I am not a purist by any imagination when it comes to Project Management.
Any successful projects that I have delivered during my career required nuance, a bit of art and a reliance on some basic must haves to create a greater likelihood of success no matter the environment, type of technology or time constraints. I am not exaggerating when I say I have reviewed hundreds of project plans drafted by Project Managers and drafted quite a few personally to help drive projects to successful outcomes. The following represents some lessons learned that I hope you will find valuable if you are just starting out your career or if someone just walked over and offered you the chance of a lifetime to lead a cutting-edge implementation.
Is it a Plan or a Schedule?
Ugh! The purists now refer to it as a schedule because a plan is where you map out the approach to delivery (resources, logistics, etc.) versus the schedule which covers the tasks and dates. Like I said, I am not a purist and we are calling it a plan for this discussion. Before you read on let me just say that if you are building a project plan to only satisfy a governance/SDLC requirement you might as well just wing it. If you don’t believe in running your status meetings off agreed to targets for tasks completion and actively using the plan to identify slippage, adjust resources and flag constraints, you might as well just stick with the stream of consciousness approach to project management and cross your fingers. For those who have decided to hang in there with me for a moment to see where this is going let’s begin.
Microsoft Excel is Not Your Friend
I can list a ton of reasons why you should stick with Microsoft Project to build your plans but there will always be those who are just more comfortable working in Excel. At a Global Financial organization, we essentially outlawed all Excel based project plans after repeated citations by the Audit organization for “violating” SDLC practices. Here is what happens when you use Excel:
- You turn your multi phased, million-dollar initiative into a grocery like shopping list
- You have no immediate view into constraints, dependencies and predecessors
- You cannot readily identify task slippage
- Don’t even think about resource allocations
- Rollup views become challenging
- Visualizations of the timeline require extra work
- Etc. etc. etc.
Strategic Plans that Deliver Business Value
We often talk about improvements in process as better practices, but one so called improvement that I have seen across organizations is the default project plan that is shared as a potential starting point. If you see such a thing, run in the opposite direction and take a step back. Some things can’t be automated or standardized, and I refuse to have my creative project management side limited to a stale template of an approach that may or may not help build a better plan. Use these kinds of tools as reference points but not shortcuts to doing the thinking about what is really needed to execute successfully.
Sit down and think about the success criteria of the stakeholders and begin to craft the high-level milestones that your task will rollup to and help deliver the vision. Using delivery phases as the milestone with a whole bunch of tasks will not speak to the value that you are trying to deliver.
You will have a difficult time explaining why the project failed despite you doing all the process steps accurately and timely. Task fulfillment does not equate to process success and that is a lesson that requires a few laps around the proverbial project track before its learned.
The tasks must be prescriptive and should not be done in short form tweet like entries. Use declarative entries to ensure that work is performed and validated. Words like Secure, Verify, Validate, Obtain, Draft, Approve and Distribute should be commonplace throughout your plan.
Warning Signs of a Bad Project Plan
- Task durations are greater than 10 or 15 days. When will you know that a 60-day task is late? On the 61st day it is too late to affect any kind of change. Tasks that have a long duration require subtask items to allow for follow-up and remediation.
- Keep the schedule up to date, if all stakeholders agree to the approach and its reflected in the plan, you should be using it to manage your day to day deliverables. I have attended hundreds if not thousands of status meetings and in most cases the project manager fails to leverage the plan to confirm status and discuss slippage or upcoming tasks for the week.
- Tasks that are past due with no percentage completed is a red flag. Find out if teams have skipped tasks or decided certain deliverables have been deemed out of scope.
- Tasks are not prescriptive enough to convey work deliverable. It doesn’t have to be war and peace but at least include enough information to make it reusable
Unfortunately, Project Managers tend to get assessed on the existence of artifacts but not necessarily on the quality of products that get produced. It is time to start looking at how your project plans connect to success criteria and how the details drive the intended result. Start performing self-checks and peer reviews and include your stakeholders in the process. Share your plans with them and ask them to opine on dates and resource availability. That is a great way to get buy-in and learn from others.