Project Management

by Alan Harpham, Tony Kippenberger, Graham Bosman

Getting started

Often, the most important bit is the project start-up! Never, ever just rush headlong into it. Unfortunately, some organisations seem to run their projects this way: the project manager is given a budget and an unrealistic deadline and told to ‘Just get on with it...’ As a result, detailed planning, well-judged estimating and good risk analysis fly out of the window.

Top tip

For most projects, their ultimate success or failure has already been determined by the time the project starts!

In fairness, at the other extreme are organisations that have a very small appetite for risk and where people will spend forever reaching a decision to proceed – only to find a previously reasonable deadline is rushing toward them too fast.

Try to find a balance between the extremes. It has been said, more than once, that in the case of most projects, their ultimate success or failure has already been determined by the time the project starts!

At the start of a project, a project manager may face a number of questions:

What stage is the project at?

It is vitally important to know what stage a project is at when you join it. If you’ve been with it all the way, that’s fine, but if you are newly arrived, don’t always believe that there is a strong mandate and a good business case: check for yourself and, if they are weak or, worse still, absent, you will have to go back and put them in place.

Am I joining it after it’s already approved?

If not, you’ll have to get it approved, which means working up a persuasive business case, submitting it and making sure that the plan and budget are approved and the project authorised.

How do I know the objective is achievable?

This inevitably requires your judgement. Look again at the budget, timescales and quality expectations and satisfy yourself that they are okay. Does the plan look reasonable and achievable? If you doubt this or suspect that the necessary skills are not available, look at bringing in external help (but recognise the budget implications). If you believe the objective is too ambitious or that the technology is not available you will have to do some research and talk to industry or subject matter experts.

What if I think it’s impossible?

What if the timing, costs, quality demands and/or benefits seem to you to doom this project to failure? This is a difficult one. But there are no prizes for staying silent. Work out what would make it possible and then raise your concern directly with the sponsor and argue the case for changing whichever elements are – in your view – going to make it impossible. This early stage of a project often requires several iterations between the plan, the objectives and the scope until they match.

If you cannot get an acceptable match between the objectives, the scope and the plan and you are still told to proceed, without any changes, then you have to consider your position. At the very least, you should put your concerns in writing to the sponsor and, if he doesn’t listen, possibly to the project board or a senior board executive. But beware, this can be career limiting if you have a strong sponsor. It may involve a change of job at the least, and a new employer in the worst case scenario!

You need to deal with issues of this nature as soon as you can, as the cost of making corrections or changes increases exponentially as the project is implemented.

How do I know we can do it in time?

This is why you need a project plan and schedule. Go back over the calculations; double-check your Critical path analysis and your Gantt chart. Is there another way of doing the project by bringing in more resources and doing activities in parallel? Have you got the logic right? Is there an alternative? Can you afford the alternative?

How do I know we can do it within budget?

Go back over the way you, or someone else, worked out the budget. Check that it is sufficient to do the job. Check what contingency funds (or tolerances) have been allowed. Don’t just trust that, once underway, the organisation will find itself committed to the project and will stump up more money. In any event, if additional funding is required, remember it is likely to be you (and the sponsor) who will have to go back to the board and explain why the original budget was wrong, or why you have overrun it!

Who decided on the quality needed and can it be delivered?

Good question. Who did decide on the quality needed? You need to find out. Consider whether the users have asked for an unnecessarily high level of quality – are they looking for a gold-plated version? Satisfy yourself that the quality, as specified, can be delivered within the budget. The sponsor should help by stating what is ‘affordable’ to the organisation and, if necessary, telling the users what they must have and which of the ‘nice to haves’ are being removed from the scope.

How do I pick a team?

Sometimes project managers can pick their teams, on other occasions they are selected for them. Either way, you need to be persuaded that your team has the skill set necessary. If it hasn’t, take the issue up with the project sponsor, or other project board member. If you have the opportunity, try to put together a team that is likely to work well together. Consider also where the burden of the work will fall (and how it may change over time).

If the main burden falls on someone who is only available part-time, their limited availability may be a challenge at the times you need them, and this may have implications for your overall timescales. See the topic on Teambuilding.

Can I persuade other managers to spare people for the team?

The answer must be ‘yes’. If you know who you want, then use your personal skills to lobby for them – but be aware that you may be treading on other people’s toes.

How committed and how influential is the sponsor?

Again, this is a very good question. The role of the project sponsor is highly important. You badly need a sponsor who is committed to the project and genuinely interested in its success. You also need someone who can influence others in the organisation to support the project. Remember also that you need to develop a good working relationship with your project’s sponsor.

Who are the stakeholders?

Another important question... Stakeholders are likely to be scattered across the organisation, so spending time and effort in identifying them is a critical early step in ensuring that your project succeeds. (see Stakeholders)

What is a communications plan? Why is it so important?

Just as stakeholders are important, so is the way that you communicate with them and the frequency of those communications. So you will need to develop a communications plan to make sure you get it right. See the topic on Internal Communications.

How do I involve the users?

If the benefits of the project are to be obtained, then it is generally the users who obtain them for the organisation. So it will be important to involve users, not just on the project board, but also as a group of stakeholders with a real and genuine interest in the project.