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Project Management Basics

~ By Michele Webb

Gantt chart and plan

If you have ever had responsibility for managing a project, regardless of how little or how big, you will understand the many nuances and special considerations that have to be taken into account behind-the-scenes. Project management success stories rarely show the struggles, problems or weaknesses of the project or team to the public. One author, Herbert Lovelace, likened this to the kitchen, which …tends to be cleaned up before it is shown to guests!

Understanding how projects should be managed or "by the book" methodology is a good reference guide and tool for everyone. But, in order to succeed the project manager must understand the myriad of people, their needs, and the potential problems and issues that need to be tackled before the project can be called successful. In my own experience, project management is a culmination of all the experiences and knowledge I have gained on past projects and is modified based on circumstance. There are, however, some very broad guidelines that can be implemented to help ensure the project stays on track.

1. Identification

Make sure the problem, or project purpose, is clearly identified before starting. This is best done by putting the purpose into writing and having the entire team review the text. Next, solicit the team's agreement to the purpose in a roundtable meeting. This will also help to identify the customer's concerns and issues that need to be addressed throughout the project and help to stratify the resources and potential conflicts the team may encounter.

2. Preparation

Is all about figuring out what to do and how to do it. Although most of us can handle the mechanics of preparation fairly well on an independent basis, it may be more difficult to ensure that all project team members are in agreement. It is advisable to have everyone sign off on what is to be done and his/her role in the project as part of the preparation. People are far more likely to support something that they understand and have had a role in developing. In our organisation we use a document, called a Scope of Work Agreement, as part of the contracts and negotiation process that details the work to be done on the project. By using this document we can clearly set the project tasks, milestones and timeline before the contracts are finalised. Here's one titbit, if you are trying to implement systems, and you can't explain it easily, don't implement it!

3. Implementation

Just remember, it is always tricky! Try to keep implementation as simple as possible and have a rollback strategy in place. How you react to unexpected issues will make the difference between success and failure. Don't demoralise a team working long hours by letting critical decisions hang or go unanswered. Make sure that everyone on the team is in the communication loop and has a stake in the project. By the same token, don't be afraid to use the rollback strategy if unexpected events sabotage the timeline.

4. Reflection

Is your most valuable tool. We all learn a lot after the project is over about what or how we might have done something differently. It is helpful to keep a written log during the project. The log can also be used as a tool after the project is over to figure out how things could have been improved. A post-project team meeting where all team members can contribute to the feedback is warranted and will produce valuable information from all stakeholders.

Conclusion

Project managers should take the time to learn from formal methodologies and utilise the help from mentors and other experienced project managers. In my humble estimation, though, there is no substitute for the "hands-on" approach to project management and planning. Regardless of the methodology or set of ideals you start out with, nothing will replace the amount of sweat, teamwork, hard work and personal involvement required to successful project management. You can reduce the number of problems and issues you deal with, however, by following these four simple guidelines.


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