Some tools and techniques
There are several tools and techniques designed to help you avoid the pitfalls of inadequate project planning.
Known as ‘Product breakdown structure’ in PRINCE2, this is probably the most important element in planning a project. Time spent getting this right is never wasted. In effect, it is the way to break down all that is required to fulfil the project into tasks and sub-tasks (or products and sub-products in PRINCE2). This can be represented as a chart (rather like an organisation chart), with a hierarchy of boxes, or it can be done in list form or – commonly – a combination of the two.
Your estimate will, in many situations, be taken as a promise. So beware!
Because you will be asked how long your project will take, you will need to estimate the correct answer.
There are different ways to estimate how long a project will run. The easiest situation is where similar projects have been run before. Providing that information (from ‘lessons learned’ reviews) has been kept, and unless new levels of complexity or different levels of resources (in number and skills) apply, then fairly accurate estimates can be made. This is known as ‘analogous’ estimating.
By using the work breakdown structure, it should be possible to estimate each individual task’s duration and to build this up into an overall estimate.
Some organisations use something called ‘standard times’ – but this is when repetitive tasks are being undertaken and it is possible to set a standard for someone with specified skill level to do a certain amount of work. This enables man-hours, man-days, man-weeks, man-months and even man-years to be calculated.
Another possibility, where no useful existing data is available, is to bench-mark activities and tasks as they are undertaken so that an estimate can be compiled. An option is to use a group of experienced people (ideally, project managers) to workshop through a ‘guesstimate’.
It is the route through the series of activities or tasks needed by the project which has the longest duration. So a critical path is used to forecast the length of time a project will take. It has other uses: it enables the project manager to concentrate on tasks in the critical path to ensure they are finished on time; it also enables a project manager to concentrate resources on critical tasks.
Creating a ‘critical path’ is sometimes called ‘network analysis’ and the result may be called a ‘precedence diagram’. There are many project management software packages that will help with this.
A Gantt chart is a popular type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule. It is a way of ‘scheduling’. For many, it is ‘the plan’. Gantt charts show the start and finish dates of the project and have become a common technique for representing the phases and activities of a project work breakdown structure in a format that can be understood by a wide audience.
Gantt charts list tasks/activities down the vertical axis and show dates across the horizontal axis. And they also take account of reality – weekends, public and personal holidays, the availability of personnel resources (who may have prior commitments) and so on. So they are intended to be a realistic representation of what is planned to happen.
The main reason for projects going over their budget or their schedule is the addition of scope to that originally defined in the business case. The project manager needs to monitor the inclusion of new work or changes to the quality requirements by using a change control process and ensuring that the impact of these changes on the budget and schedule are taken into account.
The change control process should require the initiator of the change to recommend the need for the change. The Project Manager should analyse the time, cost and quality impact on the project and then decide whether to accept the change or not. If it is outside the Project Manager’s tolerance levels the change must be referred up to the Project Board and/or Sponsor to accept the impact of the change on the project.