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Five Pillars of Practical Project Management

Really? With such a preponderance of project management literature it is hard to believe there are only five pillars of practices that a PM has to engage in to maximize their potential for success. OK. What are they? I’ve got to see them.

The five steps include:

  1. Project Planning
  2. Project Baseline
  3. Reporting
  4. Change Control
  5. Project Closure

That’s it. If PMs can do these five things, and the little things behind them, they will see great gains in project management performance and greatly enhance their ability to succeed. Sounds simple enough, but sometimes the simplest things are the hardest ones to accomplish.

Project Planning

PMs need to stop over-complicating this initial phase. In its basic form, planning focuses on identifying and documenting items related to a project’s scope, time, and cost. In short, it is the basic process of documenting the understanding each party holds related to the project.

Nothing else should be allowed to creep into this phase. The worst thing that happens at this stage is when PMs take a plan and start adding little things to it. The plan must be matched with the project’s size and complexity and tailored accordingly. It is not a one size fits all approach.

Project Baseline

The baseline captures the project’s predicted scope, time, and costs at the very beginning stages, or anytime thereafter if someone chooses to change them. In other words, it’s a snap of the chalk line. Project teams must treat the baseline as sacred, and only modify it through the change control process as described below.

This is possibly one of the hardest things to get through to PMs, and once again culture is the culprit. If a company’s culture is one where people tear one another down when mistakes are made, then people are always going to hedge their bets. Nobody thinks what they’ve got is going to be good enough, and therefore they overestimate what can realistically be done. PMs must become good at knowing when good enough is, well, good enough, and have the discipline to tow that line.

Reporting

Reports should be based on variances from the baseline in terms of time, cost, and scope, and they need to be metric-based to ensure people are collecting information on a regular basis. If metric-based reporting doesn’t occur, then managers won’t ever get the data they need because no driver or reason exists for collecting it.

Good reporting ensures all people are collecting important information on a regular basis, and keep all PMs out of the fantasy world they so often like to inhabit. It keeps them anchored in reality. Most PMs don’t like to report on progress, and yet somehow they continue to believe (i.e., hope) they will magically improve anyway. Reporting provides a snapshot of where project managers and their projects really are at any given time, not where people wish them to be.

Change Control

The change control process is meant to protect sacred project baselines while helping to manage key expectations among project stakeholders. The very word ‘control’ implies that somehow the process is intended to stop something from happening. But while change control does need to be a strict process that treats the baseline as holy, it does not need to be inflexible. This is an important distinction that eludes many practitioners, much to the detriment of results.

The main goal of the change control process should be to get and keep everyone on the same page, foster discussion, and then realign expectations when necessary. Rather than emphasizing control per se, project teams should be placing more emphasis on collaboration. In other words, everyone needs to view them with all three major criteria in mind – cost, scope, and time – as this is what leads to success. If, for example, a change in time is requested, there will likely need to be some give and take in the other two areas to accommodate such a request. When PMs are able to see the big picture, they are much more willing to compromise on certain issues if it means realizing a greater overall result.

Simply put, change should not be feared. However, stakeholders must understand that they can’t get something for nothing. Instead of prohibiting any adjustments, the change control process should foster the free exchange of ideas, negotiation, collaboration, and a realignment of expectations. It should not be a cold gaiting process or be characterized by one transaction. Rather, it requires multiple iterations, and often times relationships need to be nurtured. This approach serves to remove ambiguity in expectations, and is the ONLY process by which the hallowed baseline should be changed.

Project Closure

When one project finishes there is always one or more needing to start-up, often already behind schedule. Closure is often skipped because of this to the detriment of everyone involved. Without closure between works, it becomes this monotonous flow of never ending intensity. Closure is important intellectually and emotionally. There is no hiding when a stakeholder is asked to sign off on the projects. They either do it or continue the project. It forces finality. Lessons learned must then be collected to broaden the project teams and the organization’s experiential base.

Finally, a get together to enjoy each other’s company, replay the good memories, laugh at the not so fun ones builds emotional bonds between project members and encourages us to move on and embrace future challenges.

Don’t underestimate the amount of effort it takes to master these five areas. They contain the bulk of project challenges and forgo the nice to know stuff. That’s why the five pillars are so important. They keep project management practical and reap efficient success as a result.