Six things I must do to bring value

Even in tight times, when the number of resumes floating around has risen dramatically, many Project Management Office (PMO) leads are still saying there is a shortage of talent. “Get me a good Project Manager”, they say to the headhunters.

I take it for granted that good managers are great leaders and excellent communicators. What are the differentiators that make a good manager a good Project Manager (PM)? I believe there are six things a PM must do during the planning and execution of a project in order to bring value as a Project Manager:

  1. Create a Work Break Down Structure
  2. Determine which tools, methodology, and documentation will be used on the project.
  3. Facilitate the creation of an appropriate schedule and save the baseline.
  4. Use Earned Value to track schedule and budget progress against plan.
  5. Hold regular status meetings.
  6. Escalate unresolved issues and significant change requests to a management team.

The 100% rule is the key. The rule is, ‘At any level of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), the entire scope of the project and all deliverables is captured 100%.’ To create the WBS, I engage potential participants using pre-mails and then hold a group session with a large white board, all stakeholders represented, and lots of post-it notes. I like to stop at only three or four levels deep into the WBS – but this is really the call of the team members who are doing the work. After the meeting, MS Visio Organization-Chart helps to quickly show the WBS graphically on one page. This page gets tweaked as necessary and is dragged to every meeting I attend. I use this tool to manage scope creep, engage stakeholders, accept deliverables, and avoid gaps in accountability. It’s the one Project Management tool I can’t live without – it becomes the entire project on one page.

Every new project is mashup of culture and organizational objectives. A good PM uses diplomacy and leadership to follow the norms that have been set and break the rules when the situation calls for it.

Usually it’s not up to the PM to determine, between PRINCE2, PMBOK, Agile, SDLC, and CMMI. Whatever the methodologies employed it is the PM’s responsibility to ensure the approach is communicated to the team and guidance on how to implement it appropriately is available.

My goal is that issues related to the tools, methodology, and documentation float to the background as the team presses ahead with work at hand.

A good PM will facilitate team creation of a schedule that documents a) activities that must be completed, and; b) name of the one person responsible for providing status updates.

My rule of thumb is that an identified task that takes longer than 2 weeks should be broken down into smaller pieces and a task that takes less than 2 days is too detailed – but this is the team member’s call as they own the schedule, not the PM.

When the team agrees that the schedule drawn up is doable, save a copy, this is the (first) baseline.

Consider that the “Must finish on time” 6 month project you are leading has burned up 80% (5 months) of the calendar. You request an update to senior executives where you report that the team has determined that they need an extra month added to the schedule to finish the project. Some time later, the project finishes after a total of 10 months.

Did something unexpected cause extra delay?

Could you have provided a more accurate forecast during your executive update?

Consider that:

  1. Team members, usually under subtle and not-so subtle pressure, consistently underestimate how long it takes to get things done. As an aside, in my experience, the most common source of the underestimate is changing requirements, unexpected complications, and lack of available folks to do the additional work.
  2. Given the chance to re-plan the project, the team looks only at the amount of work remaining, ignores the leanings from the start of the project, and bakes in the exact same underestimates in the re-plan.

 

Earned Value is the single most powerful Project Management principle in the entire PMBOK; it provides unbiased status of current state and forecast of future impact to schedule and cost. It is also the most underused key concept by Project Managers. In a nutshell, Earned Value provides an independent Project Management perspective to the following questions:

Are we ahead or behind schedule? When is the Project likely to be completed? What is the remaining work likely to cost? It isn't unusual, that it is not appropriate to report and discuss Earned Value metrics to management. That’s not a show-stopper, because the information is still highly valuable and actionable by the person most accountable to take the required day-day actions to ensure project success – the Project Manager.

 

Hold Weekly Status Meetings: Less frequent, for example, every two weeks, is too long because if key people miss one it is a month until you are together again. More frequent and not enough will have changed resulting in meeting churn.

Standard Agenda and Meeting materials: That is, status late and upcoming activities, review new Issues, Risk Log updates, and potential Change Requests. Ensure that all “Work breakdown Structure” stakeholders are represented at the meetings. Issue Agenda/Pre-Mail / Minutes: – That is, issue the agenda and meeting materials at least 24hr prior to the meeting.

“Unresolved” – Don’t escalate until the Project Team has reviewed the issue without success.

“Issue” - Ensure the item being discussed is within scope of the project and is impacting success, if not, note it for later discussion. “Significant Change” – a) Establish risk and impact thresholds, below which, the project team will “adjudicate” change requests internally without escalating, and above which, will always use the agreed change management process. “Escalate” – Advise the appropriate stakeholders quickly as a courtesy and to ask for help.

There you have it. I support and subscribe to PMBOK, ITIL, Agile et cetera, and the more I learn about each one, the more similar and complementary they seem to me. However, as a Project Manager working with diverse clients and changing needs, the above six are my must-haves in order to provide value-add as a Project Manager.