Why, what and how
The principal identifying characteristic of a project is its novelty. It is a step into the unknown, fraught with risk and uncertainty.
A number of essentials need to be in place before a project can be managed effectively. These can be summarised as the Why, the What and the How.
- It is vital that the project’s objective is clearly defined and that the scope (what is included and what is excluded) is set in advance.
- It is critical that there is a written business case for the project. This contains the argument explaining why it is worth investing resources in the initiative. The business case therefore also specifies what the benefits will be (in terms of outcomes for the organisation).
Since there are now clearly defined reasons for undertaking the project, the date the project should be delivered can also be determined. So a realistic start date and an anticipated end date should be fixed.
The project typically produces outputs that the organisation then puts to work to derive the benefits, in other words, the required outcome(s).
The output from a project is the actual ‘deliverable’. Once this has been put to work, then the project outcome – as defined in the business case – can be achieved.
The outcome may, and often does, occur after the project is over, so it remains the project sponsor’s role to ensure the benefits are achieved from the outcome.
Although the objective is now clear and the expected benefits in terms of outcomes have been defined, it is important to refine the scope and express the actual inputs and outputs expected for the project. For example, a project to produce marketing literature for use on an exhibition stand may have the expected benefit of increased sales to potential customers, but there is no detail about the project’s output (or product definition, to use PRINCE2 terminology). Is it a single sheet of A4 printed in black? Or a card folder holding multiple sheets with details of different products? Or a 20-page full-colour brochure with a high-gloss cover?
It is also important to define the boundaries of the project and, within the project, to identify the full content of work to be done. This is often done using a Work breakdown structure, a technique that ensures that each and every element of work that will be needed to be carried out has been identified and can be timed and resourced. Thanks to the lack of this important discipline, many projects have suffered considerable cost growth or have indeed failed, because key elements have been left out or introduced at an advanced stage. One such element of work that is often overlooked is the project management process work that will be needed to deliver the project.
It is by defining the desired inputs/outputs and scope that three critical questions can be answered:
- How long will it take (time)?
- How much will it cost (money and people resources)?
- What quality or performance (from the output) is expected?
These are key factors that in many cases will need to be re-iterated. There is little point in trying to produce a 20-page, full-colour brochure inside a week on a tight budget. Equally (generally), you don’t need six months to produce a single sheet of A4 printed in a single colour.
Time, cost and quality are often portrayed as three sides of a triangle because they are dependant on each other. Typically, shortage of time tends to increase cost; tight budgets can impact quality; high quality requirements can affect both time and cost – and so on. The relative values of time, cost and quality are determined in the business case, and it is important that the project client (or sponsor) knows their relationship so they can advise the project manager on the value to the business of saving time and so on. It’s no good simply asking for the project output to be delivered as quickly, as cheaply and to the best quality possible, since common sense would demonstrate these are conflicting objectives!
A project needs a plan – one that specifically includes
- Timescale – depending on complexity, this may just be the start and end dates, or it may include a set of pre-determined milestones that have to be reached by given dates
- The composition of the team that will run the project – their skills and availability
- Stakeholders – these are the people (internal and external) who have a stake in the outcome of the project or are impacted by it and therefore need to be identified, consulted with and kept informed
- Budget – how much will the project cost in financial terms and when will expected costs fall due?
- Resources – what other resources apart from people (the team) and money (the budget) may be needed, and how will they be made available?
- Quality – what is the quality desired and how can it be measured?
- Schedule – the logical sequence of activities necessary to complete the project and the time needed to complete each activity. The critical path is the longest sequence of activities to complete the overall project (this is also therefore the shortest possible project duration).
From this description, it is relatively easy to imagine the project management skills that are needed – they range from the ability to plan and take decisions to the need to communicate well, from managing a team on the one hand to dealing with other stakeholders on the other. The manager also needs the ability to think clearly, plan ahead, foresee obstacles, picture potential risks and motivate people to achieve the objective on time, within budget and at the expected quality.