ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

April 1999


A Sunny Forecast
Grassroots Teams Help Sun Micorsystems Raise Customer Satisfaction

Coming Full Circle
Measuring and Improving Organizational Effectiveness

Oil Change
Externalization, Change Management Key to Realignment

Project Management:
Just Do It!
A Step by Step Overview ofa 1950's Organizational Tool Experiencing a 1990's Rebirth


Hope Is Where You Find It
by Peter Block

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Project Management: Just Do It!
A Step by Step Overview of a 1950s Organizational Tool Experiencing a 1990s Rebirth

Everyone has heard Nike’s unmatched advertising slogan, “Just Do It.” That philosophy works great if you’re talking about basketball. In the world of business, though, it just doesn’t cut it. For a long time people believed that “just doing it” was good enough to get the job done, so they never stopped to look at the whole picture before taking on a project. In today’s society, change is a way of life, especially in the workplace. That is why many companies and organizations are changing the way they think about achieving their goals and embracing the idea of project management.
This organizational tool has existed since the 1950s when the Department of Defense began using it. It evolved over the years and is applicable to just about any team project assigned to producing some outcome. In fact, project management is currently one of the hottest trends in information management, and it’s spreading like wildfire. Several colleges and universities have begun integrating project management into their courses, and some even offer graduate programs specifically for it.
In 1996, Patricia McMahon, of McMahon Consultancy in Leesburg, Va., retired from her position in information systems with the federal government to pursue a career in private consulting in project management for the American Bar Association. As part of her job with the government, she completed a course in project management instruction, and became certified as a project management professional.
“Society today,” McMahon says, “has the tendency to just do it. We don’t want to take the time to think through every detail before we jump into a project. I know, because I am not by nature a detail person. I will say, though, that project management has taught me to work through every stage of a plan before I begin.”

Getting Started
Before you can understand how to manage a project, you must first understand what a project is. According to McMahon, a project is “an activity that has a beginning, an end and has a producible outcome.” This includes anything from developing employee programs to planning the company’s New Year’s Eve party. Project management is the structured approach to handling these situations, and anyone can easily achieve their goals by moving through each step of the process.
Project management begins with the concept phase where all of the preliminary details are mapped out. This includes defining the scope, selecting the team and project manager, identifying a sponsor, creating a budget and writing a project charter. While in many cases, this work is already done when the project is handed to you, it is necessary that every part is defined before moving on.
In this first stage, the scope of the project must be defined by determining what the project is about. Decide right away what will and will not be included in your scope to avoid what McMahon terms “scope creep” later on down the road. If this is not defined and in writing, someone always seems to sneak tasks into your project until it gets so out of hand your goals cannot be met on time.
The next part of the concept phase is assembling your team and this is done in several ways. Oftentimes, as the project manager, a team is assigned to you upon receiving the project. Sometimes employees are given the opportunity to volunteer for the job, and occasionally specialists are recruited either internally or externally to handle more technical issues. For example, if your goal is to develop a employee training course, several coworkers may ask to join the team, because they want to contribute their ideas. However, the actual printing of the course materials may need to be out-sourced, so you hire a printer for the job.
The final step in the concept phase is to decide upon a budget and a sponsor for the project. As with the team selection, these steps are sometimes completed before the project is given to you. Drawing up these details in a project charter to be signed by the sponsor and any stakeholders in the project will greatly benefit the project manager. This charter serves as a communication tool to ensure that all people involved have the same goal in mind.
Once the project is underway, the project manager is responsible for continuous tracking of progress. Tracking the project allows the manager to see where some tasks may run over their allotted time, and where that time may be made up later. It is very important, says McMahon, to celebrate progress made along the way. Inform the team when a milestone has been reached so that they know that their work is paying off. This tracking will also be of great assistance in the final report at the end of the project.
Finally, the team must discuss any possible risks involved in the plan, and develop contingency plans whenever possible. For instance, if there’s a good chance of inclement weather during the last month before the company New Year’s party, plan to have some of the most crucial tasks done before then.

The Best Laid Plans
The second phase, planning, is perhaps the most important part of the entire project: Be prepared to spend a great deal of time on it. “Some people criticize project management,” McMahon says, “because they say all you do is plan forever. While that’s not entirely true, a lot of time is spent at this point thinking through every part of the plan. In my opinion, this step should take at least a couple of days to complete, even for smaller projects.”
Unfortunately, according to McMahon, many project managers try to shorten this process in order to save time, when all they really do is hurt themselves. It is important to understand that planning is what makes project management so effective. Without it, your project can easily fall apart further down the road.
After determining the overall goals within the project, McMahon suggests plotting the milestones. She defines a milestone as “a point in time when a major activity is accomplished or a significant event occurs that impacts the project’s success.” McMahon’s high-tech way of achieving this planning is to break out a pad of “yellow stickies” and cover a wall. Write all milestones on separate sticky notes and place them on the wall in order of occurrence.
Once in place, the team must decide upon the tasks required to reach those milestones. These should also be added to the wall in sticky note fashion. With many tasks come dependencies, or those little details that must be attended to before the task can be completed. Don’t forget to allow for those dependencies and to possibly include them on the wall.
At this point, all team members should determine estimated times to complete each part of the plan. Fortunately, for those who are not so skilled at guessing how long tasks can take, there is a variety of project management software, such as Microsoft Project, available to help with this step. Many of the programs are created to easily enter the milestones, tasks and estimated times for completion. The program then figures out on what days each task should be completed.

Preventing a Meltdown
This creation of yellow stickies is what project management refers to as a work breakdown structure (WBS). It serves as an organizational flow chart for the entire project, including its sub-projects. The WBS should be designed to make tracking as simple as possible. The WBS should be easy and quick to update. To be sure of this, have the project manager walk through the plan with the team for review. If any steps need to be moved or adjusted, just move a sticky note.
McMahon likes to describe an effective WBS like ice cream. “Sometimes ice cream can be really hard and impossible to scoop. This is like an inflexible WBS that can’t be changed or adapted. Sometimes the ice cream is too melted and it won’t even stay in the cone. Here we have the WBS that allows anyone to change it at anytime and for any reason. Both of these examples are useless. However, there is the kind of ice cream you get at Dairy Queen. It is soft enough to scoop and eat from a cone, but it doesn’t drip all over you. This is the useful and highly effective WBS. It can be altered slightly when necessary, but it refuses to be changed at every whim.”
When an agreement is reached with the WBS, it is time to create a responsibility matrix. Every person involved with making the project work, even if he or she is not on you team, reads over their obligations and signs their name to them. “The responsibility matrix has saved me many a time,” says McMahon. When everyone can see that you have signed off to your duties, they all know that you understand your part and when it must get done. This communication tool helps keep all involved persons on the same page.

Wrapping It Up
When all is said and done, and the goal has been reached, it is time to close out the project. Now all team members need to be rewarded for their hard work and dedication throughout the project.
“A monetary reward is always nice,” says McMahon. “But just make sure that some type of praise is given.”
It is equally important to help them transition back into the organization as a whole. After such extensive work on the project, they may need some direction when returning to their usual role within the organization or company. After all, employees will be more likely to volunteer for project work again if they feel that they were appreciated. It is now the project manager’s responsibility to produce the final report which includes lessons that were learned along the way, as well as resources used and any benchmarking that took place.
“Project management is a structured method that can be used very successfully to plan and implement special projects,” says McMahon. Those projects can be big or small, simple or complex. Whatever your goal may be, don’t forget that in today’s world, to be successful, the phrase “just do it” must mean project management.

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