A Swiss Army Knife for Project Management

One deliverable, two tools, and three rules form the essential Swiss Army knife of effective project management.

The Project Management Institute certifies project management professionals. The organization recently released the third edition of the Project Management Book of Knowledge—which runs to several hundred pages.

Like all areas of expertise, project management professionals build their reputations by dealing with more complex and esoteric details. Lost in this quest to push back the edges of project management is the need to equip more people in organizations to operate in a project-based world.

Why bother increasing project management capabilities at the base instead of the leading edge? Projects remain foreign to the bulk of managers in organizations who are accustomed to running ongoing operations. What differentiates success from failure in projects bears little resemblance to what drives success in operations.

Courses in Project Management 101 can be eye-glazing exercises in work breakdown structures, scope creep, critical-path mapping, and more. Baked into this training is the message that project management is a job for professionals and the amateur need not apply. But we’re all called on to participate in project planning, and sometimes we must lead projects without benefit of formal education in project management.

What might a “Project Management for Poets” look like for those who don’t have the opportunity to become professional project managers?

The end is where to begin. Until you describe what the end product needs to look like, you have no basis to map the effort it will take to create it. Imagine what you need to deliver in reasonable detail and you can work backwards to the steps that will bring it into being.

Working out those steps takes two tools and three rules.

Tool #1: A messy outline. An outline because it captures the essential features of ordering steps and clustering them. Messy because you can’t and won’t get it right the first time and the neat outlines you were introduced to in middle school interfere with that.

Tool #2: A calendar. If you can do it all without looking at one, you aren’t talking about a project.

Three rules will give you the substance of the outline:

  • Small chunks
  • First things first
  • Like things together

You don’t have a project if you can see how to get from A to B in a single step; instead what you have is an essential building block. “Small chunks” is a reminder that the only way to eat an elephant is in small bites. There are a variety of heuristics about recognizing what constitutes an appropriate small chunk of a project. A week’s worth of work for one person isn’t a bad starting point.

A preliminary list of small chunks is the fuel that feeds an iterative process of putting first things first, grouping like things together, and revising the list of small chunks.

The art in sophisticated project management lies in being clever and insightful about sequencing and clustering activities. Here, we’re focused on the value of simply thinking through what needs to be done in what order before leaping to the first task that appears. That’s why an outline is a more useful tool at this point than Gantt charts or Microsoft Project. An outline adds structure over a simple to do list to be valuable without getting lost in the intricacies of a complex software tool. An outline helps you organize your work, helping you discover similar tasks, deliverables, or resources that can be grouped together in your plans. An outline gives you order and clustering. For many projects that will be enough. For the rest, it is the right place to start.

The point of a project plan is not the plan itself, but the value it brings to running the project. The execution value of widespread project planning capability in the organization is twofold. First, it adds capacity where it is needed: at the grassroots level. Second, it improves the inputs to those situations where sophisticated project-management techniques are appropriate.

The cost is to give away a little bit of secret knowledge at the risk of revealing that some things are not as hard as they seem.

About the Author

Jim McGee is a Director at Huron Consulting Group where he helps clients improve their IT organizations and the practice of knowledge work.

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