the success or failure of the project

Sometimes people want to leave it unwritten so they have some wiggle room. But it can lead to confusion because multiple people will make different assumptions about what was actually agreed to.

The written project definition allows all parties to look at what is proposed and say “yes” or “no,” rather than “I’ll try to get it done.” or “I have reservations about this project, but I’ll put off judging whether this is how we should proceed.”

It also allows future people coming in to the project to have a clear picture of what the project is all about and how it will be accomplished.

Croft encourages everyone to think about the projects we are in the middle of ask if we have everything nailed down in writing. He encourages us to write an email about existing projects to confirm there is shared understanding of where we are and where we are going.

Thinking about the projects you are in the middle of, is there an email you can write now that would help clarify expectations? Write about it in the comments below.

Lynda’s No-Brainer Chapter Quiz Results

Here’s the knowledge I demonstrated in Lynda’s chapter quiz:

  • PMs should not promise their bosses and clients the moon. You won’t be able to do every project cheaply, quickly, and perfectly.
  • Every project will involve quality (deliverables), cost (budget), and time (deadlines).
  • The purpose of a kick-off meeting is to discover what stakeholders are looking for and envisioning.
  • The risks of only having a verbal agreement on the project definition are:
    • Scope creep
    • Disagreement on deliverables
    • New project workers or stakeholders in the future don’t understand the project

Planning Your Kick-off Meetings

In this series of posts, I share what I’m learning as I make my way through Project Management Simplified, a Lynda.com course with management consultant, Chris Croft.

Step 1 of Croft’s The Twelve Steps to Manage a Project Successfully is to agree to the success criteria and major constraints with the customer, in writing.

Croft recommends Project Managers (PMs) facilitate two meetings with the project stakeholders to come to this agreement. Many projects will have multiple stakeholders involved, each with their own vision of the project. It’s important that the PM and the stakeholders come to an explicit, detailed agreement about what they want from the project.

In facilitating meetings, I like to think about Desired Outcomes. Meetings are a process to get from point A to point B, so meetings should ideally state their desired outcomes up front.

As Croft describes it, the Desired Outcome of the first meeting is to reach a shared understanding of the broad outlines of the project. As he puts it, “OK, guys. This is the plan I’ve come up with. What do you think?”

Once there is agreement on the basic idea, he recommends the PM then work their way through steps 2-8 of his 12-step process:

  1. Define the project
  2. List the tasks
  3. Estimate times and costs for each task
  4. Add up time and cost
  5. Shorten your project plan
  6. Draw a Gantt chart
  7. Calculate resource requirements over time
  8. Assess risks and prepare action plans
  9. Monitor progress
  10. Monitor cost
  11. Reschedule
  12. Review: learn and praise

The PM then brings this work back to the second meeting, perhaps even offering two different versions of the plan.

The Desired Outcomes for the second meeting are to:

  1. choose a plan among the options offered
  2. document ideas on how to improve the plan
  3. secure agreement to pursue the plan as amended.

In my experience, groups often get stuck when they ask themselves “Are we all in complete agreement about this plan?” It’s too high a bar for a group of people with diverse perspectives to reach complete agreement on anything.

Rather I pose questions such as “Would anyone object if we move forward with this plan as proposed?” If there are objections, you solve for them if at all possible. Then you ask the question again until you reach a plan that everyone can live with, even if it’s not their first choice about how to proceed.

How do you reach consensus in meetings? Share thoughts in the comments below.

 

Olympics vs. Nuclear Power Reactors

In this series of posts, I share what I’m learning as I make my way through Project Management Simplified, a Lynda.com course with management consultant, Chris Croft.

Croft describes the three drivers of projects:

  • Cost
  • Quality
  • Time

It’s important for a project manger to identify which of these is the key driver.

Croft gives the examples of the Olympics and the construction of a nuclear power reactor.

The key element for the Olympics is time. The event will take place on a particular day no matter what, even if the cost goes up or the quality goes down.

With the construction of a nuclear power reactor, the key element should be quality; even if it takes 2 more years to get it right, the quality has to be the driver of the project.

But in many projects, it may be hard to know which is most important, so Croft suggests using “Three Cunning Questions” in conversations with clients (or bosses) about project priorities:

  1. Why? Why does it need to be done on that date? Or: Why have you set the budget for that amount?
  2. What if? For example: What if we can’t get it done by that date?
  3. Can we trade? You could suggest to the client that if we spent more, we could put in some nicer features. Or you could say, “We can do it in that timeline but it would mean that we wouldn’t have time to accomplish everything you are asking for. Which would you prefer?”

Have you had conversations like these, either as client, employer, or project manager? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Project Management Simplified

It’s a cold November night and I have 30 minutes to kill before my partner and I meet for Thai food. I’m already downtown with a laptop and an internet connection, so I’m logging in to Lynda.com to indulge my professional development addiction.

I thought I would blog as I use this platform to gain more formal training in project management. You see, most of what I’ve learned about project management I’ve learned on the job. I certainly have read and applied learnings from productivity and project management books and articles. But I noticed the “Become a Project Coordinator” Learning Path on Lynda. I wonder what I might learn by going through each of the courses. I’ll share what I learn here.

Project Management Simplified Course

The first class is Project Management Simplified with Chris Croft. Here’s how it’s described:

Almost everything you do in the workplace is a project, from the smallest task to the largest endeavor. All of this work can benefit from some simple project-management techniques. In this course, management trainer Chris Croft outlines the twelve steps to managing projects without creating a lot of extra overhead, and shows how to use traditional PM tools—such as Gantt charts and network diagrams—to help you manage your workload.

12-Step Process

In the first chapter, Croft gives an overview of his 12-step process for Project Management:

  1. Define the project
  2. List the tasks
  3. Estimate times and costs for each task
  4. Add up time and cost
  5. Shorten your project plan
  6. Draw a Gantt chart
  7. Calculate resource requirements over time
  8. Assess risks and prepare action plans
  9. Monitor progress
  10. Monitor cost
  11. Reschedule
  12. Review: learn and praise

How does this overview look to you? Are any of Croft’s steps redundant? Any steps missing? Respond in the comments below.

Quiz Results

I took the chapter quiz and demonstrated that I understood the following fairly obvious facts:

  • Failing to define your project is a very common reason for project failure.
  • The following are essential steps in project planning:
    • List your tasks
    • Estimate times and costs for each task
    • Calculate resource requirements over time