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
Reyna was a few months into her project to implement phase one of a basic customer relationship management (CRM) package. I saw her coming out of a meeting and asked how the project was going.

Reyna said she was swamped and was having difficulty keeping up. Since this is one of the most important initiatives in the company, I offered to come to her cubicle and discuss the situation. (Besides, it would allow me to skip a boring meeting with my boss.)

“When I built the workplan, I added a 15 percent allocation for project management work,” Reyna said. “But I find I am spending more time on it than I had planned. The workplan administration is really adding up. I am assigning work, following up to make sure it is completed, updating the workplan, etc. But it seems that’s all I ever do.”

She handed me a stack of paper that was almost painful to hold.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, as I thumbed through the workplan. “This is brutal. You have more than 1,200 activities during the next four months.”

“Well, it is comprehensive,” Reyna replied stoically. “I want to make sure I understand the work to be done and that my team does as well.”

“You do need to understand the work to be done,” I agreed, “as do your team members. But you probably are giving them more direction than they need. For instance, I see an activity for setting up a biweekly meeting. Why do you have five subtasks for this activity?”

Reyna gave me the detailed response: “Well, you have to determine the participants, perform a calendar search, get a conference room, schedule the free time, and notify everyone.”

“You’re right, those all are steps to setting up a meeting,” I said. “But remember what you said about understanding the work to be done. Don’t you think if you just had one activity for setting up the meeting, you and your team members would still know what to do?”

Mentor advice
Reyna has fallen into the trap of building too many details into the workplan. This has caused the workplan to become inflated, cumbersome, and very hard to manage.

Adding 10 activities to the workplan where five will suffice (or perhaps one) adds extra work from both a planning and a management perspective. Updating the workplan also takes much longer, and making sure the remainder of the workplan still ties together after each update is much more difficult.

The worst part is that all of this extra activity is detrimental.

Reyna does not need that level of detail to manage the work, nor does her team need that level of detail to understand what is needed. Reyna needs to simplify the plan dramatically, which will free her from the reactive drudgery of overadministering the workplan but still allow her to control the project. This way, she can also spend more time proactively managing the effort and communicating with her customers and her team.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule that describes at how low or high a level the workplan should be defined, the work should be broken down to a level sufficient to both understand what will be accomplished and at which the work can be sufficiently managed. This level can vary within the same workplan. If the activity being scheduled is well understood by the project manager and the assigned team member(s), it makes sense for it to be scheduled at a higher level. However, if the work is new or complicated, you’ll need to break the higher-level activity into smaller pieces that can be more easily understood.

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.

Struggling under a workplan that is too detailed?

Are you dealing with level after level of detail and wondering how your task ties in to the overall project? Have you ever had to deal with a project that wasn’t detailed enough? How did you cope with or resolve the problem? Start a discussion below or send us an e-mail.