Regardless of what an organization’s project management structure is, one of the greatest fears and potential problems a project manager faces is the dreaded “unexpected project.” This event often becomes a CIO’s nightmare as well, as it’s often his or her decision on how to handle staffing needs, adjust timetables, and determine what must be put on hold to tackle the new effort.

Determining how to reallocate project resources in order to achieve organizational goals and deal with an unanticipated project can be difficult to manage. I’ll look at the issues associated with this type of event, and project management best practices that can enable success.

Best practices in project approvals
Project management usually begins with effective planning of defined projects that are typically approved by executive or senior management. The process of approving and defining projects is often an established and refined procedure that involves several analyses. These include ROI, payback period, present value or decision tree analysis, or methods such as the Analytic Hierarchy Process, or other decision support systems.

Due to their unscheduled nature, unexpected projects are often shortchanged when it comes to this type of rigorous analysis and approval. However, the more analysis and approval you can work into the unexpected project’s timeline, the more successful it will be.

Be especially wary of “sacred cow” projects, which typically occur when a powerful enterprise player simply mandates that a new and unexpected project is needed. No analysis is traditionally performed on sacred cows, making them even more difficult to manage.

Sacred cows aside, most unexpected projects typically stem from changing business conditions. But no matter what prompts a new project, it is the project team that is tapped to effectively achieve the organizational goals of the new project while maintaining the current projects on its plate.

The options to choose from
There are several ways to meet the demands that an unexpected project brings:

  • Crashing
  • Fast tracking
  • Constrained resource scheduling
  • Changing expectations and deliverables for other projects

What crashing means
Crashing involves adding staff to the project team in order to alleviate resource issues. Keep in mind that adding new staff can create a learning curve, and often more than one player has to be added in order to achieve the same result of a single, seasoned project staff member.

I recall one project at a Fortune 500 financial institution that involved changing an applications operating system to Windows NT. The team needed one more testing resource in the project to meet deadlines. The executive in charge added a person that had no experience with the application. A seasoned tester was assigned to bring this inexperienced player up to speed and had to spend numerous hours training the new team member. When I looked at the timesheets of these two people, I found that we would have saved project time if we had never added the unseasoned resource. The lesson here is that costs can skyrocket with this option if not managed carefully. I’ve found crashing to work well only when new staff are quality project players.

When fast tracking is appropriate
Fast tracking involves combining the design and build phases of a project in order to reduce time. Once a design criteria is determined, the build team immediately begins to create, and this process continues until the build phase is completed at about the same time as the design phase.

The problem with this approach is that if designs change, as they often do, the build team will encounter rework. The timesavings will be reduced, completely lost, or worse yet, overall project time may in fact be increased by this method. I’ve found that this process works well with more known or repetitive projects vs. those that are new and in the “discovery” mode.

The last two options
Constrained resource scheduling involves heuristics—rules of thumb that have worked well in the past on previous and similar projects. Examples include priority rules such as doing tasks first with the “most critical followers” or “minimum slack first.” These heuristics are built into the capabilities of a good project management tool, and you only need to be aware of how to use the tool to benefit from these features in reducing project timelines.

Obviously, a new project can impact expectations and deliverables of projects in progress. Sometimes additional analysis of ongoing projects results in a current project being put on hold in light of new needs and enterprise requirements. Other times the new project demands special consideration, as it can’t be put on temporary hold.

The need for a good tool
Best practices in project management are required in many areas, including management of risk, issues, and scope. The key to solid best practices is a good project management tool. The tool will enable appropriate changes to enterprise-wide project expectations and deliverables.

An effective PM tool will allow the project management team to combine all of its projects and all of the projects’ resource work allocations into one consolidated project plan. Any new and unexpected project can simply be added to the consolidated plan, and the effects on the overall project resource load and other individual project plans can be quickly ascertained.

The PM tool can quickly determine the impact of resource leveling and project slack reduction on all of the projects the organization is undertaking after the unexpected project has been introduced. Once the impact to time requirements and costs is known, the project team, the stakeholders, the customers, and senior/executive staff can be involved in determining next steps.

A good consolidated project tool can enable any project or program manager the ability to effectively handle issues such as schedule slippage, resource utilization, and the management of physical asset inventories on multiple projects that occur at the same time. Tools are very effective when it comes to resource loading, leveling, and ascertaining optimal use of project resources and timeframes.

There are many project management tools available. Some of the ones I’ve come across include:

Overall, I’ve found Microsoft Project to be the most effective and the best value as a project management tool. Its cost—relative to other tools that can provide similar functionality—is generally much less. When considering the learning curve and all associated costs of bringing a project team up to speed on a new tool, Microsoft Project is superior. It is relatively easy to learn, many are already familiar with it, and it is effective.

I should note that projects that are small in nature might find Excel to be a sufficient tool. Larger projects, or enterprise-wide Project Management Offices (PMOs) will find that Project can deliver needed requirements at reasonable costs.

I’ve recently been reviewing the combination of Microsoft Project 2002 Professional and Project Server 2002, and find they offer some real advantages to organizations that need to manage multiple projects and resources. This new package is better than previous Microsoft Project versions by far. The Project Central features in Project 98 or 2000, although not difficult, were sometimes confusing to new users. Project 2002 seems to offer an easier user experience as well as enhanced project manager control. In conjunction with Project Server 2002, it also offers the best practices and emerging technologies of XML and SOAP.

Putting the right tool and option into play
No matter which tool and project response is put into play, communication is crucial to the success of any new project scenario.

It is up to the project manager to communicate expected change from the start by involving and questioning executive/senior staff, stakeholders, and customers/clients as to what direction(s) they want to take.

By allowing for flexibility, the project team can look at the alternatives and offer the organization several options from which to choose. By learning to expect the unexpected, you can make the best decisions possible for delivering new and existing projects.