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  • Become a Project Management Minimalist

    Feb 2

    Audio: Become a Project Management Minimalist
    [Time – 37:05, File Size – 17.4 MB]
    Note: This post is a bit different from most Inspired Project Teams posts. It focuses less on the inspirational side of project management and more on the “nuts and bolts” practices that can help your project team be more effective. After all, if a project team is ineffective, no amount of inspiration can help them find much joy in their work. So in this post, we look at how you can use “just enough” PM to get great results.

    Less is More…

    Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.  – E.F. Schumacher

    Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone.  The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. – Lin Yutang

    The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. – Hans Hofmann

    Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. – Leonardo DaVinci

    Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. – Albert Einstein

    These amazing quotes, representing visionaries in the fields of philosophy, art, and science, all agree on one thing: An appropriate simplicity is always better than needless complexity. And this is especially true for projects and project teams.

    Step back and think about this:  Most of us don’t derive our joy from project management (PM). Most of us derive our joy from creating something that hasn’t existed before or solving an unsolvable technical problem or overcoming a challenge that our organization has never before overcome. And achievements like these come from using our professional judgment, our technical skills, and our general “deep knowledge” of a profession such as computer programming, graphic design, construction, pharmaceutical research, or whatever to get results that we can be proud of. The point:  Our project results and our project deliverables exist because members of a particular profession or technical specialty are joyfully doing the work they love. And all the project management stuff… the schedules and templates and checks and balances… are a sometimes necessary evil to keep the results flowing and to keep all these professionals coordinated. Viewed in this way, PM becomes a kind of overlay that is imposed upon (and, if we’re lucky, tolerated by) our project team members.

    How Much Project Management is Enough?

    The question is:  How much PM is enough? How many PM processes and artifacts can we impose on our projects before they collapse under the weight? … before our teams begin to hate doing their work? … before the joy is ripped from the hearts of our projects?

    Ultimately, every project manager and every project team must answer this question for themselves.

    Start Lean… Become a Project Management Minimalist

    I’d recommend two broad strategies that can help you and your team formulate your own answer to “How much PM is enough?”

    1. Start lean… become a Project Management Minimalist by using only the bare essentials of PM on your first project.
    2. At the end of this first project (and all projects thereafter), do a Project Post Mortem, create some Lessons Learned, and add (or, better yet, subtract) some PM processes and artifacts until you get your own answer to “How much PM is enough.”

    10 Steps: A Minimalist Approach to PM

    Here’s an overview of 10 steps that represent a “bare bones,” or minimalist, approach to project management.  After the overview, we’ll examine each Step in greater detail.

    • 1.  Define the project concept, then get support and approval.
    • 2.  Get your team together and start the project.
    • 3.  Figure out exactly what the finished work products will be.
    • 4.  Figure out what you need to do to complete the work products. (Identify tasks and phases.)
    • 5.  Estimate time, effort, and resources.
    • 6.  Build a schedule.
    • 7.  Estimate the costs.
    • 8.  Keep the project moving.
    • 9.  Handle scope changes.
    • 10.  Close out phases, close out the project.

    By following these steps you’ll be putting in place just enough PM to control your projects, without suffocating the team. Later, after you’ve tried one project using these 10 steps, you can drop some of the steps or expand some of them to suit your own PM needs.

    Step 1:  Define the project concept, then get support and approval.

    If your project is going to succeed, you’ve gotta get the support of key people who will help you get money and other resources you need to do the work. To get this support, you must begin by defining the project concept clearly enough so these key people can understand it and get excited about it. You don’t need to come up with a detailed plan at this point. But you do need to get preliminary (and formal) support for the project. In sales terms, you are “qualifying the buyer,” then trying to close the sale. That is, you are testing the waters with a preliminary, broad-brush description of the project so that you can:

    • Find out if anyone else is likely to support your work or is willing to help you do the work.
    • Obtain a project champion or sponsor.
    • Find a source (or several sources) of project resources (such as people, equipment, and money) to help you complete the project.
    • Get your project formally approved and funded.

    This Step should result in the following:

    • A series of conversations, brainstorming sessions, and other discussions about the project concept with your supervisor and key people whom you hope will provide project support
    • An approved Project Charter

    Step 2: Get your team together and start the project.

    Once you get your Charter approved, you can pull together your team and get started. Now here’s your challenge in this Step:  Find all the people who will care about (and use) the project outcomes or who can help you create the project outcomes. Then get these people organized as a team. Broadly speaking, these people are called project stakeholders. Remember, in Step 1, we won formal support and approval for our project. So now we can justify the effort required to locate core project team members (people who will work to produce specific project deliverables) and locate all other stakeholders (people whose interests will be affected by the project outcomes) and organize all of these people as a team. When we’ve assembled this team, we can run a Kickoff Meeting and get started.

    Caution: If you don’t involve all stakeholders in an active and engaged fashion from the beginning, you are likely to suffer the consequences of rework when they finally figure out what you and your project team are up to…. and they then take action to leave their mark on it! So, if you want to avoid the penalties of rework (i.e., avoid schedule overruns and blown budgets), take great care to identify and get all stakeholders involved right from the start.

    This Step should result in the following:

    • A series of conversations, brainstorming sessions, and other discussions about the project concept with all stakeholders
    • Commitments from stakeholders to play particular roles on the project team at specific times in the project
    • Written documentation that captures roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders
    • A Kickoff Meeting that orients all project team members to their roles and responsibilities and gets the project started

    Step 3: Figure out exactly what the finished work products will be.

    Here’s the deal:  You can’t manage what you can’t see! So the goal in Step 3 is to figure out exactly what specific items the project team must create. Here we’re talking about tangible work products, also called deliverables.  In a nutshell, you need to meet with all of your stakeholders and conduct a brainstorming session in order to document, in “high resolution,” everything you are going to be building. And it’s best to do this as a team, so you can avoid conflicting interpretations of deliverables later after you begin to create them. By coming up with this “high resolution” list of deliverables, your team expands your initial Project Charter to create a more comprehensive Scope Statement.

    Results of this Step include:

    • A series of conversations, brainstorming sessions, and other discussions about specific project deliverables
    • A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in rough form showing all deliverables and their sub-parts as created by a brainstorming group (i.e., a bunch of yellow stickies spread out all over a wall, a collection of flip chart pages scribbled with items, a rough “mind map,” etc.)
    • A polished WBS which clearly lists 1) all interim deliverables that the end user will not see (such as scripts, flow charts, outlines, etc.) and 2) all finished deliverables that will be turned over to the user when the project is completed (such as the finished video, finished software, final report, etc.).  (See the Example Phased Work Breakdown Structure in my ebook, The Project Management Minimalist.)
    • A Project Scope Statement that expands the Project Charter to include the WBS and other items identified by the team in brainstorming sessions
    • Approval of the Project Scope Statement and WBS by the sponsor and appropriate stakeholders.

    Step 4:  Figure out what you need to do to complete the work products. (Identify tasks and phases.)

    [Note:  It’s tempting to try to do this Step before you create your comprehensive list of deliverables. But in many years of working with new project managers, I’ve learned that it’s much more effective to start by listing all the deliverables your team is going to be creating, without worrying about the tasks involved in creating each one of them. This way your deliverables list is more detailed and accurate and, in turn, your “to do” list of tasks is more accurate.]

    So, in Step 3 you made a list of all the items (deliverables) that your team must create in order to complete the project. In this Step you need to figure out exactly what tasks your team will be performing to create each of these items. In other words, you must make a giant “to do” list of all project tasks. Finally, you must organize this giant “to do” list into easy-to-comprehend chunks called phases.

    Results of this step include:

    • A list or graphical collection of all project tasks and phases that must be completed to create project deliverables.
    • A network diagram showing the sequence and flow of all project tasks, including opportunities for stakeholders to review and approve

    Step 5:  Estimate time, effort, and resources.

    After you have identified the project tasks to be performed, you need to figure out how long it will take to complete each task. To do this, you look at each task in your “to do” list from Step 4 and think about three things:  resources, effort, and duration. These can be defined as follows:

    • Resources – Any people, equipment, and materials needed to complete the task
    • Effort – the number of labor units (staff hours, person-days, or -weeks) required to complete the task
    • Duration – the period of time over which the task takes place

    Now be careful here. Sometimes new project managers confuse effort and duration. Here’s an example to illustrate the difference between the two:  Let’s say you are putting in a new sidewalk. Specifically, two workers will dig out the old cement and then pour new cement to build a new sidewalk. The workers will each expend the effort of one 8-hour work day to complete their digging and pouring of cement. So two workers X 8 hours = 16 hours of effort. After these workers complete their one day of work, the cement will require 3 more days to properly dry and cure before it can be used. So the duration of the project (period of time consumed) is 1 day of work consumed by the workers + 3 days of time consumed by cement drying and curing = 4 days duration total.

    So, to review, you need to look at each task in your project and figure out 1) The resources (workers, equipment, etc.) needed to perform that task, 2) The amount of effort to be spent by each of the resources when they work on the task (labor hours or days), and 3) the duration or overall time you will need to allow in the schedule for that task.

    Now here’s what’s so great about this Step: When you make that “one pass” review of your task list and capture information about the resources, effort, and duration required to complete each task, you are laying the groundwork for these three important parts of your project plan:

    • Schedule – Your project calendar is derived from your estimates of duration.
    • Labor requests and labor assignments – Your requests for numbers of workers and the time you will need them to work are derived from your estimates of effort.
    • Cost estimates – Since labor costs typically make up the largest part of any project’s costs, your accurate estimates of effort required by workers are essential to estimating accurate overall project costs.

    Summarizing, the results of this Step include:

    • A detailed estimate of the duration, effort, and resources required to complete each project task.
    • A summary of duration, effort, and resources required for the entire project

    Step 6:  Build a schedule.

    After you’ve estimated the project’s duration, effort, and resource requirements, you can build a project schedule. There are two main reasons for creating a project schedule:

    • To help coordinate the work of project team members by keeping them focused on upcoming tasks, deadlines, elapsed project time, and remaining project time.
    • To help communicate with people outside the project about project goals, deadlines, status, and so on. (In fact, sometimes a beautifully prepared schedule can help “sell” the project and help convince senior managers or customers that their support will be going to a well-conceived project.)

    So far in these Steps we have identified project tasks and figured out how long each should take. So now it’s possible to tie these tasks and timeframes to actual calendar dates and create schedules. These can take the form of Gantt charts (bar charts), network diagrams, milestone charts, or text tables.

    Results for this Step include:

    • An overview schedule showing the “big picture” of the project (i.e., showing all activities, phases, and major milestones). Overview schedules can take any graphical or text form, depending on the preferences of the team and how well the particular schedule type shows the events of your unique project.
    • Some detailed schedules that expand or “zoom in” on particular parts of the overview schedule. Such detailed schedules might show:
      • One particular project phase and all the detailed subtasks and tasks that occur in that phase.
      • The tasks of particular project players. (For example, you might have a unique schedule showing only the plumbers’ tasks or a schedule showing only the computer programmers’ tasks, or a schedule showing only the senior executives’ review & approval points.)
    • A strategy to revisit the schedule periodically in order to keep it up to date.

    Step 7:  Estimate the costs.

    Cost estimates are your best guess of the costs of the resources you will need to complete the project tasks. Cost estimates should cover labor, materials, supplies, and miscellaneous items such as inflation, administrative costs, and so on. Cost estimates are frequently refined (i.e., changed or adjusted) throughout the project to reflect the project team’s better understanding of the actual deliverables as they evolve.

    Back in Step 5 you created your estimate of time, effort, and resources needed. Now it’s time to translate this into a cost estimate. And it’s a fairly straightforward process: You simply look at the people, equipment, or other resources that you’ll need to complete each step, then, for each of these, assign a cost. So, for example, if a worker makes $100 per hour and will be working on a task for 8 hours, the cost of that worker for that task is $800. Or if your team will need a special piece of equipment to complete one of the phases and that piece of equipment costs $10,000, then you simply add $10,000 in the cost estimate for that phase. And here’s the good news: Because you did your homework earlier (in Step 5) when you estimated time, effort, and resources), you already have most of the information you need to estimate costs… you just have to “plug in” the workers’ pay rates, the cost of necessary equipment, and so on. Then you add them all up and… voila! You have your cost estimate!

    Note: In many organizations, projects managers manage their projects without any estimates of project costs. That’s okay! If you have created a schedule and an estimate of effort and resources, you can use these as your main references to help you keep the project on track. By making sure that the effort actually expended by workers is within the amount of effort you originally estimated, you will be indirectly managing the main costs of a project: the cost of labor.

    Results of this step

    • An estimate of project costs, including the costs of labor, materials, supplies, and any other costs that are tracked by your organization, such as various overhead costs, profit, and so on.
    • A description of all assumptions made in the cost estimate (i.e., “We are assuming an hourly rate of $75/hour for a particular type of worker or a per unit rental fee of $2000/month for a particular piece of equipment.)

    Step 8: Keep the project moving.

    If you’ve completed the previous seven Steps, you have assembled quite a collection of documents that can help you manage the project! In summary, you have built yourself the following:

    • Project Charter
    • Description of project roles, responsibilities, authority
    • Description of specific deliverables (WBS) and a Project Scope Statement
    • Project task list, organized into phases and/or a network diagram
    • Effort/Duration table
    • One or more schedules
    • Cost estimate

    Each of these documents (or project artifacts, as I like to call them) provides you with a yardstick for measuring some dimension of the project. And because each of them has been formally approved by stakeholders and the project sponsor, they may be considered an “official” set of guidelines for everybody on the project team to follow. If you are a vendor who will be providing the project deliverables for a client, these documents constitute your contract with your client. If you are an internal project team working inside an organization, these documents constitute the commitments made by you and all other project stakeholders to perform an exact set of tasks and create an exact set of deliverables. Conversely, any deliverables or tasks that are not specified in these documents should not be undertaken by the project team because they are not part of the overall, agreed-upon project plan. In other words, these documents summarize the shared vision and promises you and all stakeholders made to each other — so everybody should do everything they can to keep these promises.

    So here’s the point: This collection of documents is the most important set of tools you have for keeping the project moving toward completion. You should review all of these documents — each one — at least every week. And during your review, you should compare the actual progress of your project to the promises made in these documents. And if things aren’t going as planned, you need to take action to get things back on track.

    Summarizing… This Step, Keep the Project Moving, should result in:

    • Periodic progress checks of each dimension of the project as spelled out in the project artifacts (Charter, Effort/Duration table, Schedule, Cost Estimate, etc.)
    • Project manager (or team) inspection and awareness of overall progress toward completion
    • Project manager (or team) interventions to correct problems, remove obstacles, and keep the project moving as planned
    • NOTE: These progress checks, inspections, and interventions are great opportunities to evaluate the performance of  individual project team members. Such evaluations need not be burdensome, because there are software solutions that can help. For example, you might use Performance Management Evaluation from SuccessFactors.com to monitor the progress of your employees without micromanaging them.

    Step 9: Handle scope changes.

    What do we mean by scope changes? Scope change may be defined as any addition, reduction, or modification to the deliverables or to the work process that was orginally described in your approved project plan. Now I realize that scope changes can be a major source of frustration for project managers and project team members! After all, you’re working hard to complete your project on time and within budget… and now you gotta deal with scope changes that knock you off course or slow you down?! But as any veteran project manager knows, change of scope is normal — it’s not necessarily a problem. In fact, scope changes can be good things when they allow the project team to respond sensibly to changing conditions outside the project. By changing scope to match what’s going on in the real world, we can help ensure that project deliverables remain relevant to new business needs. So project managers should approach changes of scope in a business-like (as opposed to emotional) fashion.

    Here’s a systematic process for dealing with scope change:
    (For more details, including a worksheet for a Scope Change Order see my ebook, The Project Management Minimalist.)

    • 1.  Stay calm.
    • 2.  Pinpoint the exact change.
    • 3.  Analyze the impact of the change. (Time, money, quality)
    • 4.  Discuss the impact with your project team.
    • 5.   Report the impact to the sponsor.
    • 6. Update the project scope statement and overall plan.
    • 7.  Obtain written sponsor approval of the change and the corresponding revised plan.

    Results of this step include:

    • Adjustments to the project plan to deal with additions, reductions or modification to the deliverables or work process
    • Formal documentation of each scope change
    • Formal approval of each scope change

    Step 10:  Close out phases, close out the project.

    It’s this simple: close out is at the heart of project management. That’s because projects, by definition, are temporary endeavors. They must eventually come to an end. So they are necessarily limited in the time and effort that can be consumed, as well as the resources that can be used. For this reason, one of the most important things (possibly the single most important thing) that a project manager and team can do is to drive the project toward completion. But how do you know when the project is completed?

    Project completion, at minimum, depends on two key activities:

    • 1) Formal close out of phases (as indicated by written approval, or sign-off, by the sponsor and official hand-off of the partially-built deliverables to the next project phase)
    • 2) Formal close out of the entire project (as indicated by written approval, or signoff, by the sponsor and official hand-off of the finished deliverables to the people who will be using them)

    In addition, depending on your project, close out activities could involve several other important chores such as:

    • Closing out vendor contracts
    • Creating a project archive containing all project documentation
    • Conducting a project “post mortem” and determining lessons learned
    • Formally handing off project deliverables to end users
    • Conducting training sessions to teach end users how to get the most out of the deliverables your project team has created
    • Writing performance evaluations or letters of thanks for team members to place in their personnel files (and to help assure they want to work with you again!)

    Results of this step include:

    • Sponsor sign-off and approval of incrementally-evolving project deliverables and phases as they are completed
    • Sponsor sign-off and approval of all finished project deliverables and the overall completed project
    • Completion of any of the project-specific follow-up activities listed earlier (Project Archive, Post Mortem, Lessons Learned, hand-off/training, performance evaluations, etc.)

    Sumarizing, The 10 Steps Are…

    So that’s it. That’s a quick overview of the 10 Steps that represent a “bare bones” approach to project management. These 10 Steps are the starting point for your becoming a Project Management Minimalist. Summarizing, the Steps are:

    • 1.  Define the project concept, then get support and approval.
    • 2.  Get your team together and start the project.
    • 3.  Figure out exactly what the finished work products will be.
    • 4.  Figure out what you need to do to complete the work products. (Identify tasks and phases.)
    • 5.  Estimate time, effort, and resources.
    • 6.  Build a schedule.
    • 7.  Estimate the costs.
    • 8.  Keep the project moving.
    • 9.  Handle scope changes.
    • 10.  Close out phases, close out the project.

    Decide for Yourself: How Much Project Management is Enough?

    By following theses Steps on at least one project you’ll be putting in place some solid PM controls without burying your team under a pile of unnecessary PM chores. So what’s next?

    If you are determined to find just the right amount of PM for you, I recommend that you debrief your team and conduct a quick project “post mortem” of your first completed “10 Step” project.  Focus especially on these questions:

    • Which of our PM processes, reports, documents, or other project artifacts were not particularly useful? (Could we improve these or may we simply discard them?)
    • Which of our PM processes, reports, documents, or other project artifacts were particularly valuable? (Could we improve these in some way? How?)
    • Were we missing any PM processes or other artifacts that would have made the project more effective? (If so, what were we missing?)
    • How can we do “just enough” PM stuff so we maintain control of our projects, without burying the team in administrivia?

    (My online article “Project ‘Post Mortem’ Review Questions,” with 35 sample questions, can help you organize your project post mortem.)

    After you’ve had this discussion, then summarize your findings in a “Lessons Learned” list.  Finally, use this list to design your next project management strategy.

    Remember: Project management alone can never bring you and your team as much joy as a beautiful, creatively-executed finished product that reflects the best work in your chosen profession. So become a Project Management Minimalist and use “just enough” PM to rock your projects!

    Greer’s Challenges…

    Reflections

    Reflect on these questions:

    • Which PM processes or artifacts are currently burdening our projects?
    • Could we eliminate some of these and maintain our project quality and efficiency?

    Team Challenges

    Ask your team:

    • Which PM processes or artifacts are currently burdening our projects?
    • Could we eliminate some of these and maintain our project quality and efficiency?
    • Would you be willing to participate in a “post mortem” to help improve or streamline our PM processes and artifacts?

    Project Manager Challenges

    • Design and execute one project using the “10 Steps” outlined earlier.
    • When this project is completed, conduct a project “post mortem” discussion and answer these questions:
      • Which of our PM processes, reports, documents, or other project artifacts were not particularly useful? (Could we improve these or may we simply discard them?)
      • Which of our PM processes, reports, documents, or other project artifacts were particularly valuable? (Could we improve these in some way? How?)
      • Were we missing any PM processes or other artifacts that would have made the project more efficient? (If so, what were we missing?)
      • How can we do “just enough” PM stuff so we maintain control of our projects, without burying the team in administrivia?
    • Summarize your findings from your “post mortem” in a “Lessons Learned” list. Then use this list to design your next project management strategy.

    Learn More…

    • Get my new eBook The Project Management Minimalist: Just Enough PM to Rock Your Projects!It provides practical tips for completing each of the 10 Steps and more, including:
      • Process tips that outline specific actions you can take to complete each Step.
      • Tools, Worksheets, Guidelines, Templates, and Samples, etc. that you can use to help you get top-quality results with each Step.
      • Printed transcripts of 10 key Inspired Project Teams podcasts, including Challenges you can use with your team
      • Hundreds of live links (just click and go!) to valuable online project management resources.

    New eBook


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