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Wednesday, 13 January 2016 20:08

How to Deal with Uncertainty on Long Projects

Many times you are asked to manage a project that starts off with a lot of uncertainty. You may not be 100% sure of the resource requirements, final deliverables, cost, schedule, etc. You may also be working within a matrixed organization where team members are not allocated full-time to your project. They may be either assigned to other projects, or else to the support of production applications. Part of the planning process involves deciding how to manage the unknowns.

The good news is that project managers deal with the uncertainty associated with large projects all the time, and it is very likely that you can be successful. You can imagine projects with dozens (or hundreds) of workers, and very long timeframes. If those project managers can be successful, you can too.

Okay, so what should you do? Here are a couple suggestions for you to consider, depending on what you think will work best in your situation.

Break the work into smaller pieces

The first thing to do with a long project is to break it down into smaller pieces if possible. For example, let’s say you have a traditional waterfall type of project. Although you are not sure about the work to be done in nine months, you should at least know what you will need to do over the next few months. You are probably going to start in a requirements gathering process. Instead of defining a one year project, start by defining a project that will cover only the analysis phase. After that project, you can redefine and estimate the remainder of the work. If you still feel uncomfortable doing that, then perhaps you can create a project that just covers the design phase. Ultimately, you may complete the work in three or four smaller projects instead of one large one, but you will get there nonetheless. You will also be able to more easily confirm the resources you need for each of the shorter projects.

Provide less detail as the planning horizon gets further out

Many organizations are not structured in a way that allows you to break a large project into a set of smaller ones. These companies only want to pay for one project, and track one project. If you break it up into pieces, people could become confused.

The next idea is to estimate and plan the work for the entire timeframe, but understand that there will be less detail the further out in the future you get. Again, you should have a firm and detailed schedule for the next three months, but then the planning will be at a higher and higher level. You have a framework for completing the project, but only the short-term activities are planned out in detail. This is probably the approach most project managers take on long projects.

Of course, you cannot leave everything at a high level. Every month you need to replan the project, validating the detailed work for the next two months, and then building the details for the third month out. This makes sure that you always have a three-month detailed planning window, and you are filling in more and more detail for the outer months. If the detailed planning leads you to believe that you will not hit your deadline or your budget, attempt to resolve the situation immediately or raise this possibility as a potential risk.

Use multiple estimating techniques

The classic estimating technique is to build a work breakdown structure, estimate the work associated with the lowest level activities, and then add everything back up for the final overall estimate. This approach does not work well when you are not sure exactly what the work is a long way into the future. Fortunately, there are other estimating techniques that will help you cross-check your estimated effort, cost, and duration. Fist, you can rely on outside experts to review your Project Charter and schedule to see if they think your estimates are reasonable. Second, you can see whether there have been similar projects in your company where you can review the prior schedule and estimates to see how they line up with your project. Third, you can use industry guidelines to create overall estimates based on how much time you think the analysis phase will take. For example, if you find estimating guidelines that say that the analysis phase of a project with your characteristics takes 28% of the entire project, then you can provide a high-level estimate of the entire project based on your detailed estimate for the analysis phase.

If you are concerned about the availability of resources, this approach should work. When you create the initial schedule, you can start to communicate regarding the specific people you will need in the next three months, and the general types of people you will need further out. If you keep a detailed three-month planning window, you will be able to give the resource managers up to three months lead-time once you finally nail down who you need for the project work. If resources are not available, you also have up to three months to escalate the problem or to look for alternatives. Two to three months notice should be enough time to manage through any of these resource scenarios.

Risk management

Generally, the problem with long projects is that there are many things that can happen in the future that you do not know about today. In other words, there are potential risks. We have already discussed some ways to deal with the uncertainty of schedule and effort estimating risks. There are other risks as well. For instance, there is a risk that resources you need in the future will not be available when you need them.

All of these risks can be identified, and then a specific plan can be put into place to mitigate the risk and ensure it does not happen. Every month you would update the risk plan to ensure known risks are being managed and new risks are identified. If you think there is risk associated with any aspect of the project in the future, identify it and mitigate it.

Summary

You are right to be concerned about the unknowns associated with long projects. However, there are a number of techniques that can be used to make you feel more comfortable. Being comfortable does not imply that you know everything. Being comfortable means that you have taken your best shot at laying the project out as best you can, and then relying on a good set of communication processes, good risk management, and good issues management to deal with future threats and current problems as they arise.

At TenStep we are dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals and strategies through the successful execution of critical business projects. We provide training, consulting and products for organizations to help them set up an environment where projects are successful. This includes help with strategic planning, portfolio management, program / project management, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and project lifecycles. For more information, visit www.TenStep.com or contact us at admin@TenStep.com.
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Many project managers face situations where they are asked to meet fixed dates with very little, if any, margin for slippage. It is hard enough to manage that situation, but sometimes the customers do not meet their commitments. You have a big challenge already trying to hit a fixed date from the customer. Then the customer introduces additional challenges – for instance, not being able to define requirements fully. This can lead to inevitable delays and changing requirements.

There is a good solution to this problem from a project management perspective, but that does not mean you may not have to struggle to make it work. The key is to proactively utilize risk management, issues management, scope management, and proactive communication to your best advantage.

Manage Risks

When you start a project, the first thing you need to do is planning, including creating a Project Charter and a schedule. The planning process includes identifying risks and putting plans into place to mitigate those risks. If you do not think you can hit the imposed end-date, now is the time to say something. When you do, management starts to hear that the end-date is at risk before the project even begins. As part of the risk identification, you can ask the project team and your management for their ideas on how to mitigate the risk. Ideas might include extra staff, leaning heavily on users to get their requirements in on time, etc. Again, there is value in identifying the project risks and working with others on risk resolution. This process also helps from a communication standpoint to better manage expectations.

Manage Communication

The schedule and proactive communications also help the users better understand their role. For instance, do they really understand the need for timely feedback on requirements and the impact to the project if they are late? Do they understand the dates that they will be needed so that they can better plan their time? You can raise this as a risk and start to manage expectations for what will happen if the requirements come in late. It also gives you more foundation for the follow-up communications that may be required if the user’s dates start to slip.

Manage Issues and Scope

As the project progresses, continue to manage risks, issues, and communication proactively. For instance, if the users end up not meeting their dates in spite of your risk management plans, then you have an issue that needs to be addressed. Issues management (problem identification and resolution) needs to be performed. Again, get your team, management, and stakeholders involved. Ask your manager for input in resolving the problem that is now impacting your completion date. You do not have direct authority over the users. Get more accountability from your management and the business managers to help resolve project resource problems. Your managers and sponsors are also the ones in a position to manage priorities to get the work done. Again, if the problem cannot be resolved perfectly, at least you are continuing to manage expectations.

Continue this proactive project management in other areas as well. For instance, if a person leaves, you have an issue that could impact the end date. Communicate the problem and its consequences, and ask for help in determining the best options for going forward. If the users add more requirements, invoke scope change management and make sure everyone knows the impact to budget and schedule. Don't proceed with the changes unless the sponsor has approved the extra time and budget necessary.

Summary

Although it appears that you are being held accountable for events and circumstances that are not within your control, you do have control over the processes you use to manage the project. Manage risk, issues, and scope proactively, and utilize your manager and your sponsor to try to get everyone focused on meeting the aggressive deadlines.

You also have the ability to manage expectations through proactive communication. You should especially point out cause-and-effect relationships. For instance, you can describe the impact to the project if requirements gathering dates are not met.

When it is all said and done, you may, in fact, not be able to hit your imposed deadlines and budget. However, by utilizing disciplined and proactive project management processes, you at least have a shot of success, and you do a much better job of managing expectations and getting management to be a part of the solution, not just the problem.

At TenStep we are dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals and strategies through the successful execution of critical business projects. We provide training, consulting and products for organizations to help them set up an environment where projects are successful. This includes help with strategic planning, portfolio management, program / project management, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and project lifecycles. For more information, visit www.TenStep.com or contact us at admin@TenStep.com.
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Thursday, 01 October 2015 08:35

Project Workflow Management

Play Now:

This episode is sponsored by The PM PrepCast for The PMP Exam:
The PM PrepCast for the PMP Exam

Rich Maltzman  Daniel Epstein

Today, we are going to take a look at a business process approach that is quite new and quite unique called Project Workflow Management.

When I initially asked Daniel Epstein (https://www.linkedin.com/pub/dan-epstein/1/10b/308) and Rich Maltzman (https://www.linkedin.com/in/exclaim) to come on the program for this interview I didn’t quite know what to expect. I knew that they had written a book about Project Workflow Management, but what I didn’t know is that the book is only part of the package. Their website http://www.pm-workflow.com not only offers many free tools to download but also a teaching aid CD.

I also didn’t expect to find a quote by Dr. Harold Kerzner in which he says point blank that project workflow management appears to be the best alternative, and significantly more valuable to us project managers than complex methodologies and processes.

So in today’s interview we will learn about workflow management from various angles - like how it differs from waterfall methodologies and Agile, its primary benefit, the tools it offers, how simple it is to apply, and of course how we project managers can start using this new approach that Dr Kerzner likes so much.

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Thursday, 15 November 2012 10:00

How Traditional Risk Reporting Has Let Us Down

By Dr. Dan Patterson, CEO & President, Acumen

Introduction

As project management software tools have evolved, project risk analysis has gained a reputation for being overly complicated and disconnected from the real world of successful project execution.

I cannot count the number of times I have walked into a project risk workshop and been presented with the likes of, "Do we really have to sit through this in order to determine we are not going to finish on time?" or, "Oh yes, but this is just a theoretical model—the real world does not work against P50 dates." However, perception always shifts after the risk analysis delivers true value and insight.

This white paper discusses reporting techniques and new ways of interpreting risk analysis results that actually enable the project team to make proactive changes in reducing their risk exposure and increasing their chance of successful on-time, on-budget completion.

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data-chartProject management data – which is obtained from time tracking information – is often an area that could be improved in many companies. Recent studies (1) have shown that cost reductions of 6.5 percent are common from improvements in tracking time from the project management area alone.  This compares with improvements of about 5 percent for billing automation (1) or 1 percent for payroll automation (2).

Time tracking data (payroll, billing, project management, and strategy) can be used to improve project management in the areas of:

  • Costing- How much have we spent?
  • Tracking - Are we done yet?
  • Management - What should we do next?
  • Estimation Improvement - How much is this going to cost us?
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act- Are IT capitalization costs and revenue recognition numbers accurate? Or am I going to jail?

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Wednesday, 14 January 2009 01:44

Facing Risk

All managers especially project managers are faced with risk at one time or another as the future cannot be  predicted accurately managers have to take a position when facing risk.  I looked at some real life situations from the past and found that the examples set by these persons is very similar to the responsibilities that project managers are faced with.

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