Our thanks to guest blogger - Project Management expert Susanne Madsen for her insightful thoughts on avoiding project management pitfalls. Susanne is a project/programme manager, mentor and coach with over 15 years experience in managing and rolling out large change programmes, using both agile and waterfall methodologies. She is a PRINCE2 practitioner and a qualified Corporate and Executive coach, and is currently employed as a Program Director for one of the world’s largest financial institutions. http://www.susannemadsen.com/
Susanne’s new book The Project Management Coaching Workbook; Six Steps to Unleasing Your Potential, will be published by Management Concepts as hardback in December.
Project Management Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
To further help you overcome to most common pitfalls of project management, learn and implement the below guiding practices:
1. Begin with the end in mind. To be able to successfully deliver a project you must know what the project’s end game is. Check that the project has a valid and sound business case, define scope and really feel the end product and its purpose. Identify the main stakeholders and uncover how the benefits will impact each of them. Investigate if any of the existing business processes need to change as result of your project and clarify what needs to happen in order for the end product to be successfully transitioned into the client’s business. Never lose sight of the end goal. Get agreement from the stakeholders as to how you define and measure it and check back that the products you plan to deliver will actually fulfil the business needs and provide the expected benefits.
2. Win the support of your stakeholders. To deliver a project effectively and successfully, the project sponsor and steering committee must live up to their responsibility by being active participants who provide support and guidance when needed. Build strong relationships with your stakeholders and win their support by spending time with each person individually, understanding their concerns and view points. Provide them with the information they need and in a format they want. Ask your stakeholders to help define and sign off key deliverables and to resolve urgent issues that you cannot handle on your own. When you involve your stakeholders and make them take ownership they become part of the solution. They will feel responsible and do everything they can to make the project succeed.
3. Understand and focus on project success criteria. Project success often means that products must be delivered on time, within budget and to a level of quality that is acceptable to the client. It is essential for you to establish what the project’s success criteria are and keep the team’s attention focused on achieving them. Put yourself in the shoes of each stakeholder and investigate what it would take for each of them to say that the project was a success at each major stage. Check back to see that there is congruence between what each stakeholder says and what your measurable objectives are. Not all success criteria can be top priority so ask the project sponsor to set clear priorities.
4. Focus on product quality. The key to successful delivery and quality management is to carefully define scope, detailed requirements and acceptance criteria and to continually check that the products you are developing match these criteria. Establish a close working relationship with the client and users and keep them involved throughout the project. Create a comprehensive picture of the finished deliverables by prototyping, modelling and storyboarding the requirements so that all efforts are focused in the same direction. When everyone knows what the finished deliverables look like, plan to carry out comprehensive tests involving independent testers as well as end users. Test and verify functionality continuously throughout the project and set time aside in your schedule for rework after each test activity.
5. Get the best people involved and nurture your team. Delivering a successful project is heavily dependent on having a successful team. Acquire the most driven, experienced and best qualified people and focus on making them thrive. Value them, protect them from internal politics and give them the training, tools and working conditions they need to apply their talents. Find out what motivates each individual and find a way to tap into their hidden potential. Cross train staff, facilitate knowledge sharing and have succession planning in place. Ring fence resources where possible so that you do not have to share them with other projects. Nurture the team and make sure that working on your project is a worthwhile experience.
6. Be proactive in the identification and resolution of risks and issues. In order to deliver your project as effectively as possible, you need to stay on top of risks and issues so that they do not get out of hand and inadvertently affect quality, time and cost. Be proactive and determined to continuously identify and mitigate risks and issues by spending time with each team member and stakeholder. Ask them what is worrying them or holding them back and brainstorm things that could jeopardize the success of the project. Carry out root cause and impact analysis and brainstorm options for how you can best move forward. Secure the buy-in and support from your stakeholders and ask for guidance, help and direction when you need it.
7. Deliver tangible benefits gradually. On many projects, your chances of success will be greater the earlier you start to deliver real benefits to the sponsor and end users. The traditional way of delivering a project can be risky as products are only tested and delivered towards the end of the project. If applicable, use an iterative approach which somewhat reverses this pattern and enables you to build, test and deliver functionality gradually. Break up a large project into smaller phases with clear milestones and deliverables. Focus on the highest value and highest risk items first. Plan for early successes and track your milestones frequently.
8. Provide good estimates and build sufficient contingency into the schedule. It is essential to project success that your project starts off on the right foot and that you have a good understanding of how much it is likely to cost and how long it is likely to take to complete. Use a variety of estimation techniques and tools and involve team members and senior managers in the estimation process. Break items into as much detail as possible as this will make it easier for you to provide accurate estimates. Factor in all phases, roles and activities and build in sufficient contingency. When you convert your estimates of effort into actual man hours of duration make sure you account for the fact that no team is ever 100% effective.
9. Have realistic, transparent and up-to-date plans. Realistic and up to date project planning is a must if you want your project to succeed. An effective project plan must be based on clear requirements and sound estimates. It should explain what is to be delivered, which methods and resources will be used, how quality will be measured and when the products will be delivered. The plan should contain frequent milestones which are being tracked and reported on and it must be continuously updated to account for progress and approved changes to scope. Keep a detailed plan of work for the near future and an outlined plan for the far future. There may be little point planning in detail for what will happen in three months time as things will change.
10. Provide metrics and honest project reporting. Metrics are vital indicators when it comes to keeping projects on course. They enable you to report on project progress in an accurate manner and help you spot trends that you might otherwise overlook. Key metrics include cost ratio, where you measure actual costs versus planned costs, and effort ratio, where you measure actual progress (or effort) versus planned progress. These metrics (often referred to as earned value) let you know where you are versus where you should have been. Always include these metrics in your status reports along with an honest view of current risks and issues.
11. Establish clear controls and sign off points. In order to successfully manage your project it is important that you establish clear controls for effectively managing cost, time and quality. Make sure invoices and timesheets are signed off and costs are accurately tracked. Get your stakeholders to sign off on the project initiation document and ensure requirements specifications are signed off before development begins. Have a clear process for prioritizing, planning and assigning new work items and never assume a task has been completed until its quality has been independently verified and signed off. For recurring tasks and activities, develop checklists, templates and lightweight procedures to help your team better complete the work.
12. Monitor and control changes. To manage a project well, you must embrace and control change at all levels. Circumstances external to the project change, users’ needs change, dependencies change and people change jobs. When something changes do not resist it; analyze the cause and the impact of the change on quality, cost and time. Log all change requests and never start any material new work until the steering committee has approved it. The reason why it is so important to stay on top of changes is that the baseline or project initiation document needs to be updated to reflect what you are actually delivering.
13. Focus on project organization and communication. In order for a project to have the best chances of succeeding you must establish and formalize roles and responsibilities and communicate to everyone in an effective manner. Make it clear to team members and stakeholders what their role is and what is expected of them. Also clarify the purpose of key forums such as the steering committee so that your sponsor and senior stakeholders are able to live up to their assigned responsibilities. Write a communication plan which pinpoints the different types of project information, who it will be circulated to and how often. Base it on actual feedback from your stakeholders so that you can tailor your communication to their individual needs.
14. Continuously review and improve your approach. Continuously seek to improve the way you run your projects by carrying out regular project reviews by involving the team and stakeholders. Reflect on how the last iteration or phase went; what worked well and what you need to improve on going forward. Review your tools, techniques and processes and how you interact with one another. Look at the project’s success criteria. Are you within budget, are you on time and is the quality of your products as expected? Encourage honest feedback and listen to comments and new ideas with an open mind. Keep asking “what can we learn from our mistakes and what can we do to avoid this problem going forward?”
15. Be the best you can in all that you do. To be truly successful at delivering projects you must love what you do and strive to set a great personal example for others to follow. When you are passionate, positive and proactive others will notice your example and want to follow. Strive for personal effectiveness and consistently focus on those things that matter the most to the wellbeing of your team and to the success of your project. Delegate tasks that will help grow and motivate others and give people the support they need to succeed. Be positive and proactive and never make a commitment you cannot keep. Be honest and approachable and always treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.