By Peter Christian
Managing a project can be extremely rewarding. There is nothing like tackling a challenging problem and getting the outcome that was expected. But it can also be one of the most frustrating experiences you encounter. The road from start to finish can be long, bumpy, and winding. A good project manager earns his or her money by dealing with the bumps and twists and turns, and in doing so, becomes a valuable asset to the organization.
But anyone who has run a project knows that even with the best preparation, funding, and prior project experience, problems crop up that all of the plans and tools won’t solve. And the best books and knowledge don’t prepare you for what to expect from the people involved.
Following are my recommendations for how to conduct a successful project.
Having been schooled by a consultant who developed a very successful Project Management program at Honeywell, I utilize the three pillars that he espoused for being a project manager.
The first: Let your project team know what the ultimate goal (outcome) of the project is. If anything changes, inform the team immediately.
Second: Make sure each team member knows what his or her part is and how it affects the other team members. If the goal changes, make sure the responsibilities change in accordance and are promptly communicated to all of the team members.
And third: Do not do any project task that a team member is supposed to. The manager’s role is to remove any obstacles that prevent a team member from getting his or her tasks completed. It is the manager’s job to make sure each team member is doing his or her part.
Project Organization and Development
A project is an opportunity for an organization and individuals to achieve business and non-business objectives more efficiently through implementing change. Once the project has been completed, the changes become a part of the daily organizational process and the project itself is closed.
Determining a project need is crucial for successful project management. A manager must be able to establish and understand the project need in order to consider, justify, and complete it.
There are three steps to work up the idea for a project. More detail is added at each point as you establish that the project is worth progressing.
The first is the idea, an overview of the basics for the project. Second is the recommendation. It involves an exploration of options that leads to either recommending the best one; recommending not to go ahead with a project if there is no good option; or recommending that, while the work should be done, it doesn’t need a project to do it.
The third step is the outline charter. Once a viable project is established, the outline charter sets down the scope and an overview business case using project and business expertise.
Project Definition and Justification
Even though a project need has been identified, it still requires approval from its sponsors and stakeholders. There may be a need for many other projects, and only so many can be handled at one time. So, qualifying why this particular project needs to be done requires a good justification that makes it a priority over the other possibilities.
By properly explaining that there is a good reason to carry out your project and addressing an imminent need, your proposal has a good chance of being considered and approved. Project justification needs to be carefully researched to support the argument for its approval with facts and data. Some of this can be generic, while some should be very specific to it.
As the justification is normally one of the first paragraphs of the project proposal, it should be well written and easily understandable.
Project justification should explain following questions: Why is the project necessary? What benefits will the project have? What positive effects will it have? What new chances could open up because of the project? What problems will be solved by the project?
Once the sponsor and steering committee accept the justification and outline, it’s time to start the project itself.
That begins with the planning stage. A typical project plan consists of a statement of work, as well as a resource list (people, budget, equipment), work breakdown structure, project schedule, and risk plan. All of these planning requirements are covered in documents that specify the project charter, project roles and responsibilities, and a stage gate plan.
The project charter provides the strategic view of the project, which will be maintained throughout the project and changed if needed. It typically includes the reasons for the project, objectives and constraints of the project, and who the main stakeholders are. It also explains the potential risks and benefits of the project, and provides a budget overview.
Project Roles and Responsibilities
With all projects, it is important to define the team members and what each person’s role and responsibility will be. There should be a written document for each person spelling out their responsibilities. They are to be reviewed with each person, their immediate supervisor, and then signed off by them and the project manager.
Project Manager. Standard project manager duties include developing the project plan and charter; managing the project deliverables according to the plan; and recruiting, leading, and managing the project team. They also include establishing a project schedule; assigning tasks to the project team members; and providing regular updates to the project steering committee.
Project Team Member. Project team member duties should include contributing to the overall project objectives, completing individual deliverables, and providing their expertise to the project. Their duties should also include working to establish and meet business needs, as well as documenting the process.
Project Sponsor. The project sponsor is a member of senior management and the driver and in-house champion of the project. That person’s duties are to make key business decisions for the project; approve the project budget; ensure availability of project resources; and communicate the project’s goals throughout the organization.
Stage Gate Plan
If the project is large, a stage gate plan should be employed. This covers the details and complexity of the project and has checkpoints (gates) that must be completed before the work can progress forward. Failure to complete a gate could lead to stopping or discontinuing the project. For smaller projects, a stage gate plan is not necessary, but smaller projects will still use a charter, a financial plan, and a project schedule.
In the typical model, there are five stages—scope; business case; development; testing and validation; and launching—in addition to a discovery stage. In the discovery stage, activities are designed to identify new business opportunities and generate new product, service, and technology ideas.
In stage 1 (scope), a quick, inexpensive, preliminary investigation is done to better define the concept, assess technical feasibility, and gain insights into commercial prospects. In stage 2 (business case), a detailed investigation—involving primary research and experiments—leads to the establishment of a business case. Stage 3 (development) entails detailed design and development of the new product or service, as well as design of the operations or production process required for eventual full-scale production.
In stage 4 (testing and validation), tests are done to verify and validate the project. Stage 5 (launching) is the commercialization of the project.
Other Project Tools
Financial Statements. Project financial statements stipulate the snapshot of the current financial situation. They are used to highlight any over-runs or under-runs of the budget.
Schedule. A project schedule is an outline of the project that organizes its tasks and activities, estimates their durations, identifies the dependencies, sets overall milestones, and places all that information on a timeline. It also defines the resources needed to complete these tasks. All the work necessary to complete the deliverables of the project is accounted for in the schedule.
Project schedules are created during the planning phase and are crucial to the creation of a project plan. The project schedule is designed to guide the project team throughout the execution phase of the project.
Risk Register. A risk register is used to identify, log, and track potential project risks. Risk management is a vital component of project management because it’s how to proactively combat potential problems or project setbacks.
Any time someone identifies something that could impact the project, it should be assessed by the team and recorded in the risk register.
Project Software. There are many different types of project management software packages that can be used, including web-based applications. They can be used from just about anywhere, as long as you can access the internet. These tools can juggle all of the project tasks, costs, and certain documents, leaving the team free to actually get real work done. Benefits of using project management software include easy collaboration, better scheduling, tracking of project activities, improved project communication, and clear delegation of tasks.
Change Log. The change log is a type of documentation that contains the list of changes that are made during the entire project. It tracks the progress of each change based on its review, approval (or rejection), implementation, and closure.
The change log also contains the date of the change and its impact on the project in terms of the risk, time to fix, and its cost. All changes are communicated to the sponsor, steering committee and stakeholders. Any rejected changes are also included in the change log.
Executing a project starts with lining up the project team and any other resources needed. Once you get team members onboard, help them to know their assignments, the overall project environment, and their teammates.
The project manager should hold a kickoff meeting to describe the mission and get everyone motivated. The project plan is reviewed and communication of how things will work and how to handle change requests is laid out.
A place to store project information, including the project plan, specifications, reports, and so on, should be set up and easily accessible to the team members.
Project execution is performing all the work identified in the work breakdown structure. At this point, monitoring and controlling the project kicks in.
There should be regular updates with the project sponsor, the steering committee, and any key stakeholders. These are set at key milestones, or if a change or major problem occurs. In certain cases, a written project report with updates is fine.
Project Completion and Post-Mortem
A post-project review documents whether the project‘s intended business outcomes and expected benefits were achieved. The review should include lessons learned, highlights of successes and achievements, and identification of any ongoing activities, such as post-project support and maintenance.
“Completing a project” is not the same thing as ending the project. Finishing a project doesn’t ensure that the organization completely benefits from the project’s outcome. To make the most of the benefits that the project can deliver, you should check to see if further efforts will deliver greater benefits.
The manager and team should ensure that the lessons learned during the project are not forgotten. Then, the organization can more effectively design and execute future projects by taking advantage of the lessons learned through the experience of this project.
To properly measure a project’s success, the following key questions should be answered: Did the project fully solve the problem(s) that it was designed to address? Can the company take things further, and deliver even bigger benefits? What lessons were learned that can apply to future projects?
It is best to start thinking about the post-project review immediately upon completion. All team members should list ideas and observations while they are still fresh in their minds.
To adequately assess the quality of the implementation and complete this process, wait long enough for the changes caused by the project to take effect. This could be weeks or possibly months. So, there may be multiple reviews—one shortly after completion, and one that takes place once all of the results are in.
Things That Make or Break a Project
Communication. Effective communication is defined as the ability to convey information to another effectively and efficiently. Project managers with good verbal, nonverbal, and written communication skills help facilitate the sharing of information between project people for the project’s ultimate success.
Project success depends on effective communication. Good communication maximizes success and minimizes risk. This covers communication with the team, the project sponsor, the steering committee, and all key stakeholders.
Clearly defined job responsibilities and accountabilities. Successful projects are usually the result of careful planning and the talent and collaboration of a project’s team members. This is accomplished through developing the project plan with the team and managing the team’s performance of each person’s project tasks; securing acceptance and approval of deliverables from the project sponsor and the key stakeholders; and communicating the status reporting and escalating the issues that cannot be resolved in and by the team.
Proper use of project meetings. When conducted well, meetings are the best way to share information, solve problems, make decisions, and build relationships. When they’re run poorly, they burn up precious time and create frustration.
.Successful project managers typically have extraordinary meeting skills. Their skills enable project team members to get the most out of any kind of meeting, whether it’s a project kickoff meeting, a project status meeting, a steering committee meeting, or a post-mortem meeting.
About the Author
Peter Christian was the founding partner of Enterprise Systems Partners Inc. (espi), a prominent business consulting company in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. He was president for 17 years until he retired from the company in 2018. He has worked with more than 300 clients throughout the United States in the areas of manufacturing improvements, information system selection and implementation, and project and product management.
Peter is currently an adjunct professor of project management at Alvernia University. He holds a B.S. in industrial engineering from Rutgers University and an M.S. in industrial engineering from Lehigh University. He is a certified Jonah with the Goldratt Institute and in Senior Project Management with the AMA.