Using a systematic methodology to approach projects is a key to successful execution. Often planning or monitoring are put into the background in the rush to move ahead with execution or reporting results. Both are a fatal mistake. If the necessary time is taken to plan out all aspects of the project, it saves much time and many resources later on in terms of a failed or less than expected project result.
In this article, we look at all you need to know for 1) planning projects, 2) monitoring projects, and 3) executing projects successfully.
Identify Project Goals
To begin planning for projects, it is necessary to identify what is it that you are trying to achieve. This identification of goals helps drive the project down a clear path. To reach this end, a project team needs to know:
1. Who are the stakeholders?
To reach that end, the first step is to correctly identify who the stakeholders are. A successful project is one where all important stakeholder needs are met. Stakeholders to a project may be anyone who is directly or indirectly affected by the project. Identifying the right set of stakeholders may need some careful research. Some possible stakeholders include the end user who receives the output, a customer who receives a finished product, the project manager, his team and a project sponsor or champion.
2. What are their needs?
With a list of stakeholders in hand, you can now work on identifying their needs. These can be clearly stated and easy to see or implicit and harder to pinpoint. The most relevant information can be gathered through interviewing the stakeholders. It is important that a seasoned professional conduct these interviews as time needs to be taken to draw out the real issues. Stakeholders may have some needs that cannot be met effectively and these need to be recorded separately to avoid misplaced effort.
3. What are the priorities?
As mentioned briefly in the previous step, not all needs identified can be met effectively. Some cannot lead to actionable outcomes, some may not make business sense, and meeting yet others may not end up creating value for the stakeholders. This makes it extremely important to prioritize all the information gathered till this point
4. How do these convert to measurable goals?
A prioritized list of goals can now be turned into easy to measure goals. One framework for this is to employ the SMART principle. Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Formulating goals this way helps to measure them for completion and success.
These goals can now be put down into the project plan along with a mention of the stakeholders and their needs.
Identify Project Deliverables
Almost as important as the goal identification is the breakdown into deliverables. For each goal, it is vital to understand and identify how it translates into outcomes. It needs to be clearly stated when each deliverable is due and how it will be achieved.
These deliverable can now be added to the project plan preferable with close to accurate delivery dates as well as acceptable levels of delay.
Establish Project Schedule
Further breakdown is needed at this point. Each deliverable needs to be converted into tasks that need to be performed in order to produce required results. Here, the number of man hours per task needs to be calculated and resources need to be assigned. This includes both people and other resources. With this calculation, there may be a need to update the project timelines specified previously to present a more realistic image. If there is a drastic difference in delivery date expectations from project head or sponsor and the actuals calculated, then there may be a need to either renegotiate the deadline, increase resources or reduce the scope of the project.
Create Supporting Plans
With the basic plan in place, the team can now work on setting into place any required supporting plans. These can include
- Human Resource Plan
This plan needs to record in detail, the names of all the people and organizations involved in carrying out the project. Against each name mention their roles and responsibility. Also mention how long they will be working on the project and how resources will be hired or selected to work on the project.
- Communication Plan
A communications matrix needs to be put into place identifying who needs to be privy to project updates and how they will be provided the same. This means identifying a common format for reporting and establishing reporting frequency.
- Risk Mitigation
It is easy to overlook a risk mitigation plan but it is a vital part of effective project management. It is important to identify all possible risks to the project and have a plan in place to address these. Project risks can include unexpected budget cuts, an inefficient flow of required information, suddenly raised costs or an incorrect estimation of resources needed, incorrect understanding of stakeholder requirements or changing requirements among others.
Using a simple log, you can identify each risk and outline what will be done to prevent it and what will be done if it ends up happening. This log can be updated on a regular basis.
Project Planning Overview
The execution phase turns an idea on paper into a reality. A thorough and detailed plan will mean that a solid foundation has been set for successful execution.
3 Must Haves For Effective Execution
1. The Right Team
A high performing team with the right mix of people working to their strengths is key to project success. Throughout the process, ensure that team motivation is high, communication is flowing freely both upwards and downwards and there is a sense of ownership within the team.
2. Strong and Timely Decision Making
Sometimes tough decisions need to be taken at delicate stages of the project’s progress. Leaders need to be on top of progress and be willing to make difficult decisions at the right time to either steer the project towards the right path or in a drastic scenario, shut it down before further loss of resources is suffered
3. Open and Clear Communication
All through the project, there needs to be an open line up and down the project team. An effective reporting system can help keep top management abreast of ground realities to help make the right decisions. Similarly, updates on high level achievements to the team can help keep morale high.
Focus on People for Successful Execution
Traditional project management suffers the danger of becoming too bureaucratic and focused on the end game, with very little effort being put into the very teams that are needed to achieve goals. Perceived softer issues such as trust within teams, morale, an ownership for the project, a sense of belonging and employee engagement are often neglected or treated as unimportant. Usually, it is so because project leaders find these issues harder to quantify and therefore, plan for. Research has shown that unmet emotional needs can lead to below expected performance, thereby affecting project execution. An engaged team can lead to optimized performance:
Engaging the Project team
An engaged team knows its goals clearly and is able to achieve them. They are also able make meaningful contributions to project outcomes and work well as a team. Through a participative environment, teams can learn and grow.
An engaged set of stakeholders are confident that the project team can achieve the task at hand. They feel that their best interests are being considered and display passion for the project.
By engaging stakeholders and creating an engaged team, there is a higher likelihood of successful project execution within project guidelines.
An effective monitoring and measurement system throughout the project execution can make the difference between a successful project and a failure.
6 steps to ensure effective project monitoring
1. Monitor project throughout
Monitoring is only useful if it is built into the execution phase at the beginning. There is no point to a monitoring activity if all the work has been completed already and all the resources wasted. A system needs to be set in place for this during the planning phase and followed up on strongly.
2. Decide What to measure
It is vital to identify which indicators are to be measured. These should be noted in the planning document and communicated with all team members and stakeholders. Acceptable levels of performance should also be identified, so that it is clearly understood when a red flag needs to be raised. A frequency of reporting as well as a format needs to be decided upon and clearly communicated to all those who will be expected to issue reports.
3. Gather the right data
If the monitoring framework if clearly defined, then there may not be any need for huge amounts of data collection. Too much irrelevant data will only create confusion and add no value. Quality of data to ensure relevance needs to be the focus of any data collection efforts.
4. Select appropriate tools
Decide initially all acceptable methods of data collection. A wide variety can be used including questionnaires, surveys and focus groups.
5. Assign monitoring responsibility
Unless someone is assigned the task of monitoring specifically, it is an activity that can slip unnoticed into cracks. It is pertinent to assign a specific person for each type of reporting or monitoring activity and to build this task into their own personal deliverables.
6. Identify who to report to
Those tagged with reporting should be told clearly who they are to report to. Reports are tailored according to the management level they are being reviewed by. A senior management team may only need high level timelines, results and resource consumption data, while a middle management group or project team itself may need minute details of each task achieved or delayed.
Monitoring Tools and Techniques
Tracking Quantitative Metrics
Much of project monitoring is focused on hard facts such as the money being spent, man hours being used up etc. These are key metrics and need to be tracked in a systematic and effective manner, providing a ready snapshot of where the project is at any point in time. Some of the ways in which projects can be tracked are:
Spreadsheets are a good way of tracking key metrics. All relevant data can be listed out with values against each important metric. This includes timelines with acceptable delays, projected budgets with expected increases, projected man hours with expected increases, team members and their backups in case of any emergency
2. Project Applications
If the project being worked on is very large with complex interrelationships and many sub projects, then a spreadsheet may not be sophisticated enough to offer streamlined tracking and reporting. In such cases, a tracking application like MS Project is the right way to go.
Tracking Qualitative Metrics
Apart from quantitative metrics, an equal monitoring focus needs to be given to the qualitative side. Are stakeholders happy with the progress? Are their expectations being met? Is the project meeting the needs it set out to? Some methods to achieve this are:
1. Questionnaires or Surveys
This method is simple to create and get results on. A large number of people across various cross sections of stakeholders can be reached relatively easily and it is less of a hassle for them to respond as well. People can chose to withhold their information while still participating. The information needs to be analyzed critically once data is received.
2. Feedback Forms
Feedback forms can be distributed and completed at a time where users may have just used a product or been indirect contact with you or your team. There may have been an event or a sample testing.
These require a lot more preparation and time than the other methods mentioned here. The interviewer needs to have questions prepared and should be able to probe for relevant information. Though most effective in person, these can also be conducted over the phone.
4. Focus Groups
Another way of gathering first-hand information is to put together a good cross section of stakeholders into a room together and allow them to answer some pointed questions but largely able to speak freely and ignite new ideas through each other. Often this can lead to better results. A group conversation can tend to go off track so it is important for the facilitator to steer the conversation in the right direction and also to allow all opinions to be voiced freely.
The Importance of Monitoring
The following reasons make a compelling business case for proper planned monitoring
If a project has received funding from a stakeholder they will expect reports on the effective utilization of these resources. Regular monitoring will ensure that this information is present whenever it may be demanded or required.
2. Future Funding
If a project team or an organization gains a reputation for lack of transparency or discipline in utilizing resources, it may become impossible to secure resources for an upcoming project. On the other hand, a less effective team with clear reporting and transparent operation may seem like a safer option to an investor.
3. Compare Actual vs Planned Progress
Without an actual planned progression through a process to compare with, there may be a tendency to forget what the goals to be achieved were. Through regular monitoring and reporting, you can keep a track what was to be achieved and what has been allowing any relevant course corrections or explanations to stakeholders.
4. Learn from Experience
Through effective monitoring systems, successful and unsuccessful processes can be identified and separated allowing creation of best practices and benchmarks to be followed during future projects.
5. Team Engagement
When a team can see solid evidence of the difference their effort has made, they are more engaged and morale and ownership remain high. It may encourage them to take initiatives to further improve work and their own performance as well as think creatively for the benefit of the project.