In the second part of the the project management for mompreneurs series we take a look at a few more crtiical components of a project...if you missed part one last week, click here!
To get an approximation for how long a project will take and what budget will be needed, the project manager (possibly helped by one or two expert staff) needs to build an initial network of activities for the project. This is used to get the project approved (or not). Assuming the project work will be assigned to staff or contractors, to motivate them and make them accountable for their results, you must let them create their own estimates for each task, not just assign your estimates. Taking this approach will require you to revise your initial overall project estimate, but the revised estimate will be more accurate. You as project manager should carefully review and approve each staff estimate, challenging ones that seem too low. If a staff produces unusually high estimates, then you should replace them – they either don’t know what they are doing, or they are lazy, or they are afraid of responsibility. You don’t want anyone with any of those characteristics on your team.
By far the most serious challenge in managing a project is to get realistic estimates of activity durations. One fairly successful project manager used to take the estimates that his staff made and multiplied them by pi (3.14). Almost everyone, almost all the time, underestimates the amount of time it will take them to do an unfamiliar task, and usually by a wide margin. What is a project manager to do?
Best practice is to get 3 estimates: best case, expected, worst case. There should always be a bigger gap between worst and expected versus best and expected. The best way for the project manager to evaluate the reliability of the expected estimate is by exploring the basis for the worst case estimate with the staff. Staff are much less defensive about the worst case estimate, and this is where the risk is buried that the project manager needs to understand. Using the 3 estimate approach, you can use statistical techniques that will give you the probability of meeting a target date. PERT (Program Evaluation & Review Technique) is the simplest of these statistical tools.
Most projects start with a target completion date in mind. Sometimes you have no choice – organizing an event for the July 1 holiday means you have to be ready by July 1. If there is a non-moveable deadline that must be met, then best practice is to build a network with some contingency in it – the more unique the undertaking, the bigger the contingency.
More often in business an artificial target date is set (e.g., you want to launch a new product by 15 November to benefit from the Xmas shopping season), and the project constructed to meet it. This approach almost inevitably runs into trouble and misses the imposed deadline. What can the project manager do?
Best practice is to build a project network without any assigned completion date. With this network, then compare the projected end date with the target. If they are widely divergent, then accept the fact that the original target is unattainable, period. If you can live with a new more realistic target then carry on, otherwise forget the whole project. If the projected end date and target are close enough, then you should examine the critical path in the network to see how it might be shortened.
There are 4 ways to shorten an activity duration:
The project network is built, the budget and completion date approved, staff or contractors hired/assigned, and work begins. How best now to monitor progress on the project?
Like any good manager, you should have informal ways of getting information about how things are going, plus a formal reporting structure. Formal weekly reports are typical on most projects. Progress is reported in hours of effort and percent of completion. As long as these two figures remain aligned, the activity may be progressing okay. For example, assume a staff has an activity estimated at 70 hours and assigned a two week duration. At the end of week one, they report 35 hours worked and 50% complete. That seems okay. But what if they report 35 hours worked and 40% complete. This is definitely trouble: the easier stuff tends to get done first, so don’t expect them to be 80% done after two weeks – more likely 60%.
In all, the sad experience of project management, the “90% syndrome” is the most pervasive failing – people are notorious for staying on schedule up to 90% complete and then stalling. The reason for this is that the easy stuff gets done easily, while the difficult stuff takes more time. So as an activity goes on, all the easier parts get completed giving the appearance of steady progress, while leaving only the difficult parts incomplete. Hence progress seems to be steady up to 90%, and then the person gets stuck on that last most-difficult part of the activity. (This is another manifestation of Pareto for those familiar with that concept.)
As project manager you really need to pay attention to the critical path activities. And as soon as there is any hint of slippage in a critical activity, you need to take action. What can you do?
First you must assess whether the staff assigned to the activity just need more time, or are in over their head(s). If they just need more time, then overtime is the answer, though you can’t do this for extended periods of course. If they are in over their heads, then either you have to reduce the task scope (fewer features, lower quality), or dump them and replace them by someone more capable. Adding additional staff to an existing team already working on a task is almost never effective. There are a bunch of human psychology problems in doing this, besides the productivity losses.
After every weekly reporting period, the network diagram should be updated. This gives insight into pressure on the completion date. Also the critical path may have shifted.
Project management is an important skill to have for even the greenest of mompreneurs. We hope that this short article highlights some of the factors and challenges in managing projects and helps you tackle your upcoming projects with confidence and success!