Life is filled with new adventures and experiences. Remember the first time you rode a bike, climbed a tree, or took a job. New adventures are exciting, but they can be filled with great uncertainty.
Project managers may be asked to manage a project, unlike anything they’ve ever faced. Consider Sue, an event planner, who was asked to manage a project to implement a new accounting system for her organization. Sue had no accounting background or experience in implementing software.
To varying degrees, every project is different from our prior projects — that’s what makes them unique, and for me, this is what makes project management fun. It’s different every day.
But, some projects are completely alien to us; the endeavors are foreign to our experience. How should we approach these projects? What steps can we take to improve our chance for success?
Taking Control of Your Aliens
I recently decided to write my first book — The Intentional Project Manager (10 Things Successful Project Managers Never Tolerate). I’d like to share some transferable concepts that you can apply to your alien projects, Here are some tips:
1. Clearly define the project. The starting point of every project should be a project charter. Work with your sponsor to define the project goals, deliverables, constraints, assumptions, high-level risks, stakeholders, and your team.
One of the challenges in alien projects is estimating the duration. Clearly defined goals are timebound — the goals include dates. Because of the uncertainty, you may wish to use date ranges, rather than specific dates. Start with an analogous estimate. How? Get actual durations from other project managers for similar projects.
How did I estimate the time to write my book? I talked with my twin brother, Charles Hall, who has written two books. I estimated that I could complete the book in four to six months.
2. Identify the areas where you lack knowledge, experience, and skills. For my book, my team included me (the writer), three editors, one designer, two formatters who formatted the book for print, as well as for the Kindle version. I also created a Launch Team to help me promote the book through social media channels.
I staffed the team with people who had experience and skills that I did not possess such as editing, designing book covers, and html coding for the Kindle version. When managing alien projects, it’s super important to define the project, identify the required skills, and staff accordingly.
3. Understand that you will discover unknown risks as you progress through the project. Projects have unknown risks, particularly alien projects. Wise project managers prepare their teams by acknowledging, up front, that they expect things to pop up, from time to time in these projects. Teams make assumptions that are not based on facts; many times, these teams experience unexpected events.
These projects are like caving. In some parts of the journey, the cave is open and easy to navigate. In other places, the tunnel has collapsed and requires persistence and hard digging to get to the other side.
One of the biggest surprises for me in my book project was the amount of time it took to self-publish. I had never worked with CreateSpace or Kindle Direct Publishing. I assumed that the publishing activities would be fairly straight forward. Now that I’ve done it, I could do these tasks much easier for future books.
4. Break the project into chunks so you can learn from your early experiences. When there is great uncertainty, project managers can improve their chance for success by taking an agile approach rather than a waterfall approach.
Tom, an IT project manager, decided to have his project team create a billing system iteratively. The project team captured the project requirements in a backlog and delivered the functionality in four-week sprints. The team discovered unknown constraints early in the first three sprints that greatly improved the speed and quality of the code in the subsequent sprints.
When I wrote my book, I outlined and shared my chapters with a few people for feedback. As I wrote a few chapters, I had an editor review the content and provide editorial feedback, which improved my writing for the remaining chapters. When I had completed the initial manuscript, I had another editor perform a top level edit, helping me to identify gaps in the book as well as parts that should be deleted.
5. Add schedule and budget reserves. In any project, certain activities have more risk — there is greater uncertainty. Project managers should add contingency reserves for these known risk and a management reserve for the unknown risk.
One of the best techniques for analyzing risks is to define a work breakdown structure (WBS) and then analyze the risk for the lowest level activities. The reserves may be added to the individual activities; they may also be added to the overall project.
6. Track your hours for future reference. If you want to improve your estimating of future projects, track your hours. Empirical estimates will be more accurate than theoretical estimates.
Did I track hours for my book? Yes. Now, I know how many hours I spent in writing, editing, creating the book cover, publishing, the pre-launch, and the launch.
7. Use appropriate tools. Some project managers use complex project management tools for simple projects; others use tools like spreadsheets for the management of large, complex projects. Think about your needs. Do you need to develop a network diagram? Do you plan to track your expenses? What kinds of reports do you need to generate?
I used a simple tool called Trello for managing my book project. Trello allowed me to quickly capture my project activities, descriptions, checklists, and due dates. I created three columns for my activities: 1) To Do, 2) Doing, and 3) Done. I moved activities from one column to the next as needed.
For my next book, which I’m already writing, I have the Trello board from my first book. What a great help! I can see the path for my project much better than the first book.
The next time you are handed a project from out of space, make your way to this post. Apply these tips in order to morph the strange creature into something you can manage.
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