During the first part of any project, the project manager must carefully define and plan the project. The result of defining a project is the completion of a project definition (also called a project charter). The result of planning the project is the project work plan. The work plan is a vital tool for ensuring that the project manager and project team know what they need to do to complete the project. If you allow the work plan to go unchecked, you run the risk of diverging from the plan—a misstep that can result in project failure. Here’s how to manage your work plan effectively and avoid this common reason for project failure.

What are the leading reasons projects fail?

All of us have been on projects that were less than successful. I’ll discuss the five most common Project Management mistake in this series of articles. See part 1, “Poor planning is project management mistake number one,” and part 2, “Poor scope-management practices could precipitate project failure.”

The warning signs
Once a work plan is created, you should base your next step on the size of the project. The work plan for small projects can be built without a lot of formality. Larger projects usually demand a work plan built upon a previous work plan from a similar project, or else a work plan built from scratch using a work breakdown structure (WBS) technique. The WBS is a technique for looking at the project at a high level, and then subsequently breaking the work into smaller and smaller pieces until you can get the full picture of the totality of work that needs to be performed.

Far too many project managers think that this last step represents the end of the work plan effort. However, there are a couple of specific signs that reveal the work plan isn’t being updated, and these can spell trouble for the overall success of the project. The work plan is not being updated when:

  • The project manager cannot tell you exactly what work remains to complete the project.
  • The project manager is unsure whether the team will complete the project on-time and within budget.
  • The project manager doesn’t know the critical path of activities.
  • Team members are not sure of what they need to work on next (or even what they should be working on now).

The upshot is that a project is certainly in trouble when the project manager has a work plan but doesn’t really understand the progress made to date and how much work is remaining. When this happens, the project team is not utilized efficiently on the most critical activities. Ultimately, the project team members will get toward the end of the project and realize that they have much more work on their plate than anticipated, since earlier scheduled work will not have been completed. The team may also discover that it has to rework parts of the project, because earlier required steps were not completed.

Other common mistakes when managing the work plan
There are a number of other common work plan problems that occur, including:

Infrequent updates
Sometimes the project manager updates the work plan, but at lengthy intervals—perhaps updating the work plan every two months on a six-month project. The problem is that by the time you make a formal update, you may have already missed some activities. In addition, if you’re behind schedule or over budget and it takes too long to notice, you may be too far behind to make up the difference.

Managing by percent complete
All activities should have a due date. If the activity is completed on time, everything is great. If the activity is not completed, a common question to ask is what percentage of the work is completed. Knowing the percent complete is very subjective. The better question to ask is simply, “When will the work be done?” The answer to this question will help you determine if your project is in jeopardy.

Assigning activities that are too large
If you assign a team member an activity that is due by the end of the week, you know if the work is on-track when the week is over. However, if you assign someone an activity that doesn’t need to be completed for four weeks, you have a long time to go before you know if the work is really on schedule. Sure, the person assigned can tell you it is 25 percent complete or 50 percent complete. But this is a highly subjective response.

The only time you know for sure if you’re on schedule is when the work is actually completed in four weeks. That leaves too much time for uncertainty. In general, if you have a large project, try to keep the work activities to two weeks or less. If the project is smaller, this threshold might be better set at one week. That way you can find out quickly if anything is running behind schedule.

How do you get back on track?
Hopefully, you’ll never be in a situation in which the work plan is out-of-date and you’re not exactly sure where the project stands. However, if you aren’t sure, the first thing to do is take a step back and get the work plan back up-to-date. To do this you’ll need to:

  • Account for all of the work done to date.
  • Determine the work that’s in progress and understand when each of the activities will be completed.
  • Work with the team to re-identify all of the work remaining on the project, as well as the estimated effort. In essence, you can take the current work plan as a starting point, but revalidate that all the remaining work is identified to complete the project.
  • Determine whether you can still meet your commitments for budget and deadline. If you cannot, you need to work with your clients on ways to get the work done within expectations. If that can’t be done, you’ll need to reset expectations based on the newly revised work plan.

Typically, by the time you realize you need to update the work plan, your project is already in trouble. Updating the work plan at that point only shows how much trouble you’re in. It’s much better to update the work plan on a regular basis. Weekly updates are best, but, can, perhaps be stretched to every two weeks on a large project.