Have you ever tackled a major project without a plan? Is your desk covered in lists and sticky notes? Do you think that The Critical Path is the name of the new hip eatery in Yaletown? If you answered yes to any of the above then you will benefit from our two part series on basic project management compliments of Mike the Business Guy (who by the way is a certified PM, MBA, PEng and CA!)…….
Now onto the “good stuff”
There are probably more seminars and courses on the topic of project management than on any other topic in business. This attests to the importance and universality of projects in the business world. Any time a number of activities must be coordinated over time to achieve a goal, you have a project. Much wisdom has been gained from people’s experience in executing and managing projects, a lot of this from making mistakes and learning from them – and lucky for you, you don’t have to plunk down thousands of dollars and countless hours of time to benefit!
The purpose of a project is to accomplish some goal within a specified time frame and budget. Most projects consist of a variety of different activities/tasks, all of which must be completed to reach the goal. The time frame or duration of a project is measured in elapsed days; the personnel portion of the budget is measured in hours-worked * rate-of-pay.
To manage a project you must:
For very small projects, the activities making up the project might be kept as a simple list. But for most business projects it is best practice to create a network diagram of the activities, showing the inter-dependencies. The network may show for example that activities A, B, and C can be started at any time and are independent of each other, but activity D can’t start until all of A, B, and C are completed. (A, B and C may be design, and D testing.)
The critical path is the set of dependent activities which will take the longest overall duration to complete. If A is estimated to take 5 weeks, B 4 weeks, C 3 weeks, and D 3 weeks, then in the example above the critical path is activities A and D for a duration of 8 weeks. Now that statement is true only if you have separate resources to work on A, B, and C at the same time. If you have only two people to do the work then one may be assigned to A, and the other to both B and C. So B and C are no longer independent, and now the critical path will shift to BCD with a duration of 10 (4+3+3) weeks.
Confused? Bear with us…..
Note this important characteristic of the critical path: if you save time on any critical activities, that will shorten the end date of the project. If you save time on a non-critical activity, that won’t shorten the end date. Similarly if a critical activity takes longer, the project end date will get later. So the critical path activities are the ones needing most management focus. But note if a non-critical activity starts to lengthen, it might become critical, shifting the critical path. So a network needs constant refining, reflecting work done and revised estimates.
When asked how long something will take, some people are more comfortable estimating effort (e.g. 12 hours of work), while others more comfortable estimating duration (e.g. 2 days). In theory these methods should be interchangeable. E.g., if I work an 8 hour day, then 12 hours should be 1.5 days duration; and 2 days duration will be 16 hours of effort. In practice, duration estimates tend to be more accurate, particularly for a single person working on a task. Though we may be paid to work an 8 hour day, if you allow for breaks, administrative, communications (phone, email), meetings, sick, etc., we rarely actually work 8 productive (paid) hours on the assigned project task.
On the other hand, if there is a large task on which several people will be working simultaneously, the only practical way to estimate it is in total hours. Then given the number of people, and typical productivity, you can calculate back a duration.
Be careful when estimating multi-person tasks that require collaboration and cooperation. People working together enhance creativity, but at the expense of coordination time (sorting out responsibilities, disagreements, conventions, confusion, etc.). So while an 80 hour task may take one person two weeks, it will not get done in one week by assigning two people to work on it. As a rough rule of thumb, count on losing 10% productivity for every person more than one assigned to the same task. (20% loss for 2, 30% loss for 3, etc. And yes, if 10 people are all working on the same complex task, nothing will get done.)
Check back next Tuesday when we present Part Two of the Mompreneur’s guide to Project Management covering Estimating Accuracy, Target Dates and Managing Projects.