Project Management: Some Questions and Answers

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1. What’s the big deal? Isn’t it just common sense?

Yes, it is mostly just common sense. But ‘common sense’ has so often led to project failure that a more systematic approach has been developed over the years. This toolkit of techniques can be applied to almost any ‘project’, a time-limited set of tasks leading to a desired goal.

2. How do I start?

Are you organizing an Olympic Games, planning your department’s move to a new building, or doing a few experiments before writing a conference paper? Break your project down into different steps, or ‘tasks’. In larger projects, it may be worth grouping tasks into project phases, sometimes called ‘work-packages’, and dividing tasks into sub-tasks.

Then look at the tasks individually. Some tasks can be done at any time during the project. Other tasks must take place before, or must follow, other tasks. For example, in most university research projects, the project budget must be formally approved before new staff can be recruited to the project.

Put the tasks on a calendar (a calendar showing tasks is called a Gantt Chart in project management jargon) showing the months or quarters leading up to the completion of the project. Initially this may be best done on a whiteboard, as many changes are likely at this stage.

Work back from the target finish date for the project. Allow time for delays, especially for those tasks outside your control. This may include, for example, arranging meetings with key people in other organisations, as these can depend on other diary commitments, holidays, and sickness. Do be sure to start to arrange these meetings well before the required dates.

The draft Gantt Chart will help people to understand where the most critical – that is, the most sensitive to delays – tasks are. Effort should be focused on completing these tasks on time to avoid delays to the end of the project. Google ‘critical path analysis’ for more information.

Eventually a reasonable project plan should start to emerge.

3. A reasonable project plan? I just have a very messy whiteboard!

Keep calm and carry on. It is very common, especially for complex projects, to have several iterations of the Gantt Chart before a plausible plan emerges.

Project management software exists to help with this process. There are several systems and packages available, the most common being ‘Microsoft Project’ and ‘Prince 2’. If you have a complex project to manage it may be worth looking at these. But please don’t use them on small projects, as using the software may well take more time than it saves.

The anoraks – and those who sell project management software and training packages - may try to convince you otherwise, but there is a lot to be said for using paper and pencil and a few printed Gantt Charts where possible rather than elaborate software packages.

4. What else should I consider?

Depending on the project size and structure, there may be key milestones before the end of the project. Include these on the chart, along with dates of major review meetings.

The Gantt Chart can also be used to help to identify the people required for the project. For example, if tasks are written on the chart (whiteboard) together with the name of the person expected to do them, it may become clear that certain people are overloaded with tasks at certain stages of the project. These overloads can be reduced or eliminated by re-scheduling tasks or reassigning responsibilities as appropriate.

If you need to ‘borrow’ people from other departments, or other projects, for certain tasks on your project, this should become clear from the Gantt Chart. Try to ensure that these people, or others with similar skills, are available when you need them.

You may also wish to include the estimated costs of each task on the Gantt Chart, to help track spending on the project. If the budget is likely to be spent evenly through the period of the project, this may not be necessary.

5. So I now have an excellent plan. Will things run that smoothly in practice?

They probably won’t – although a good project plan should still be viable with minor delays in some tasks. So do monitor progress. With major delays you may need to revise the project plan, but resist the temptation to write a new project plan for every minor setback, or you will spend more time re-writing plans than actually doing the work.

When you do change a plan, ensure that different versions are clearly labelled, and that everyone working on the project has the most up-to-date version. Effective communication across the project team is essential.

6. Any other tips?

Hold a party when your project finishes successfully – it helps to build team morale for the next project. And if your project is unsuccessful, hold a review meeting to see what can be learned for next time.

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