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Achieving Results with Project Management 

 October 24, 2020

By  Dave Litten

Achieving Results with Project Management

Have you noticed the rate of pace of change recently?  Products, services, and organisations its seem to be constantly changing as they adapt to new market conditions, new financial situations, changing business practices, adapting to legal requirements and new technology.

It will come as no surprise that in order for organisations to change, running projects often creates such change, and as a result businesses are increasingly driven to find individuals who can excel in his project oriented environment.

It goes without saying, that such individuals are paid handsomely and have an excellent career ahead of them.

Would you like to be one of them?

Since you have found my website, the chances are that you’ve already been asked to manage a project for the first time all that you are already running projects and looking to see where you can find an easier and better way of doing things.

If you are about to embark on your first project, then that is a challenge and may well give you the chance to excel in some think you have not done before.  For many, managing a project even opens the door to a new career.

The good news is, whether you are completely new or have some experience, is that project management has been around for a very long time.  Time enough in fact, for project managers to come up with highly effective strategies and the range of very practical techniques.

This means that you can benefit from all that experience, and I fully intend to give it to you!

I’m an “in the trenches” very experienced senior project manager and have been running large projects for over a quarter of a century.  Believe me, I’ve had my share of disasters too, but that makes me infinitely more capable of helping you shine from the start and avoid the usual pitfalls.

So stay with me here, as you are going to need an effective set of skills and techniques to steal projects to successful completion.

In this series of articles, I’m going to get you off to a great start by showing you what projects and project management really are and by helping you separate projects from non-project assignments.

I’ll even give you some valuable insight on why projects succeed or fail as well as settling you in to the project management mindset.

How to avoid the project pitfall minefield

My intent here is to give you a sound approach to your project so that you steer a path around the many pitfalls that continue to contribute to, or cause, project failure on a mind boggling scale.

You may find yourself asking that is good ways of doing things exist, why do people ignore them and go on to have their projects fail?  A fair point.

People make the same mistakes repeatedly, and they are largely avoidable.  You can’t have missed the fact that from time to time TV &Newspapers gloat over some spectacular failed project – very often public financed.  You know the sort of thing, three years late and the budget has doubled!

So grab a cup of your favourite beverage and let me give you a quick look at the main causes of project failure.  I warn you, this this makes for depressing reading, particularly if you recognize some elements in parts of your own organization.

However, this list will give you a solid background against which to contrast successful project management and rolled lead you nicely into many of the techniques and best practices that you will find in our training courses.

The Ten Main Reasons for Project Failure

Lack of clear objectives

Nobody is really sure what the project is about and even less of those people can agree on what they should be

Lack of risk management

Every project has risk, and this is the things that go wrong when someone could have easily for seen them, and put specific controls in place that would have prevented them in the first place, or at least minimized their impact on the project objectives

No senior management “by-in”

This normally comes about because senior managers were never convinced and so never supported the project, leading to problems such as lack of resource.  As a consequence of this, those managers did not exercise normal management supervision as they routinely to India other areas of responsibility

Poor planning

Well, to be frank, this is often the problem of no planning being done at all.  Is not surprising then, when things run out of control, and not least because nobody knows where the project should be at this point any way

No clear progress milestones.  This is a direct consequence from poor planning.  The lack of milestones means nobody sees when things are off track, and problems go unnoticed for a long time until it is too late to fix them and the project fails

Poorly defined scope

This often means that the scope was understated, and that the scope of the project and the project plan are superficial and fail to state both what the project needs to deliver, and the resources needed to deliver it.

Project staff, who are often team members, then discover the hidden but essential components later on in the project.  This additional work that is now necessary, takes the project out of control, causing delay to the original schedule and over spending against the original budget.

Poor communications

Many projects fail because of communication breakdown which can originate from lack of clarity in the various roles and responsibilities coupled with poor senior management attitudes – for example not wanting to hear bad news

Unrealistic resourcing

Let me be clear here, I’m talking about resources of all types: people, materials, equipment, facilities and so on.  It just is not possible to carry out a project one meeting the required scope when there are insufficient resources to carry out the project work in order to create the deliverables

Unrealistic timescales

This probably relates to poor scope and the lack of planning.  This point of failure is down to the fact that the project cannot deliver all it needs to within the required time frame.  In short, the project is doomed to failure from the outset

Lack of change control

Even if original estimates were 100% correct and accurate, as the project proceeds things will need to change, either driven internally or externally.  A smart project manager assumes change will happen, and implements a formal and informal change process.

People ad in things bit by bit which is called scope creep.  There will come a time within the project was is obvious that the project has grown so big that it cannot be delivered within the fixed budget or by the set deadline.

People, usually customers, a request for small simple and quick extras, when granted their wish, are the first to forget when late delivery and over budget projects are delivered

Okay, there’s might tend top reasons although almost certainly you could think of a few more.  My point here is that all of the above could be avoided by taking simple steps up front.

Is this a project or is it something else?

I guess I should take you right back to the start before you even consider setting up the project, because the first question you need to answer is whether there really is one.

Consider this, no matter what your role and responsibilities are in your current job, I’m guessing that you handle many assignments every day, and not all these assignments are projects.  So what questions should you ask to check if your new and assignment is really a project (or, as management tend to do, simply name it as a project without thinking it through)

Here are three questions to ask yourself to determine whether the job as a project or not:

  1. Is this a one off job or is it something that is ongoing?  If it is ongoing then maybe it is manufacturing or production.  The term used here is “business as usual”, sometimes called operational management.  Clearly then, this is not a project
  2. Does the job justified project controls?  Project management means incurring some overheads.  Although you may want to keep such overheads to a minimum, some jobs are so small or straightforward but they just don’t justify the degree of control that is needed in a real project
  3. So my last question is “do you want to handle the job as a project?” I guess until you’ve read the rest of my articles, you won’t really know the answer to that last question, but keep reading as I believe you will be able to make a judgment call.

To help you with the above paragraph, consider this: suppose you have been asked to prepare an important presentation to a major customer.  Even though this could involve you in say many days of work, and also require input from others, I’m sure you will agree that it is not the project – merely an important personal assignment.

And just a blur the edges a little bit based on the above paragraph, there is nothing wrong with you using some project management techniques to ensure that the presentation is a good one and carried out on time.

The four project control areas

Different project approach is a slightly different definitions of a project, but here is one I have used most readily:

“a project is a temporary understanding performed produce a unique product, service or result”

Perhaps the word of caution about the phrase “unique product”.  It may be that the undertaking is a project, even though your organization has delivered similar types in the past.  I can assure you that even if this project is similar to one you did last year, there are differences to this latest project.

However, if you do believe that this project is very similar to one that is being undertaken in the past, the smart project manager does not need to reinvent the wheel as you can probably adapt the previous project plans to suit this new one.

So what are the four project control areas? 

Large or small, projects involve all of the following controlled areas:

Scope.  This is what the project will deliver

Time.  This is the timeframe when the project will deliver

Quality.  This is delivering against the requirements and specification

Resource.  All projects consume resources no matter what type, where the people, or funds, equipment, accommodation, facilities and so on

You will need to balance these areas for each project – get the balance wrong, and your project like so many others will get into difficulties.

These four control areas normally pull in different directions, each against the other, so getting a balance is key.

As a simple example, imagine if the scope was changed, let’s say more functionality was needed, this would need more resources, and probably take more time.  And certainly the quality would change also.

Senior managers, those who sponsor or trigger projects, often commit projects to failure by insisting on unachievable deadlines or unrealistic resources.  The same managers are the first at the whipping post ready for the project manager when the project inevitably gets into difficulties and fails.

As a way of summarizing these for control areas, here are the four reasons that you need to keep front and center of your mind when starting a project:

  • The only reason the project exists is to produce the results specified in its scope
  • The project end date is usually an essential part of defining what constitutes successful performance – in many cases, the project must provide the desired result by a certain time to meet its intended need
  • The quality requirements is a vital part of the balance and may be the most important element, even though many organisational managers are preoccupied with time and cost. What is the point of delivering a product or system which does not work despite being delivered on time and within budget?
  • The availability of resources can affect which products the project can produce and the timescale in which it can produce them

Big, fat, small, thin projects

Projects can come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes, and here are a select few:

Large or small.  They may cost billions of dollars and take years to complete, possibly even forming and linking with other projects within a programme

Yet again, a project may only take you a week to complete, for example setting up the help desk facility.  Small, low cost, yet still a project

A project may involve many people, or just yourself.  Imagine training all of your 1000 marketing staff worldwide.  Yet again perhaps you are just redecorating an office and rearranging the furniture and equipment.  Small, few resources, yet still a project

Your project may be defined by a legal contract or by an informal agreement.  It could simply be a single contract with the customer to build a house for them, or it could be an informal agreement with your it manager to install a new software package in a business area.  Both of the above define a project.

The project could be business related or personal.  Conducting a long-term strategy, or preparing for a family fortieth wedding anniversary.  Both can be run as projects.

Is it a program?

This term can describe to different situations.  First, or program can be a set of goals that gives rise to specific projects, but, unlike a project, you can never accomplish disorder programme completely.

For example, a health awareness program can never completely achieve its goal, since the general public will never be totally aware of the health issues emanating from the result of the project.

In most cases however, a program can be seen as a controlled set of projects that need to be coordinated in some way.  Perhaps it is a strategic programme to change the highway the organisation works, or perhaps is a group of projects with significant interdependencies that will need to be managed to finish at the same time.

Be aware also that a process is not a project.

A process is a series of routine steps to perform a particular function, such as a procurement process or a budget process.

A process is not a one-time activity that achieves a specific result, instead, it defines how you do a particular function every time.  Processes such as the activities that go into buying materials are often parts of projects.

The four stages of a project

The names of the four stages can vary, but the ones I’m using here are fairly understood within the project management community.  Be aware that these four stages are: one after the other:

Starting the project

This stage involves generating, a value eight in and framing the business need for the project and the general approach to performing it, and agreeing to prepare in the next stage, a detailed project plan.

Outputs or deliverables from this stage may include approval to proceed to the next stage, documentation of the need for the project, and rough estimates of Time &Resources to perform it, and an initial list of people who may be interested in, involved with, or are fitted by the project

Initiating the project

This is where you organize and prepare.  This stage involves developing a plan that specifies the desired results, that is:

  • The work to do
  • The time
  • The cost
  • What are the resources required
  • A plan for how to address key project risks

Outputs from this stage include a project plan documenting the intended project results and the time, resources and supporting processes to help create them, along with all the other controls that the project needs, such as for risk management

Implementation

This is carrying out the work.  This stage involves performing the planned work, monitoring and controlling performance to ensure adherence to the current plan, and doing the more detailed planning of successive stages as the project continues.

Outputs from this stage may include project progress reports, financial reports and other detailed plans (such as a plan for the next stage)

Closing the project

This stage involves assessing the project results, obtaining customer approvals, assigning project team members to a new work, and closing financial accounts and conducting a post project evaluation.

Outputs and the stage may include final, accepted and approved project results and recommendations and suggestions for applying lessons learned from this project to similar future project efforts

For small simple projects, this entire for stage lifecycle may only take a few days.  For larger projects however, they may take the several years.

Projects in the real world

Projects do not always run smoothly and go exactly to plan, so you need to be flexible.  When starting to think about your project, you will need to allow for:

Risks.  The unknown and uncertain

It is rare that the project will be 100% predictable, so prepare for the fact that you are going into the unknown, since projects are all about change and are unique.

Therefore, your plans need to allow for things going off track.  Occasionally you will find that uncertain areas are indeed predictable.  This calls for your needs to carry out risk management, learning how to assess, and then manage risks.

Yet again, sometimes the areas of your project are not at all predictable, and this brings in the aspect of contingency.  You need contingency, because if things can go wrong they almost certainly will!

Learn by experience

Despite your best efforts to assess feasibility and develop good plans at the start of your project, you may find later that you cannot achieve what you thought you could, or in the way you thought you could.

If this situation happens, you need to rethink in the light of the new information that you have acquired.  Sometimes you can see upfront that you will not know how a particular set of the project is going to work out until you get nearer to that point and better information has been gathered.

Do not worry about that, just pointed out in a clear manner at the beginning of your project

Unexpected change

Your initial feasibility and benefits assessments are sound, and your plan is detailed and realistic.

However, imagine if certain key project team members leave the organisation without warning during the project.  Or a new technology emerges, and it is more appropriate to use than the one in your original plans.

Perhaps the business environment changes and with it, your organizations whole product development strategy.

Because ignoring these occurrences may seriously jeopardize your project success, you will want to rethink and re-plan in the light of these new realities.

The role of the project manager

In essence, the project manager’s job is to manage the project on a day to day basis and to bring it to a successful conclusion.  The project manager is normally accountable to a senior manager who is the project sponsor, or to a small group of managers who for a project steering committee or project board.

The project manager’s job is challenging as they will often cordon eight technically specialized professionals, who may have limited experience working together, in order to achieve a common goal.

The project manager’s position is a role it is not about status.  This is true for all of the roles within a project and there may be for example be very senior people working as team members, such as chief engineers or specialist advisers who are accountable to the project manager even though in the normal business as usual, they are very much more senior than the project manager.

Both team members and the project manager must understand that the that the project manager has the responsibility and authority in a project that comes with a role, independent of their organisational grade or rank.

When the project manager has a clear accountability to a sponsor or steering committee, life is much easier because everyone can see that the project manager’s authority comes from the senior managers.

The project manager does not do any of the technical work of the project in their role as project manager.

If the project manager is involved and technical work, it is with a different role – that of a team member.  This distinction is important because if you are doing teamwork as well as project managing, you must be clear about both roles and only where one at a time.

It is too easy to neglect the management and let the project run out of control because you are so engrossed in the detail and challenges of your part of the technical work.  This is often a danger for new project managers that are promoted from a technical role, because the temptation is to focus on what you already know best.

The project manager’s role requires hard skills such as planning and costing, but also soft people skills, and a project manager success requires a keen ability to identify and resolve sensitive organizational and interpersonal issues.

It is now worthwhile to create a list of the main tasks by the project manager handles along with the potential challenges that they may face.

Your role as the project manager is one of day to day responsibility for the project, and that might involve so much work that your job must necessarily by a full time one.  On the other hand, it may be that the project is smaller and less complicated and the project management is just part of your job.

Either way, the responsibilities are the same, it’s just a scale and complexity there are different.

Here then is a summarized list of the main tasks and responsibilities of the typical project manager:

  1. Bring together and document the initial ideas for the project, along with a justification, outline costs and timescales
  2. Plan the project, including mapping out the controls that will be put in place, defining what quality the project needs and how it will be achieved, analyzing risks and planning control actions
  3. Motivate and support teams and team members
  4. Liaise with external suppliers
  5. Control the flow of work to teams or to team members
  6. Liaise with project managers of any interfacing projects
  7. Liaise with programme management staff if the project is one of a group of projects being called mated within a programme
  8. Ensure that the project deliverables are developed the right level of quality
  9. Keep track of progress and adjust this to correct any minor drifts away from the plan
  10. Keep track of spending and the use of resources
  11. Communicate with others, such as the steering committee, if things go significantly off track
  12. Report progress, such as to the sponsor or project board
  13. Keep track of risks so make sure the control actions are both taken, and are effective
  14. Deal with any problems, involving others as required
  15. Decide on changes, or get approval from others where the project manager does not have personal authority to make such a decision
  16. Planned successive delivery stages in more detail
  17. Close the project down in a controlled manner when everything has been done

A key to project success is being proactive, so get out in front of the project and direct where it is going.  Do not follow on behind the project being reactive and having to fire fight countless problems just because you didn’t see them coming.

Plan to manage strategically not just tactically

There will be many short term pressures as a project manager, particularly if you are managing several projects or carrying out the operational work as well.  It can be tempting to cut corners and miss things out.

Missing things out is not the same as adjusting the project management needs to the project, but rather missing stuff out altogether that in an ideal world should have been done.  Remember that cutting corners will usually come back and bite you later!

Here are some tactical “howlers” that you should avoid:

Stage Jumping

Do you remember those four stages?  Well, the first mistake would be to jump directly from starting the project into the implementation stage.

Although this sounds like a good idea, you have not yet defined the work to be done.  You may be encouraged not a plan is out in detail city because the project is being “done before”.

Even though projects can be similar to pass once, some elements will be different, so always check the plan thoroughly before proceeding any further.

Failing to check progress at frequent intervals

Even if everyone is working hard and things seem to be going okay, do not be tempted just to get it continue.  Imagine taking a car journey for the first time, would you not want to check the map from time to time to ensure you’re still on track?  So it is with projects.

If you do not check progress, you will not see warning signs and may get to be a long way off track by the time you have actually do notice that something is wrong.  At this point it may not be possible to rescue the project.

Not keep in the plan up to date

It’s important to use the discipline of locking actual so, such as a time actually taken to do things and the expense actually incurred.

It does take discipline to stay up to date, but you will never be able to control the project if you don’t know where you are at the moment.

Not completing the closing stage

At the end of a project, you can face pressure to move right on to the next project.  Scarce resources and short deadlines encourages rapid movement, and starting a new project is always more challenging and wrapping up an old one.

You must make sure that everything is properly finished and, if necessary, handed over.  You also need to check that the project has achieved what it was supposed to have done and that you or your organisation take on board any lessons, good or bad, for the future.

Super Project Management!

The ten hallmarks of a great project manager:

  1. You prefer to get the job done rather than be everybody’s friend as good working relations are vital, but you must deliver the goods
  2. You prefer to manage technical work rather than do it as management is exactly that as you move away from their hands on stuff.
  3. The best way to get the tough task done is not to do it by yourself and your role is to manage, and that includes letting others develop
  4. You prefer your work to be constantly changing rather than predictable as no project ever does exactly to plan and, anyway, things change as that is part of the challenge and also the bars of project management
  5. You can hold on the to the big picture rather than get immersed in the detail because even though you need to deal with the fine detail, you should not do it at the expense of losing the big picture
  6. You handle pressure well as, as a project manager needs a cool head and sometimes will indeed be pressured
  7. You like to plan and organize the work of others as being an organizer and planner goes with the territory of being a project manager
  8. You naturally monitor those after they said they will do a task for you because just like with general management, you have to know that work is getting done
  9. You will often need to motivate people rather than leave them to get on with it because they should be self-motivated to perform their jobs.  The project manager needs soft skills too, as projects are all about people.
  10. You are comfortable dealing with people at all levels of the organization.  This of course is a prerequisite for any project manager from upper management to support staff, in fact, all those who perform project-related activities.

Dave Litten


David spent 25 years as a senior project manager for USA multinationals, and has deep experience in project management. He now develops a wide range of Project Management Masterclasses, under the Projex Academy brand name. In addition, David runs project management training seminars across the world, and is a prolific writer on the many topics of project management.

The Projex Academy

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