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Author: Lisa Anderson

Project Management Software – NOT Critical to Success

Eliminate the excuses! There’s NO investment required to achieve the 80/20 of project management success.  As businesses are struggling in the recession or reluctant to spend as they slowly emerge from the recessionary climate, it seems timely to evaluate how to achieve project management success with minimal or no investment and complexity.  The bottom line is that it is entirely possible to achieve project management results with current tools, software and resources.

In my project management experience, sometimes the company had one or two licenses to project management software but rarely more than that.  Thus, complex project management and tracking was limited.  Don’t waste time getting side tracked with how to deal with this roadblock.  Through my work on several, diverse projects ranging from supply chain projects to ERP implementations to Sarbanes-Oxley projects, I’ve found that there is only one area in which project management software provides an ease-of-use advantage (and is only required in the early phase of the project with one license) and that is the automation of the critical path.  However, this advantage had no effect on results!

In 100% of the hundreds of projects I’ve either led or worked on in a diverse set of companies and industries, I’ve found that developing the critical path has been one of the keys to project success.  I’ve completed the critical path manually and with project management software.  There was no difference to the project’s results!  The only difference was the ease with which the critical path was developed.  Developing it manually adds a bit of time to the process but it is not substantial, and it certainly doesn’t merit a delay in beginning the project.

The reasons that project management software provides an ease-of-use advantage in developing the critical path include: 

  1. Integrated into the software is the capability to identify predecessors. 
  2. Integrated into the software is the capability to identify when the task starts in relation to other tasks (for example, task A starts simultaneously with task B or task A starts one week prior to task A’s completion). 
  3. The software automates the creation of the critical path timeline. 

On the other hand, the key to bottom line results has nothing to do with project management software.  Instead, it is to spend the proper amount of time upfront in developing the critical path.  It is essential to bring the appropriate parties together to gain a solid understanding of the tasks, the sequencing of the tasks, the priorities of the tasks, the resources required for the tasks, etc.  All of this data goes into the critical path.  Project management software doesn’t help at all with this most critical aspect of critical path development.  In fact, it can deter progress if the group is so enamored with project management theory and software that they lose focus on understanding the project in sufficient detail.  Instead, the keys to success are as follows:

Focus. Typically, the project leader is the key to success, as he/she keeps the project team focused on the end results to be achieved, the tasks required to achieve the end results, etc.  It is easy to become distracted on non-essential tasks, resource concerns, etc. instead of defining the requirements to achieve the end result. 

Questioning Ability. The project leader and team’s ability to ask good questions throughout the critical path development has proven to be one of the ingredients to success.  For example, in a new product launch project, the project leader did not have technical expertise in the subject matter, yet was integral to project success because his expert questioning ability led the team to not only develop a solid project plan but also to consider important sequencing options and priorities they might have otherwise overlooked. 

Organization. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with thousands of tasks, resource requirements and priorities.  Thus, organization becomes integral to success.

Communication. The best critical path is useless unless it is clearly understood and communicated to project participants and related parties.  On the other hand, even a mediocre critical path will deliver superior results to an optimal critical path if communicated and coordinated expertly.

Beyond the critical path, the number one key to success is execution.  I’ve seen absolutely no difference in projects managed through complex software to those managed manually.  The single largest difference is project leadership – in essence, bringing the team together, clarifying the path forward and priorities and a never-ending, relentless focus on follow-up. 

Instead of delaying projects or getting bogged down in the latest, complex project planning software, get started immediately, follow simple principles and you’ll achieve significant project results. 

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Can You Use Project Management to Find a Job?

There are so many high quality people in the job search process todays – after all, unemployment rates continue to increase, even though at a slower rate. Tell this “comforting” statistic to the exasperated job seeker. For example, California’s unemployment is 12.2%.

It is obvious that traditional job search methods no longer work. Instead, it is essential to stand out in the crowd (and the crowd is quite a crowd these days!). In talking with a former colleague and supply chain expert earlier today, I discovered that she has achieved significantly more success since adopting project management principles in her job search process. These principles have resulted in higher response rates, increased interviews and follow-up calls. Now, this can be a comforting result.

So, what are the keys to success in transforming your current job search process into a project management approach?

  1. First, remember, just like with project management success, relationships are the key to job search success. By the time a job shows up on one of the various job websites, it is often too late. Instead, you need to find out about the potential job through your network. There is no greater critical priority than nurturing your relationships and providing value. Do NOT expect to receive value; instead continually think of ways to provide value. This is identical to the first principle to the best project management successes I’ve seen throughout my career – start with the people. For example, in one client project, we reduced inventory levels by 40% through a combination of 70% people/ 30% process. Also, remember to expand your network – consider recruiters, Linked In contacts, equity groups, attorneys, etc. Sticking to one is no longer sufficient. You need to have a well-nurtured and expansive network. It is amazing what can be achieved when your first thought are your relationships.
  2. Develop a simple task list and timeline. Similar to a project timeline, develop a simple task list and timeline for your job search. Don’t become bogged down in complexity, software options etc. Instead, ensure you have thought through all your tasks, dependencies, and time commitments. For example, include all the database searches you perform on a daily or weekly basis, include the time required for company research and/or key contact research, include calls and meetings with your network, include follow-up calls, etc. The more you are able to clearly define the tasks, task dependencies and time requirements, the better equipped you’ll be with a plan to assist in achieving results.
  3. Prioritize: My former colleague and friend originally thought the process would take four hours a day maximum – after all, it doesn’t seem too complex or time consuming. Until the first week…….then it became apparent that it is more than a full time job – just without pay! Thus, it is essential to prioritize. In today’s world, there are 100+ applicants for a particular job. Therefore, if you are # 101 to submit, you are out of luck in many cases, as companies have to cut it off somewhere. And, if you have a potential of 10 hours of job searching per day to achieve in an eight hour day, it is critical to prioritize the jobs and activities most critical to your desired end result. Again, this is no different from project management – priorities often times are clarified through the critical path. In my experience, if you are focused on the critical path, you have achieved the 80% of the 80/20.
  4. Follow-up: Imagine if a company receives 200 resumes and applications for one job. Without follow-up, you will have submitted the application in vain. Again, similar to project management, use absolute focus on the top priorities and the critical path, and use rigorous follow-up. Also, do not rely solely on email. Multiple forms of communication are required in today’s environment.
  5. Track progress with a continuous improvement philosophy: After 100 applications, it can get quite confusing which job is which, which key contact is which, who you talked with when, etc. Therefore, it is not only essential to track progress so that you know where you are in the process and can adjust accordingly, it is also essential to track progress and take notes of conversations, email follow-up, etc. Constantly look for areas of opportunity and continually adjust and improve. Remember, to stand out in the crowd, you must be on top of your game.

It is a bit out-of-the-box; however, why create entirely new processes to succeed in the job search process? Instead, leverage existing, proven project management methods for success.

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Throw Out Complex Project Timelines!

The current recession has made it all the more critical that companies deliver the expected project results – on time, on/under budget and meeting/exceeding the intended results. Therefore, it is critical that we throw out the old paradigms, starting with the need for complex project timelines. I hear my project management colleagues thinking, “heresy!” However in my experience in working with companies ranging from entrepreneurial start-ups to international, multi-billion dollar organizations, I’ve found that what works (delivers bottom line results) consistently is quite the opposite – simple, common sense, people-focused projects. So, what are the keys to success?

Start with the people. The project leader and team are of number one importance to whether your project will deliver the expected results. Sometimes, people come as an after-thought. After all, doesn’t everyone have full-time jobs to do already? And, in turbulent economic times, most quality potential project leaders are already working twice as hard. As a former VP of Operations, I fully understand this dilemma. Instead of assigning those who are available to what could be a $1 million dollar project or a project that affects your core product lines, take a step back and think about the best person to lead the project. There are countless ways to handle staffing issues, ranging from reallocating work to bringing in outside help, so don’t let this be an excuse for not staffing your critical project properly. The project leader doesn’t have to be a full-time resource – it all depends on the project. And, do not get caught up in thinking that your project leader has to be a guru in creating complex project timelines, as it has little to do with success. Instead, ensure that your project leader has the leadership skills and background to effectively lead the project team and collaboratively work with everyone involved in the project, and is organized and focused on the project outcomes/results. In my experience with multiple $1 million+ successful projects, this is number one.

Develop a simple project timeline. There is no need for complex project timelines that require a PhD to track properly and/or a systems expert to understand. Instead, develop an understandable timeline with major milestones and accountabilities. Simple works! I’ve found the critical aspects of the timeline to be the following: clarity of the key dependent tasks and milestones on the critical path and clear, agreed-upon accountabilities. It is amazing how many times I’ve seen the timeline fall apart either by focusing on non-critical path tasks to the detriment of the critical path tasks or a lack of clarity about the accountabilities. After all, a team cannot own a task. There must be a task owner! Whether the task owner does the task completely on his/her own or works with a team to accomplish it, the task owner is accountable.

Follow-up is your key to success. Undoubtedly, my number one avenue to achieving project management success on projects ranging from product development launches to supply chain reorganizations and from ERP implementations to merger and acquisition integrations is follow-up. So, how does one follow-up…….and when? Follow-up with the project team until the critical path, milestones and key accountabilities are clear. Then, follow up on critical path tasks and milestones. There is no reason to waste time on non-critical path tasks, as it can become a major distraction. Keep the team focused on the critical path. Remind critical path task owners when their deadlines are approaching. Ask if they have questions, concerns, roadblocks etc. Don’t wait until the project falls behind. Instead, proactively follow up to ensure the critical path stays on schedule. Aggressively tackle any roadblocks in the way of achieving the critical path. Encourage, appreciate and thank the project task owners. Remind them how their task fits into the big picture and how the project’s outcomes are of value to the organization. Follow up on critical finances. Don’t get lost in a debate over a few dollars. However, be extremely vigilant on the critical expenditures and those related to the critical path.

Instead of getting bogged down in the latest, complex project planning software and process, continually follow these three key steps, and you’ll achieve significant project results.

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