In this introduction we teach you the essentials of projects. You will learn what a project is, and the basics of project planning and execution.
What Exactly is a Project?
You hear the word project used all the time. People will say
- “I am starting a project to renovate my kitchen.”
- “Our team’s project is to certify our platform for HIPAA compliance.”
- “I have a little project I would like you to tackle this morning”
Essentially, a project has a clear start, finish, a desired result or outcome, and everything that needs to get done in between. Let’s explore the basic elements of all projects.
Projects are temporary and bounded in time. This is what makes them different from operations activities that are ongoing and have no defined ending. Projects may last a few hours to many years or sometimes decades. Most of the projects that you typically encounter in day-to-day work will be somewhere in the range of hours to weeks, or possibly months, but usually not years or decades.
Typically projects begin when a person in authority requests for the project to start. This initiating person has the authority, budget, and access to other resources to enable the project. Usually projects have a clear starting-line, sometimes called a kick-off event, and a clear finish-line when all commitments and desired outcomes have been delivered.
Projects are usually subdivided into smaller intervals in time, or milestones. Milestones have interim due dates in which “deliverables” must be completed. Deliverables can take the form of a document, data, report, a prototype, an actual product, or any other form. Each deliverable and each interim milestone achieved helps to ensure that the overall project will be ﬁnished on time and on budget.
A Sequence of Interdependent Events
I am sure you have seen videos of thousands of dominos arranged so that they all fall in sequence when a single domino is toppled over. That is a great visual analogy for how projects work. Projects involve a sequence of interdependent events all in support of a common desired outcome. One event leads to another which leads to another, and so on. Occasionally various events depend upon other multiple events overlapping in complex scenarios. It is easy to see that if projects did not involve multiple events, they would be reduced to a single event or task.
Some projects can be so complex that in order to effectively manage and execute them special tools and software are necessary. Such tools enable project managers to see which tasks need to be executed in parallel, versus sequentially in order to minimize schedule and save money.
Effective project management demands a broad view of all tasks within the project. By seeing the interrelated tasks and activities as part of an overall system, the project manager and project team have a better chance of coordinating efforts and supporting each other at critical junctions. Anticipating when roadblocks and bottlenecks may occur and establishing mitigation plans ensure effective completion of the project.
The best way to fail with a project is to not have clear desired outcomes. The more clear your desired outcomes and results the better the chances that a project will succeed. Ask yourself the question: How will we know when we are done? At the end of each project is the realization of a set of speciﬁc goals or objectives.
There is usually one major and clearly defined desired outcome for every project. However, it is common to have interim outcomes and accomplishments as part of the project. A software development team for example may have a desired outcome to publish a mobile application to the app store. Along the way they will complete software sprints and demos all incrementally leading to the app’s release. Completion of each spring can be regarded as an interim objective toward completion of the overall desired outcome.
Intermediate project objectives and interim outcomes go by many names. Some project managers call them goals, some call them milestones, some call them sprints, some call them tasks or subtasks. Regardless of the terminology, they all mean the same thing, they all represent a significant event or juncture in the project.
All projects share three primary constraints: scope, time and money. Sometimes these three are referred to as project triple constraints. There is a fourth often overlooked constraint called quality. Often projects emphasize the what of the project outcomes, and quality forces the question of how well has the outcome been realized. Scope specifies the desired outcomes for the project, it represents both the what and how-well of the project. Time and money are part of the how, and how resources are applied towards the required tasks for the project. A project without a timeline is not a project. Same goes for a project without a budget. All projects must have well defined scope, time and budget, only then can the project manager and team establish the conditions to produce the desired outcomes.
A Project is the realization of a desired outcome by coordinating the allocation of knowledge, people, materials, time and energy towards the execution of interrelated events over a specific timeframe while overcoming predictable and unforeseen blockers.
How Do You Plan a Project?
If the project manager is the captain of the ship, the project plan is the navigation chart. All effective projects have a well defined project plan. The project plan is a fundamental document that spells out the desired outcome, how it is to be achieved, and what resources will be necessary. Think of the project plan as a map. It is the blueprint for the entire project, a vital tool which is referred to and updated daily, and a device without which the project manager cannot proceed. Here are the essential elements of the project plan.
- Project Objectives – The project objectives precisely define the desired outcomes for the project.
- Project Strategies – The project strategies define the approach for how to achieve the desired outcome. There may be multiple strategies considered for a project.
- Project Methods – The project methods answer the how or the project. They define the processes and methods that will be used to perform the tasks of the project.
- Project Tools – The project tools is an inventory of all tools needed to manage the project, and also to implement the methods and strategies for the project.
- Project Resources – The project resources encompass the people, knowledge, materials, time and energy needed to produce the desired outcomes for the project.
Preparing a project plan is an iterative process. A good place to start is with a project charter. The project charter captures the desired outcome as described by the project’s primary stakeholders. The charter is a rough pre-plan that triggers the start of the overall project activity.
From the project charter, a more detailed plan is drafted that includes the five (5) planning elements outlined in this section. The plan will also include a list of all tasks and assignments to project team members, and the identiﬁcation of milestones arranged in sequence for stakeholders of the project to see.
All project plans are a best guess and effective project execution demands flexibility. This is why Agile project execution methods have become so popular. The entire team and stakeholders must be prepared for the plan to change and adapt as work begins in earnest.
Getting a Project Off the Ground?
This is where the fun starts. Once a documented project plan is in place the project execution or implementation begins. For some people planning a project can be tedious and uninteresting, implementation is anything but. This phase of the project typically starts with a kick-off event that brings all key stakeholders and contributors together to officially start the project. At this time the first tasks get assigned to individuals and commitments for their completion are established. The kick-off activity is the first time tasks go from ideas on paper into action in the real-world. Team members are producing results in support of the plan.
How Do You Keep a Project On Target?
Once the project execution begins the project manager’s highest priority and primary task becomes monitoring progress. Effective project managers continually examine the accomplishments of the team, make adjustments to the project plan, and set priorities for the team.
Disciplined monitoring of the project is a necessary behavior to be successful in project management. One way to ensure progress continues is for the project manager to seekout “blockers” or “roadblocks”. Essentially, anything that is preventing a project contributor from delivering a result or completing a task. Anything can be a blocker, the lack of motivation, insufficient money for a purchase, lack of third-party information, etc. By focusing on blockers and diligently overcoming them the project manager can ensure the project continues to make progress towards the final desired outcome.
A Focus on People
Oftentimes it is easy for project managers to overemphasize the non-human aspects of a project. However, projects are human centric, and the project manager must never lose focus of the people. Let’s have a look at some of the typical people involved in a project.
- Primary Project Sponsor – The person or persons that initiate the project, authorize the project and allocate the resources for execution.
- External Stakeholder – This is typically the client, but it could include anyone else that may be positively or negatively impacted by the outcomes of the project. There may be many external stakeholders on a project, and their needs should be accounted for.
- Supervisory Manager – These are typically the direct supervisors responsible for the internal people and resources that will be needed to complete the project.
- Administrative Manager – These are other managers in an organization typically not in direct supervisory roles for project team members. They may be required to authorize purchases or access to data systems.
- Project Manager – The big kahuna responsible for pulling it all together.
- Team Member – A staff member who performs the work defined in the project plan.
- Project Director – In organizations with many projects there may be a supervisor of project managers responsible for the oversight of the projects and their leadership.
Effective implementation of a project demands that project managers maintain healthy relationships with all of the stakeholders of a project, these include team members as well as external influencers.
Putting It All Together
- A project is a unique set of interrelated tasks with a common desired outcome that: has a clear start and end, produces a new result, has constraints, and has a leader and someone invested in the outcome.
- Tasks or events are well defined and bounded units of work that can be assigned to team members for implementation. Tasks produce incremental results that contribute to the overall desired outcome for the project.
- The project plan is an evolving document containing the description of the desired outcomes for the project and how that outcome will be achieved.
- Project execution or implementation requires daily control. The effective project manager constantly seeks out blockers and monitors progress. For some project managers this becomes an obsession. However, project managers should never forget and lose sight of the fact that projects are human endeavors, people do come first.
- The project manager is the leader responsible for ensuring that the project’s desired outcomes are achieved with optimal allocation of people, knowledge, material, energy, time, and money.
Are you ready to take charge? – Let’s go show those cats who’s the boss now…