Buy-in and attention from all the key players is necessary to keep a project afloat. So are an accurate work plan and a well-crafted project definition. Read on to find out about the common mistakes project managers make when they fail to consider these issues.

Make sure your project stays relevant
The IS Director in our Chicago office asked me to evaluate a significant project that was over budget and past its deadline, and to determine whether the project was now on the right track. My meetings with two of the major project participants were paramount in making that judgment call.

Howard, the project manager, was desperately trying to establish a revised schedule and budget. I asked him what Kim, the project sponsor, thought of the revised schedule. Howard had exchanged e-mails with the sponsor, and she seemed happy that the project might finally be completed. I also asked about whether the project definition document had been updated. Howard said that there was really no need, since the original assumptions, deliverables, and scope were the same as before.

I also met with Kim, who was very unhappy with the whole project, and used the opportunity to vent her frustrations with the IS team. Kim said it was doubtful that the business value of the project would be achieved with the increased budget, and that business changes made it questionable whether the original requirements were still valid. She said that, frankly, she would just be glad when the whole project was completed and behind her.

After these meetings, I collected my thoughts for a recommendation to the IS Director. When I met with him, he asked for my thoughts about the project and its chance for future success.

I came right to the point. “I think the project should be cancelled.”
One of the advantages of being the project mentor is that I normally don’t have any attachment to the projects I evaluate. Sometimes if you have ownership, or partial ownership, of a project, it can cloud your ability to make rational decisions. Here’s a project that has already failed once, and is about to fail again. The project might be able to hit its revised timeline and budget, but what would the result be, from a business perspective? The IS team was determined to deliver the project as it was originally defined, even if the assumptions and expectations of the client had changed considerably. The client sponsor was willing to spend additional company resources on an effort that she had lost confidence in and had already mentally checked out of. Both sides wanted to complete the project—but for the wrong reasons. Sometimes you need to know when to cut your losses. This was one of those times.
What’s the purpose of the project definition?
During our regular weekly meeting, Juan said he was just completing his project definition document for work to upgrade the phone mail system. Unfortunately, he was back to questioning whether all this “project management stuff” was worth it.

“Looks like you are getting close to completing your planning,” I remarked. “Do you feel like you’re in better shape to start the project now than you were two weeks ago?”

“Yes,” Juan admitted, “but I’m still not sure it was worth two whole weeks to complete the project definition document. Some sections seemed to take more time than they’re worth.”

“It may seem that way now, but I am confident that this extra planning time will result in the entire project running more smoothly and with fewer problems.”

Juan agreed. “I’m relying on your experience here. I hope that the extra effort with the project definition now will mean less work during the project.”

It seemed Juan was focusing too much on the actual project definition deliverable instead of the purpose of the document. “Juan, suppose that, in the future, the project definition was no longer needed to start a project. What would that mean to you?”

Juan had a quick response. “I guess I could go back to just jumping in and starting the work right away.”

I realized I had a little more teaching to do.
Sometimes project managers think the first part of the project is to complete the project definition. Actually, the first part of a project is to plan. To adequately plan the project, you need to understand scope, assumptions, risks, project team members, and major deliverables. It’s the planning process itself that is most important. The project definition is just the deliverable that you use to document the results of the planning process. A pre-existing template for the project definition serves to make the planning process a little easier, since you can document the results in a format that’s used consistently throughout your organization. If you weren’t required to complete a project definition document, the first stage of the project would still be to plan.
Keep the work plan up-to-date
I had an interesting second meeting with Doug, who was responsible for a major enhancement to an existing marketing application.

“I remember your project duration was about three months,” I said. “You’ve been working for two months now. Seems like you ought to be seeing the end.”

“You got that right,” Doug said confidently. “We’re about 70 percent complete.”

When a project manager gives me a percentage complete, it always sets off a little alarm. Percentages are usually a sign of some guesswork. “Seventy percent complete?” I asked. “What do you base that on? Is it a number that your project management software generates?”

“No, it’s my estimate of where we are.”

“Doug, when you and I met before, you had a good work plan that laid out the work to be completed. Let’s review the plan and see exactly where you are.”

“We can look at the plan, but I’m not sure how much it will tell you,” he said. “We’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to update it.”

“I predict that your project will miss its deadline, because I don’t think you know exactly how much work is remaining,” I said.
There’s an old adage, “Plan the work, and then work the plan.” There is indeed a huge payback to spending quality time to plan the project work, but you must keep the plan updated. Since Doug’s work duration is three months long, his work plan may not need the rigor that a multi-million dollar project would require. However, he should update his work plan every week. In fact, his work plan should have a weekly, one-hour activity assigned to him to update the work plan. If your work plan isn’t up-to-date, you don’t know what work is left to complete. Doug may not meet his project deadline, but the best way to know that is to update the work plan and ensure that the remaining activities and estimates are accurate.

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 project management and life cycle skills to the IS division. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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