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Flexible Project Management

~ By Alex Tylee-Birdsall

Large wodden puzzle piece with project written on it

From the point of view of an outside observer it would appear that every project is doomed to be late, over budget or both. For large public construction projects in the UK such as the Millennium Dome, Wembley Stadium and more recently the London Underground refit, this would truly appear to be the case.

Even on a smaller scale many product development projects tend be misguided in what they will achieve within the planned time frame. There are normally a number of stock excuses for such a failing. These can range from "there was an unexpected change made by the customer", "we underestimated the amount of time required" or even "we didn't understand the risks involved."

In the arena of customer/supplier projects there seems to be an increasing trend to win the project and then worry about how to deliver within the cost, timing and quality later. This normally results in compromised delivery for the customer or sometimes financial losses to the supplier.

In a study by TBC (Tylee-Birdsall & Co) it was determined using the value mapping procedure that most technical design projects could theoretically be completed in half the time if they were managed perfectly and there was no rework required. If we therefore assume that most projects are 50% efficient we can easily bring this up to 80% or even higher if methods to reduce rework and delays were put in place.

Most project management training courses concentrate on time and risk management. This results in well developed timing plans and generally not so well thought out risk management plans. There are project managers who will try anything to cling on to the timing plan they developed at the start of the project whilst everything else falls apart around them.

So where should you start? Well everything starts with the customer who benefits from the end result of the project. Make sure you understand fully the customer's expectations for the project. If the project is internal research then make sure you know who all the stakeholders are and find out their expectations. You must also be prepared for expectations to change.

Any project essentially applies a process, or number of processes, to turn a set of data and/or materials into a final product or products. At each stage different products are created. Therefore a product approach to managing the project can be adopted which is comparable to a manufacturing process. The difference to a manufacturing process is that each project is different. You do not get the opportunity to apply the full project process more than once and therefore it cannot be developed in the same way as a manufacturing process.

This approach is called "product based planning" and is an integral part of methodologies such as PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments). One thing that must be remembered with such a method is that it must remain flexible and allow for change in the project. Change always happens and you must plan to accommodate it.

Once you know what your different product stages are you can then start to look at the tasks required to move from one product to the next and begin to pull together a timing plan. The initial timing plan and tasks list should be viewed as one possible route to a destination. You will need a good vision of the road ahead in order to change the route and stay on track. The majority of a project manager's time should be spent assessing risks and planning contingencies. A good project manager who has a good understanding of customer expectations will have a good idea what problems or changes may be encountered and will already have plans in place. They will be the least busy person in the team. A project manager who spends all of their time fire fighting problems has missed a step in their planning and will always be busy at the frontline.

There are many risk management methods that can be used. It is suggested a project manager uses the method they are most comfortable with. The objective is to determine issues before they occur or to avoid them completely. The problem with most risk management systems is that the project manager will carry out a half hearted risk assessment at the start of the project and then never revisit it. If you make the risk assessment your own process then you are more likely to follow it.

PRINCE2 has already been mentioned and this provides a sound methodology for achieving much of what has been discussed. However the method should not be followed blindly or rigidly, it only provides a framework and not a set of rules. Good sense, good planning and flexibility should always be part of the project manager's toolkit.

There are two good analogies that can be used for project management which you should bear in mind:

  1. Driving from A to B. Generally when driving somewhere you will plan the route you will take in advance. You will also have a good idea of how long it will take you to get to your destination. You would certainly ensure that you had enough fuel to get to your destination and that your car was in good condition and had been serviced regularly. As a further contingency you would also have breakdown recovery assistance. A further level of planning would be to research the location of any roadworks or where the accident black spots are. You could then plan alternative routes to get around these problem areas if required.
  2. Chess. The game of chess is very similar to the requirements of project management. You need to plan ahead in order to win. If you play a purely reactive game you are extremely likely to lose.

Alex Tylee-Birdsall is an independent business consultant specialising in project management, process improvement and resource management. His experience of the engineering and manufacturing industries was gained whilst working for automotive consultant Ricardo and technical consultants Romax Technology in the UK. Alex currently operates his own consultancy company called Tylee-Birdsall & Co. providing training and project management support to companies throughout the UK and internationally.


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