Project Management

How to plan around the uncertainty of long projects

Our resident project management mentor offers advice for dealing with unknowns on lengthy projects. Here are some points to consider the next time you take on a large, long-term project.


Columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format. This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

Question
How do you deal with the general unknowns when creating a project plan on a yearlong project? In my case, there is uncertainty of resource availability since I will be sharing resources with other teams. All the estimates are suspect. The entire work plan is also somewhat vague because it covers an entire year. I know people manage large projects all the time. How do they manage the uncertainty that goes along with this type of project?

Answer
You’ve asked a good question. You may not be 100 percent sure of the resource requirements, the final deliverables, the cost, schedule, and so on. In your particular situation, it sounds like you’re also working within a “matrixed” organization, where team members are not allocated full-time to your project. I assume they’re 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’s very likely that you can be successful despite the uncertainty. There are projects with dozens (or hundreds) of workers, and very long timeframes. If those project managers can be successful, you can too.

Here are some suggestions for making a long, unwieldy project more manageable.

Break the work into smaller pieces
The first thing to try 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 probably unclear about the work to be done in nine months, you should at least know what you need to do over the next few months.

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’ll 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
There are circumstances where you can’t do what I suggest above. Many organizations are not structured in a way that allows a project manager to break a large project into a set of smaller ones. Many companies want to pay for and track only one project. If you break it up into pieces, people get confused about what you’re doing.

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

To stay current, every month you’ll 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 ensures that you always have a three-month, detailed planning window. You’ll also be 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 work plan 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, 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 crosscheck your estimated effort, cost, and duration.

First, you can rely on outside experts to review your Project Definition and work plan to see if they think your estimates are reasonable. Second, you can see whether there have been similar projects in your company that you can review. By analyzing the prior work plan and estimates, you can see how well 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. If you find estimating guidelines, for instance, that say the analysis phase of a project with your characteristics takes 28 percent of the entire timeline, then you can provide a high-level estimate of the entire project based on your detailed estimate of the project's analysis phase.

If you’re concerned about the availability of resources, this approach should work. When you create the initial work plan, you can communicate 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’ll be able to give the resource managers up to three months' lead time once you finally nail down exactly who you’ll need. If resources are not available, you also have up to three months to remedy 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
Of course, the biggest problem with long projects is that there are many things that can happen in the future that you don’t know about today. We have already discussed some ways to deal with the uncertainty of schedule and effort estimating risks. There are other risks as well. In your case, for instance, there’s a risk that resources you will need in the future will not be available when the time comes.

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 should update the risk plan to ensure that 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’re right to be concerned about the unknowns associated with long projects. However, these techniques should help you feel more comfortable with the project’s length. Being comfortable does not imply that you know everything. Being comfortable means that you have taken your best shot at laying the project out. After that, solid communication processes and good risk and issues management will help you deal with future threats and current problems as they arise.

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