"Why am I still having problems with small projects?
This plaintive question is one I'm asked from time to time. I'd like to give a few brief reasons why project managers struggle with small projects.
"Small things have a way of overmastering the great. This small press can destroy a kingdom." —Sonya Levien
1. You think these projects are simple. In general, smaller projects have less risk. However, small projects may have a complex set of variables.
Be sure to analyze the complexity of the project. For example, you may engage your team to draw a context diagram and/or data flow diagrams early in the project. This exercise allows the team to understand the context of the project.
2. You don't have a project charter. Project managers are assigned projects at the last minute with a tight deadline. Rather than discussing the project with stakeholders and documenting the business case, problems, goals, and deliverables, the project manager hits the ground running. Later, stakeholders demand costly changes.
Make it a priority to engage your key stakeholders and develop a project charter. This exercise will provide a good foundation and reduce the changes later in the project. For smaller projects, the project manager should be able to create a charter in short order.
3. You are applying the wrong level of rigor. I see two extremes: First, project managers do not follow any methodology.
Second, project managers undertake numerous tasks usually performed for large, complex projects.
Keep it simple. Determine the steps you plan to take and develop the planning documents that will provide real value. Execute and stay with the plan.
4. The Project Sponsor is invisible. Many pint-projects have no sponsor at all. The organization may assign a sponsor, but the sponsor has abdicated his or her role to the project manager or someone on the team.
If you don't have a sponsor, solicit a fitting sponsor. Discuss with the sponsor their role and ask for their commitment.
5. Your team has been poorly staffed. These projects often get the leftover resources. Any warm body will do or will it?
For all projects, define the required knowledge and skills. Seek to staff the project team accordingly.
6. You are not performing project risk management. Yes, smaller projects typically have less risk. This does not mean there are zero risks.
Risk management should not take much time, but be sure to integrate risk management in your project activities. Simple qualitative analysis should be sufficient for evaluating the risks.
7. You are not performing change management. A stakeholder asks for a change in the scope. It's not a big change. You say okay.
Users request additional changes over time. The cumulative effect becomes significant.
Decide up front how you will manage, track, and report changes. When is a change order required? Who has to approve it?
"I can do small things in a great way." —James Freeman Clarke
8. You are managing a project no one cares about. Projects may be selected arbitrarily. In some cases, the project does not align with the company’s strategy. The team knows the project is a low priority and give it little attention.
This is a management issue. Management should create a Project Board that reviews project requests for strategic alignment.
9. Your project team is too large. Your project may be small, but it impacts several areas of the company. Everyone feels like they need someone on the team. You have fifteen people on the team when a handful will do.
Create a small core team. Make sure the team represents the primary stakeholder groups. You may wish to create a supplemental team of individuals who may be engaged as needed.
10. You are using the wrong tools. Some project managers spend more time setting up their tools than managing the project.
Keep things simple. For example, rather than using complex scheduling tools, you may use Excel.
11. You are managing too many projects. Project managers may be assigned numerous projects. The project managers may have difficulty prioritizing and juggling the management activities resulting in wasted time.
The person or persons responsible for assigning project managers should be careful to assess each project, estimate the time required by the project manager, and maximize project management resources. Monitor success rates for small projects and make adjustments as needed.
12. You have not identified the important stakeholders. Surely we know who the stakeholders are or do we? We are tempted to skip the stakeholder identification.
Don’t make the common stakeholder mistakes. Small projects can touch a complex set of variables. Neglect in identifying and managing the stakeholders can be costly later in the project.
Take a few minutes to review your small projects. Do you need to let go of some misconceptions and make some changes? Create some new habits. Don’t allow yourself to slip back into unproductive behaviors.
What is the role of the project manager? The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) says, "The project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives (my italics)." Defining clear objectives and goals is the foundation of the project. Let's look at how to write SMART goals.
"People with clear, written goals, accomplish far more in a shorter period of time than people without them could ever imagine." —Brian Tracy
Many organizations have a Project Board that approves programs and projects resulting in a project portfolio. The Board chooses projects and programs that align and support the organization's mission, values, goals, and strategies. Today, let's look at five ways to improve your project approval process.
Create a Project Board or Project Steering Team to approve projects. Project sponsors submit their projects to the board for approval. Better yet, have the project sponsors make brief presentations to the board and respond to questions.
The Project Board should define the project selection criteria. Defining and communicating the criteria saves time. Project sponsors will not waste time on projects that will not make the cut. For example, selection criteria might include: 1) strategic importance, 2) regulatory compliance, 3) financial viability, and 4) business and technical flexibility to accommodate future changes, to name a few.
The success of a project manager largely lies in the individual’s ability to communicate. Some project managers have great oratory skills but don’t ask the right questions at the right time.
Here are some key questions for each of the project management process groups. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list; just some questions to get you thinking. Neither will you need to ask all of these questions for every project.
Keep in mind, the project process groups are seldom sequential, one-time events; they are overlapping activities that occur throughout the project.
The Project Charter
Unfortunately, many people think of the project charter as an administrative hoop they must jump through to get their project approved. Therefore, many charters are written hastily with little thought.
The value of the charter process is engaging stakeholders, discussing the issues, resolving conflicts, and getting agreement as you initiate the project. The stakeholder interest is considered and aligned, resulting in less likelihood of costly changes later in the project.
Have you ever had someone torpedo your project? Did this individual have a motive to undermine your efforts? Or, did you make some stakeholder mistakes that gave rise to this event?
Either way, it's hindering your progress. Things are not going as planned. What can we do to manage stakeholder risks better?
I once observed a junior project manager who was knighted to manage a project with a fixed regulatory deadline. Software changes were needed. The project sponsor told the project manager that it was critical that the project be delivered on time. No exceptions!
The project manager formed a project team. Within days, the project team started making programming changes. The team worked evenings and weekends.
Someone decided that it was a good idea to bring project management into your organization. Perhaps it was your CEO or operations manager or IT Director. But for some reason, it never took off. Project management has not been supported by your culture. Let's look at how to get things in flight with a project steering committee.
Start with an evaluation. Here are some questions to aid you in discovering the deeper issues. Interview your stakeholders to get their feedback.
Sometimes, the person responsible for project management (e.g., PMO Director or Project Services Manager) fails to involve stakeholders in evaluating project management. This person makes changes in project management with little to no input from the people being impacted. A better approach is to get regular feedback through a Project Steering Committee.
The purpose of the committee is to improve process and results. The Steering Committee determines the required changes, how much change is needed, and how fast changes need to occur.
It is best if an influential senior member of your organization sponsors the committee. The sponsor helps to establish the vision and ensures the commitment of resources. But this person doesn’t have to manage the committee.
The Steering Committee may be managed by the person responsible for project management, a person with the proper credentials and experience. The team should include representatives from different areas such as IT, project management, and business operations. Ideally, team members have had project management training and have project experience.
An optimal team size is six to eight people. Team members should serve no longer than a year. You may wish to implement a staggered rotation where you add a couple of new team members and drop a couple of team members periodically.
The Steering Committee may meet as often as desired—for example, monthly, quarterly, or twice per year.
How should the team approach the evaluation and improvement? Determine the problems and define a plan for improvement.
Try executing the changes for one of your projects to test the improvements.
Once the team has executed and tested the improvement plan, the team should report their findings to the Steering Committee. The team should recommend one of the following:
Implementing project management in an organization is not an easy task. Why? Because people are resistant to change, particularly when individuals do not understand the reason for the changes. Be patient. Listen carefully. Evolve at a healthy pace, not too fast and not too slow. Your Steering Committee can provide the feedback necessary to guide your pace and maturation.
Fixed date projects occur often these days. The project sponsor picks a date and hands you the project. So, what's a project manager to do? How can we manage fixed date projects?
First of all, don’t freak out. Some things are unrealistic, but others are not. Be positive and ask for some time to do some analysis. Let your sponsor know that you will come back in a week or two with the results.
Second, seek to understand why. Why is the deadline so critical? Be careful in how you ask this. You’re not challenging the sponsor. Rather, you simply want to see things from the perspective of the sponsor. Listen carefully.
Third, start defining the scope. What are the deliverables and the priorities of each deliverable? Can some of the deliverables be implemented later?
Fourth, engage your stakeholders early. Ask them to help you with the analysis. Seek their expertise.
So, what do you share with your sponsor when your analysis is complete? Think of the situation like a puzzle. Consequently, you may offer different options.
So, what do you say to a project sponsor when you've completed the analysis and you know that the deadline is unrealistic? Tell them the truth. Explain the process you went through, who was involved, the constraints, and the results.
When challenged with a fixed date project, think of it as an opportunity. Often times, you can deliver the project on time with the right approach. Here are some things to consider:
Keep in mind - good risk management often shortens the project. Risks are eliminated or decreased. However, there are always residual risks that should be recognized in your contingency reserve. For example, you may specify that the project requires an additional six weeks to accommodate risks on the project.
Your approach to a fixed date project will determine your success. The project manager must have the right attitude, ensure appropriate commitments by the sponsor and the team, and select the right processes, tools, and techniques.
Have you ever had an executive ask how long a project will take before the project started? Yeah, I've been there too.
When asked, PAUSE. Be careful about how you respond.
Why? Because your credibility is at hand. Let's talk about the challenges of schedule estimates and three estimating techniques that can help us do a better job with our estimates. Lastly, we'll look at how to respond to future requests for estimates.
What happens if someone estimates a task to take 10 days when it should only take 5 days? Work expands to fill the time alloted.
Conversely, what happens when someone estimates a task to take 5 days when it should take 10? People rush their work. The results are poor quality, rework, higher costs, and adverse impacts on the schedule.
During and after each project, compare your actuals to your estimates. Do you see a pattern where certain team members estimate too high or too low? Consider how you can work with these individuals to improve estimates for future projects.
Each estimating technique has its strengths and weaknesses. Project managers should understand and apply each estimating technique appropriately.
I wish I had a dime for every time that I have been handed a project with a deadline of yesterday. You've been there too? Well, let's talk about some practical steps that we can take to quickly start a project.
Jumpstarting a new project requires time and focus. Clear your calendar as much as possible. Secure a project administrator to help you with your administrative tasks. Delegate activities on existing projects. I also work during hours where I know that I will be least distracted, for example, early hours of the morning.
What Happens When You Get Behind
“No project recovers from a variance at the 15% completion point. If you underestimated in the near, you are generally off on the long term too.” – Gregory M. Horine
Every project has stakeholders—individuals, groups, and organizations that may be impacted by the project or may impact the project in a negative or positive manner. Your stakeholders have different views. Some are resistant. Some are neutral. Others are supportive or leading.
Do you have a stakeholder engagement plan? Have you stopped to think about the diverse needs of your stakeholders? Which stakeholders have the most power and influence? When and how will you engage with these stakeholders?
Let’s look at some practical ways that you can better engage and influence your project stakeholders at the right times in your project lifecycle.
I recently spoke with a project manager who works in a Project Management Office (PMO). Susan told me how people resist project management in her organization, a story that I’ve heard countless times. When I asked, “What are you doing to get support and buy-in?” With a puzzled look, Susan said, “It’s always been that way and I doubt it will ever change.”
Whether you are leading a PMO, a program, or a challenging project, you may have resigned yourself and feel there’s nothing you can do. I encourage you to press on. Identify and assess your stakeholders. Work with others to develop a plan to engage and influence the key stakeholders. As Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.”