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Use 'Big Three' documents to lay the foundation of your project

Trying to ensure that your projects stay on course? This week, Project Mentor Tom Mochal discusses project definition, work plan, and requirements documentation than can give your project a solid foundation.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Jim, a vice president in the finance division, asked me to spend a few hours talking with Vic, who is managing a project to implement new finance procedures for the accounting department. The work had been going on for three months, and Jim wanted my help in determining Vic’s progress.

“The work has taken longer than I originally estimated,” Vic said. “It seems we are trying to hit a moving target. First, we were just going to implement some additional auditing processes, then we were asked to update the company chart of accounts. Now, they want us to standardize the auditing process across all the division finance functions. My manager keeps asking me to get the additional work done as best we can.”

I asked him: “Given the three months you have invested already, and the scope changes you have picked up, how much of the project is left to complete?”

“Well, that depends on the finance users,” Vic said. “If they accept our team’s recommendations, the work might be completed in four months or so. However, based on what we have done so far, the target always seems to be changing.”

“Do you have anything written down that describes what you are doing or what the effort is?”

Vic didn’t.

I asked some more questions, then I left to give Jim, the manager, the bad news.

“Jim,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I am going to be able to help you much. If I am going to determine how much work is remaining, I need some sense for what the project deliverables are, or what the total work effort is. I also need to see how much work has been done so far.”

Unfortunately, Vic didn’t have any of this information available. Without some of the basics, it’s impossible to know if he is one month or six months from completion.

Mentor advice
Processes associated with successfully managing a project have little value if you don’t know what you are delivering and how you are going to do it. There are three major documents that help define the project:
  • The Project Definition defines the deliverables, the scope, and the overall project approach. It also communicates the project vision to the other stakeholders for their agreement.
  • The Project Work Plan describes how you will execute the project, including building and deploying the deliverables. The work plan also tells you whether you are on track or not.
  • The Business Requirements describe in more detail the characteristics, features, and functions of the deliverables. They are also used to validate that your understanding is the same as your major stakeholders.

In Vic’s case, he had nothing written down to give a sense for this project foundation. He has no definition, work plan, or requirements. It’s impossible to know how much work is left, or whether he is on the right track.

Given the track record of the project so far, the best advice is to pause the project and do a quick project definition, work plan, and requirements document. This will validate whether Vic and the stakeholders are in agreement.

If he was on the right track, he should be able to resume his work and take the project to completion. If not, then the sponsor can decide whether the work should proceed.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.


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