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.
A few weeks ago, I helped Sean put together an estimate for a wireless Internet project for our company’s research and development department. He had good news and bad news about the project’s status when I met with him for the second time.
“The estimate that we worked on a few weeks ago has been accepted,” Sean told me excitedly. “However, the timeline for completing the project has been shortened. My manager said there are a couple of business units interested in the new technology, and they want this proof-of-concept project completed as soon as possible. I have already had to assign people to start the work, so we’re already past the planning process.”
I could foresee potential problems if Sean went forward like this. I asked him what his deliverables were, what kind of approach he was taking to the project, what kind of timeline he was dealing with, and what he thought was in-scope and out-of-scope—but he could only give me partial answers.
“So you have only a vague idea of what you are going to do and what the expectations are,” I noted. “One of the purposes of planning is to ensure that you have an agreement with your sponsor on what is expected. Otherwise, you’ll end up finding out later in the project or at the end of the project. In either case, it will be too late to hit your deadline.”
“But what about that deadline?” Sean insisted. “We’ve got to start now if we want to get the work done on time.”
“If you have a choice, it’s always preferable to plan the project first and then begin executing,” I said. “However, I agree with you that sometimes you have to start the project immediately. When this happens, you need to plan the work at the same time that some of the work is going on.”
It seems like more often than not, project managers are under time pressure to start working on the project while the overall project planning is still going on. This is not an optimal situation, but it is reality. Project planning must continue, so the question then becomes whether the planning will be good or poor. Good planning while you are managing the initial stages of the project is tough and time-consuming. The reward is that there will be a point when the planning will catch up with the work going on, which will allow you to proactively manage the project going forward. Poor planning, where you run the risk that the entire project will be haphazard and reactive, will ultimately result in the project not meeting the needs of your client.
My advice for Sean is to keep planning while he proceeds with the project execution. Ongoing planning may indeed change the direction of the project, or possibly add or eliminate some work from the original project workplan, but there are some tasks that will need to be completed regardless of the final outcome of the planning process. For instance, Sean’s team will definitely need to gather a basic set of user requirements, define what hardware and software will be needed, and determine what content will be pushed out to the wireless devices. Sean should also continue to get approval and agreement on what the project will accomplish, what the deliverables are, etc. When he gets the project definition and workplan completed, he can sync up with the work that has already been done and proactively manage the rest of the project. There may be some rework that is required, but it should be minimal at this point. The rework is the cost of accelerating the project schedule this way.
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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