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Boss’s Tip of the Week #35: Project Management: How to Stay on Top of What You Need to Do

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Who are the patron saints of project management? Julia Child, Paula Deen, and Bobby Flay, for starters. Yes, really. That’s because recipes are the greatest project management tool ever invented. Think about it. Recipes:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Itemize all the resources needed
  • Spell out the timeline and ideal work environment
  • Specify the correct tools
  • Identify milestones
  • Establish timeframes
  • Offer step-by-step instructions to achieve the desired results

What more you could ask of a project management tool?

            And yet many people who wouldn’t dream of making potato salad without a cookbook in front of them will rush into a major project without much (if any) preparation. Unless you’re either incredibly brilliant or lucky or both, that’s a recipe for failure – or at least for costly errors along the way.

            Given that project management is an important part of any boss’s job, that’s a recipe you can’t afford to follow. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Instead, try this recipe for success:

Define the project. This step is akin to deciding what you want to make. What’s the purpose of the project? In other words, why are you doing this? You should be able to summarize the project in a single sentence. If you can’t, the project is probably too vague or too big. Don’t move forward until the definition is crystal clear. If you need to go back to your boss (or whomever) for clarification, do it.

Identify your resources. Think of this as listing ingredients. What will you need to complete the project? Consider the people you’ll need (both in terms of necessary expertise and man hours), the budget required, and any materials. These materials may be tangible (e.g., 500 three-ring binders) and intangible (e.g., access to certain computer files or a specified drive). If you were cooking, the ingredients list would only be the start; you’d also have to think about where to buy the ingredients. That’s true in project management, too. Consider who (or which department) controls the resources you need. How can you best manage a relationship with those people?

List the key steps. Break down the overall project into a series of crucial events. For example, suppose you were planning a new office tower. To get it done, there would be several key steps: raise (or earmark) the funds, identify the site, secure the site (through lease or purchase of the land), hire an architect, get a design, establish a budget, hire a contractor, get it built, and so forth. The idea is to create an overview of what needs to be done.

List the detailed steps. Once you have the overview, break it down into its component parts. Identifying the site, for example, might include evaluating the existing infrastructure, investigating zoning restrictions, doing an environmental impact report, and so forth. How detailed the list is will vary depending on how complex the project is.

Figure out your timeline. Once you know what needs to be done, you can figure out how long it will take.  Develop a timeline in increments that suit the project. The office tower, for example, will probably be measured in months (or even years); other projects might be measured in days. Identify key milestones in your timeline. (For example, the city must approve the plans by this date if construction is to begin on time.)

Develop a plan. With the steps and timeline in place, put it all together as plan. And then get feedback on the plan. Invite members of your team (and other stakeholders) to look it over. Does the plan seem workable? Or do they see potential trouble spots? Incorporate the feedback and adjust the plan as needed.

Expect the unexpected. If your plan has no margin for error, you’re in trouble before you ever get started. Anticipate that something will go wrong, and have an idea of how you’ll deal with it when it happens. For example, suppose that an unexpectedly heavy rainy season delays construction. How will you get back on track? Work with the experts on your team to identify the areas where problems are most likely.

Remove obstacles early. You can expect most projects to have insufficient budget, too few resources, too little time or some combination of those factors. The project can be tweaked to adjust in response to some of those demands. But if some part of the plan is genuinely unworkable (an office tower simply can’t be constructed in three weeks), then the time to raise the issue is at the outset. Put the problem on the table and work through it. Do not wait until well into the project to raise a red flag.

Monitor your progress. Once the progress is underway, monitor your milestones and make sure things are happening as they are supposed to. If they aren’t, find out why and, if need be, adjust the plan.

Document everything. Don’t depend on yourself or anyone else to remember everything that transpires. Document what happens: who, what, when, where, why and how. Not only will you have a safety net of something goes wrong, but anyone who does a similar project later on will be able to take advantage of whatever you learned.

Prevent surprises. Keep everyone who needs to know (or thinks they need to know) informed throughout. Don’t let anyone come to you later and say, “Why didn’t I know…” 

Who are the patron saints of project management? Julia Child, Paula Deen, and Bobby Flay, for starters. Yes, really. That’s because recipes are the greatest project management tool ever invented. Think about it. Recipes:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Itemize all the resources needed
  • Spell out the timeline and ideal work environment
  • Specify the correct tools
  • Identify milestones
  • Establish timeframes
  • Offer step-by-step instructions to achieve the desired results

What more you could ask of a project management tool?

            And yet many people who wouldn’t dream of making potato salad without a cookbook in front of them will rush into a major project without much (if any) preparation. Unless you’re either incredibly brilliant or lucky or both, that’s a recipe for failure – or at least for costly errors along the way.

            Given that project management is an important part of any boss’s job, that’s a recipe you can’t afford to follow. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Instead, try this recipe for success:

Define the project. This step is akin to deciding what you want to make. What’s the purpose of the project? In other words, why are you doing this? You should be able to summarize the project in a single sentence. If you can’t, the project is probably too vague or too big. Don’t move forward until the definition is crystal clear. If you need to go back to your boss (or whomever) for clarification, do it.

Identify your resources. Think of this as listing ingredients. What will you need to complete the project? Consider the people you’ll need (both in terms of necessary expertise and man hours), the budget required, and any materials. These materials may be tangible (e.g., 500 three-ring binders) and intangible (e.g., access to certain computer files or a specified drive). If you were cooking, the ingredients list would only be the start; you’d also have to think about where to buy the ingredients. That’s true in project management, too. Consider who (or which department) controls the resources you need. How can you best manage a relationship with those people?

List the key steps. Break down the overall project into a series of crucial events. For example, suppose you were planning a new office tower. To get it done, there would be several key steps: raise (or earmark) the funds, identify the site, secure the site (through lease or purchase of the land), hire an architect, get a design, establish a budget, hire a contractor, get it built, and so forth. The idea is to create an overview of what needs to be done.

List the detailed steps. Once you have the overview, break it down into its component parts. Identifying the site, for example, might include evaluating the existing infrastructure, investigating zoning restrictions, doing an environmental impact report, and so forth. How detailed the list is will vary depending on how complex the project is.

Figure out your timeline. Once you know what needs to be done, you can figure out how long it will take.  Develop a timeline in increments that suit the project. The office tower, for example, will probably be measured in months (or even years); other projects might be measured in days. Identify key milestones in your timeline. (For example, the city must approve the plans by this date if construction is to begin on time.)

Develop a plan. With the steps and timeline in place, put it all together as plan. And then get feedback on the plan. Invite members of your team (and other stakeholders) to look it over. Does the plan seem workable? Or do they see potential trouble spots? Incorporate the feedback and adjust the plan as needed.

Expect the unexpected. If your plan has no margin for error, you’re in trouble before you ever get started. Anticipate that something will go wrong, and have an idea of how you’ll deal with it when it happens. For example, suppose that an unexpectedly heavy rainy season delays construction. How will you get back on track? Work with the experts on your team to identify the areas where problems are most likely.

Remove obstacles early. You can expect most projects to have insufficient budget, too few resources, too little time or some combination of those factors. The project can be tweaked to adjust in response to some of those demands. But if some part of the plan is genuinely unworkable (an office tower simply can’t be constructed in three weeks), then the time to raise the issue is at the outset. Put the problem on the table and work through it. Do not wait until well into the project to raise a red flag.

Monitor your progress. Once the progress is underway, monitor your milestones and make sure things are happening as they are supposed to. If they aren’t, find out why and, if need be, adjust the plan.

Document everything. Don’t depend on yourself or anyone else to remember everything that transpires. Document what happens: who, what, when, where, why and how. Not only will you have a safety net of something goes wrong, but anyone who does a similar project later on will be able to take advantage of whatever you learned.

• Prevent surprises. Keep everyone who needs to know (or thinks they need to know) informed throughout. Don’t let anyone come to you later and say, “Why didn’t I know…”

Boss’s Tip of the Week #35: Project Management: How to Stay on Top of What You Need to Do
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