We’ve all been there, staring at a project brief and questioning where to begin; dreading the thought of Gantt charts and critical paths. Vistage Speaker and training expert, Chris Croft, believes that projects are both fun and valuable to your business, so they can’t be avoided and are worth getting right from the start. In this article he shares his tips on how to identify, and avoid the pitfalls of project management.
- Thinking you know what’s required because it’s all clear in your own head.
Any project manager will tell you that if you do this then whatever you deliver, however brilliant it is, will be criticised by the customer as “Not what they wanted”. The answer is to agree and then write down at the start what you will deliver, and email it to all concerned, so that if they’re not happy they have a chance to say so.
This problem is particularly common with internal projects, when the same rule still applies – get it in writing to avoid confusion, and disappointment later. Also any intangible project should ring alarm bells – if you can’t make a drawing of it then it’s risky.
- Allowing a customer to expect all three of Cost Quality and Time.
It’s impossible to have something that’s cheap, great, and quick. Something has to give, and the customer has to face this fact. Which one is the top one, which one is quite important, and which one is going to have to give? This important conversation must be had at the start – and usually isn’t!
- Saying “Maybe”
Project Managers sometimes think that saying “Maybe” is a more pleasant option than saying no, and in the short term it probably is, but longer term it’ll end in tears for both the PM and for their customer / boss. So you must say either yes or no at the start, and both of these need to be backed up by a plan which proves that you can either do it, or that you can’t do it. Don’t be tempted to be a hero in the short term by saying ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ when you can’t do it, however much pressure you are under. And remember that “Might be possible” or “It’ll be difficult” or “If the parts come in on time…” all sound like “Yes” to the customer. The only thing that doesn’t sound like “Yes” to your customer / boss is “No”.
- Starting before the job is clearly and completely defined
“Just start and we’ll worry about the details later”. The answer to this is “No!”. You can’t plan until you know exactly what’s needed, and you can’t start until you’ve got a plan. Refuse to start until everyone has agreed what the job is going to be. There must be a kick off meeting at the start, with everyone there, and they have to all agree what they are going to have, even if they can’t all have everything they want.
- Optimistic Estimate (“If it goes really well it will only take X weeks and cost Y pounds”)
It won’t go really well! Show me a project where nothing at all has gone wrong… This is because any deviation from the plan will be worse than the plan (otherwise it would BE your plan!) and deviations are bound to happen, so the best case can’t happen.
So the total time and cost will be somewhere between the average case and the worst case, certainly not the best case, and if you are asked to estimate the best case then don’t give an estimate at all – otherwise you’ll end up being committed to delivering the best case, which is impossible and will lead to unhappiness for you and for your boss / customer who will have based their plans around you delivering this best case. And bosses: please don’t ask the question – you’ll only get a number that will never happen.
- Going straight for the Gantt chart
I love Gantt charts, and they are the output from the planning process that we want, but it’s important not to forget to make a network diagram or critical path diagram aka PERT Chart first. This will probably be just a bunch of post-it notes on a white board, planning out the flow of the project. Which order do we need to do things? What’s the longest path? …which tells you how long the whole project is going to have to take.
If you jump straight to the Gantt chart it will take you much longer, and be wrong, because the Gantt chart needs to be based around the critical (longest) path, and you need to do the post-its in order to find that path.
- Fiddling the estimates to make them fit.
If you add up the times (or costs) required for your project and it comes to too much, you could just reduce the estimates a bit (“We’ll just have to find a way”) but all you’ve got now is an inaccurate plan. Much better to put the real numbers in, add them up, see what you’ve got, and then make a plan for how you’ll speed up (or reduce the cost) of your plan. This might involve more resources, reducing quality, overlapping tasks, asking for more time or money etc – but at least you’re coming up with a properly resourced plan that will be delivered.
- “I don’t need a Gantt chart – I have a list of tasks with dates on: start and finish dates for each task”.
A Gantt chart is SO much better than this because it’s visual – you can see what’s critical and what isn’t, what depends on what, how much float things have, which tasks will have to be speeded up if we’re running late, etc. Boiling a Gantt chart down to just a list of tasks is a travesty, and of course the real weakness of the list of tasks is that they didn’t really come from a Gantt chart, they were just made up. So the critical path will be wrong, and the whole thing can’t really even call itself a plan. Sorry, but it’s GOT to be a Gantt chart.
- “We have a plan, and we’ll find a way to get it done”
This sounds OK, but the snag is that there is no resource plan attached to it. In my experience almost every project relies on the company somehow finding the people when they are needed – there isn’t really a plan for who will be available when. To be fair it’s difficult – things are hard to forecast and they keep changing, we don’t know which proposals will come to fruition and become real projects, and it’s hard to plan the 3D matrix of people projects and time. But still, if you don’t have a rough plan of how many people you’ll be needing when then you’ll probably end up delivering late, or spending a lot of extra money to rush things through. A simple Gantt chart for one project, and a simple Gantt of Gantts for all of your projects, are all you need in order to have a rough idea of what’s going to be needed in the next few months – not perfect, but rough is good enough and much better than nothing.
- “You never told me that might happen”
Good Project Managers are one step ahead of risk, and they have a list of possible risks, assessed for how likely and how serious, with plans to make them less likely and/or less serious. The big question is “Which risks am I unable to mitigate? They are still quite likely and quite serious and that can’t be avoided”. The existence of these risks isn’t the project manager’s fault in any way. But the customer needs to know about these, so that they can allow time / money accordingly. They might even decide not to do the project. But never let it be said that they didn’t know about them.
- “How’s it going?”
If you ask this question you’ll get stories – some success stories, some disasters that were saved by heroic efforts, and some tales of woe still unresolved. But these are WORTHLESS! So you’ve got the concrete problems sorted, and the lamp posts are coming in from Italy at the weekend, that’s great, but should you have done MORE than that by now? I don’t know! And if I drive out there and have a look at the road being built, or I go to the lab and see the half finished test rig, it’s all fascinating stuff but is it on schedule? Is it going to be ready on time? I can’t tell. The only thing that means anything is a coloured in Gantt chart. Are you keeping up with the plan? If not, how can we help get back onto plan? No Gantt chart, no visibility, no control.
- “We are slightly under budget, so it’s fine”
It’s easy to assume that this is good news. But it probably isn’t! What if you’ve spent 90 instead of 100, but progress is only 80? You are actually OVER budget. And this is more likely than an underspend, because any deviation from plan (spending only 90 instead of 100) is likely to be worse than the plan = slower and more expensive. How often are things cheaper than you expected? Rarely. How often do things take longer than expected? Almost always! So when looking at spend you should also compare it with the progress made, by looking at your coloured in Gantt chart.
- Last minute confessions
As the project encounters a number of small problems that are all adding up, it is common to hope that your luck will improve . But of course it won’t, because the same team, the same suppliers, and the same original estimator are all still involved. So eventually we have to confess that the project is going to overspend and/or deliver late. Much better to admit this sooner, ideally at about the half way point. Take the small pain earlier rather than the large pain later!
- “…And onwards to the next project”
But wait – one thing before you go on to the next one: Review the one that has just finished and capture the good things you did (to repeat for next time), the mistakes that were made (to avoid next time) and the ideas we have, using our perfect hindsight, for how we could do a similar project even better next time. Write them down on a single sheet of A4 and store it for future reference. I know you personally may not gain from doing this but the company will. Bosses: make sure the PM does a review, and copies you in!
There we are, look out for the above pitfalls in order as you progress through your project, and you’ll be fine!