Essays

Project Management is Simple (But not Easy)

We live in a busy world where we are rewarded for getting things done.  Some things we do over and over again—eat, sleep, exercise, work, relax—and so we fall into habits to facilitate desired outcomes and avoid having to make the same decisions over and over again.  And that usually works well for the routine aspects of our lives.  But what happens when we face a new situation that requires a new approach?  In the world of business, they call that a project—a unique operation that is not routine but needs to be designed to accomplish a singular goal.  Over the past fifty years there has grown a vast body of literature on project management which captures the art, science and folklore about how to accomplish that.  If you go to Amazon and search for project management books, you can get close to 60,000 results.  Inserting project management into a Google search yields 214 million hits.  On Class Central, there are 70 MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) listed.  I have been involved in both formal and informal projects for more than fifty years and have taught project management as a discipline to graduate business students in MBA and Analytics curricula for fourteen year.  As I tell the students, project management is not rocket surgery. We can boil it down to five simple steps to help you get up to speed quickly.

Projects—unique operations designed to accomplish a singular goal—can be as simple as something you create to clean up your email inbox, or as complex as launching a major new product for your company.  One of the largest projects on record was the NASA Apollo effort to successfully put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.  That project involved more than 400,000 people from 20,000 companies, universities and government agencies working for a period of 8 years at a cost of $24B (in 1960 dollars, roughly $180B in today’s dollars).  And yet conceptually the steps were the same as you would use to renovate your kitchen or prepare a meal to host your neighbors.

Textbooks are fairly consistent on the key steps, sometimes called phases, for any project, and a little reflection can convince you that they are really just good common sense; or for large, complex projects, maybe sometimes uncommon sense.

1. Define the project

To start a project, you have to decide what you want to accomplish, by when and for how much?  If the goal involves just you—say you want to get up to speed on a new topic for an assignment at work—you have lots of flexibility in establishing the goal.  If the goal is more complex—let’s say your company wants to bid on a contract to manage the construction of a new airport for your city—there will be many more stakeholders and therefore many more agendas, but the result needs to be the same: a concise written statement of what reaching the goal looks like.

2. Create a project plan

A project plan breaks the goal down into manageable pieces which can be assigned to individuals and scheduled in proper sequence.  There are several ways to do this: the top down approach breaks the goal into smaller goals which contribute to the desired end result.  This can be captured with a tree structure which shows the hierarchy of goals.  The bottom up approach starts by just listing all the things that need to be done if the goal is to be achieved.  Here one can write each item on a sticky note, then move the notes around on a surface, table or wall, to get a workable arrangement.  Many practitioners blend both approaches to ensure a plan that leads to desired results.

For large projects, there are software tools to facilitate this planning process.  For small, personal projects these are generally overkill.  But avoid the urge to just do the planning in your head.  When you record tasks, durations, and times on paper, you have a much better shot at actually making them happen on a schedule.

3. Execute the plan

Sounds simple enough; as Nike says, “Just do it.”  But that doesn’t mean it is easy.  Again for complex projects, there are lots of details to keep track of, potentially many bosses to satisfy, many egos to soothe.  Often unanticipated problems pop up and have to be dealt with, clients want to change their requirements and the weather just won’t cooperate.  A good project manager needs to be more optimistic problem solver and charismatic statesman than accomplished technician.

4. Monitor results during the execution

This is really part of the execution step, but is broken out in textbooks to emphasize that what one really needs to do is to continuously compare what is being accomplished against what has been planned, then make adjustments as warranted.  On large projects, for example, a common occurrence is that as a project begins to fall behind schedule, the project manager throws more resources at it only to discover to his chagrin this only makes the situation worse.

5. Close the project when finished.

This step too is really part of the execution step.  In my experience, it is probably the most important step of any project and the one least often executed.  What this consists of is the Monday morning quarterbacking of the project—what went well, what caused the most grief (and maybe added expense), how can we improve next time—which allows project managers and project teams to improve over time, because really the only way to learn to execute projects well is to execute projects, make mistakes and learn from them.  And it’s the “learn from the mistakes” that is the key.  Even in simple personal projects this applies.   When I complete my annual tax return, I am so sick of the exercise I just want to shut down the computer, go get a beer and watch TV.  And I have found that taking a few more minutes to capture key insights for the tax year has paid dividends when questions arose later.

In principle, even NASA projects are conducted in this fashion.  Sometimes each step expands into long lists of tasks involving many people, sometimes they have to be iterated, but conceptually it really is that simple.  Successful execution, however, even for the project plan you just created to paint you bedroom, may not be easy.

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