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Four Crucial Tactics That Keep Your Project On Track

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You might think it’s pretty obvious to know when your project is veering wildly out of control. However, it’s important to first know when a project is “in control.”

Although this might seem to be a tough or irrelevant question to answer, the point is to be able to recognize the potential areas of a project that can transform the status of your project from productive to chaotic, and ultimately, to a point where the project’s progress is in serious jeopardy. The best way to stay on top of your project is to target the areas of the project that are likely to get out of control in the first place. Because when it comes to effective project management, the devil truly is in the details.

1) Scheduling Tasks: One of the more reliable predictors of the status of a project is the schedule. Project managers will oftentimes create a Microsoft schedule including tasks that should not have hard and fast completion dates attached to them in the first place. Date-driven milestones are more often than not, a recipe for disaster.

“Project managers make the mistake of throwing out completion dates because they either think’ they know when the task will be completed or because their client is pressuring them for magic dates,” says Ray White, President of Scoutwest Inc., a leading project and time management solutions company. “Since the beginning of time, executives have been demanding that completion dates be set in stone. The problem with this is that no one can truly foresee when all the things that need to be done to bring a project to fruition are actually going to be done.” The best way to handle this, according to White, is to not succumb to the pressure of executives and give them a date that has a plus or minus percentage of say 75% error, instead. That way, as the project moves forward, the error percentage goes down.

Another typical scheduling mistake is not adding enough tasks or providing enough detail to the task itself. For example, if the schedule is in increments longer than a week per person, the schedule is not detailed enough. Allowing your staff to proceed without a detailed schedule checkpoint could put your project at risk for being off by as much as an entire week! Obviously, some attention must be devoted to the schedule but you should avoid fixating on it and losing sight of the bigger picture.

2) Communication: Communication is critical. During a postmortem, most people say, “There was no communication!” Although it is difficult to define exactly what that means, the following are some things to keep in mind.

“It’s true there is often a big disconnect as you go up the food chain,” White acknowledges regarding the importance of communication on a project. “For example, the engineers at the bottom level often just live in their own world. They don’t know anything about the business demands of the projectnor do they care. They’re often very focused on their technology or expertise and don’t understand why the project has to proceed at a certain pace or be done on a certain date. Nor can they relate to the business drivers behind it.”

“On account of this obvious disconnect, everyone has completely different perspectives. So, often what happens is engineers, for example, are consulted for scheduling purposes and tend to be very optimistic about deadlines. They’re smart and can usually come up with something useful very quickly. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean what they come up with will be ready for client consumption. Until that finished product has been cleaned up, it’s not ready to be sold to the client. Engineers do not realize this. They think that since they have completed their task, their job is done. They don’t factor in the extra time it takes to clean up a finished product for client consumption. I call this situation reality distortion’,” Ray notes.

Reality distortion occurs when a team player is engrossed in his or her own importance and is convinced that impossible deadlines can be met. This can happen in varying degrees. The best thing for a project manager to do is build a bridge of understanding, and if that is not enough, they need to be the pillar of cold, hard reality. A thorough project review conducted by an ultra-skeptical project manager can work wonders!

Another thing to keep in mind is communication among the staff. For example, who on your team attends staff meetings? The answer should be at least one of your engineers, and maybe a developer or two.

And last but not least, be aware of team members who keep secrets. Obviously, some details of technology should be kept private, but if a team member is overly protective of his or hers specs or scheduling, they’re probably hiding something.

3) Got Process? Very few project managers handle all aspects of process flawlessly. And although this is usually not a deal breaker, it can be used as an indicator of how experienced the project manager actually is. There are a few fine points project managers need to be aware of when it comes to process.

Don’t incorporate too little or too much process. “You have to find the right balance,” White observes. “Of course, you need a little bit of process. A project manager needs to schedule and assign tasks and be diligent about tracking their progress. If you don’t have a process, it’s chaos.”

“On the flipside, some project managers go completely overboard. They add a hundred more pieces to the process; forcing themselves and their staff to spend more time managing the process than actually working on the project at hand. I am not a big fan of huge processes. I tend to think that lighter, minimal processes are better,” says White.

Another thing project managers need to avoid is falsifying their milestones, which of course will eventually cause problems later down the line. Most project managers divide their projects into a series of milestones and use those milestones to track the progress of their project. There are several common milestone cheats: tampering with dates, declaring unfounded success, not having definitive objectives, and moving unfinished milestones to the next set of milestones.

Project managers should always have milestone reviews. These reviews are extremely important sources of corrective action for the next milestone. If milestones are misrepresented or are not adequately reviewed, your project may be in serious risk of going off track.

Project managers also need to track all metrics. The key to tracking metrics is to measure only the meaningful data. To accomplish this, you should determine your overarching goals, determine which metrics will accurately reflect whether you’re meeting established goals, use the appropriate tracking tool to get the job done (preferably one that generates daily reports) and change how you’re working if you are not meeting your objectives.

4) Project Focus: Probably the most important-and the most difficult to measure-is project focus. Typically, every player on a project has a different focus. So how do you ensure everyone shares the same focus? One way is to select a few people from the different service areas and ask them to outline what they think the vision of the project is. If they can’t immediately summarize it in a few sentences, then the project could be in trouble.

Another way to check on the focus is to ask the question, “Who will pay good money for this product?” It’s important that as many people on the project as possible be the customer’s advocate.

Few projects will veer out of control in all of these areas. And if one area is slightly off, that also does not necessarily mean your project is doomed. “The way to use this list,” Ray explains, “Is more as a tool to see where you are with your project. As a project manager, you need to be doing a constant reassessment almost every day of where you are and constantly be searching for things you might have forgotten.”

And for those who ask the question, what do I do if my project is out of control? The answer: Regain control! The best course of action is to do something.

This article comprises information attained from the following sources.

SLAC Public Website (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Operated by Standford University), Project Manager Guide

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Ray White is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Scoutwest, Inc., the developers of Standard Time Project Management Software. Ray’s involvement in software development and project management began over 26 years at Eastman Kodak company and since then he has worked with approximately 30 executives, 90 project managers, 300 engineers, and 10,000 customers. By project managers, for project managers – his project management products help thousands of international customers plan and track time for their mission critical projects.

Four Crucial Tactics That Keep Your Project On Track
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About Ray White
Ray White is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Scoutwest, Inc., the developers of Standard Time Project Management Software. Ray's involvement in software development and project management began over 26 years at Eastman Kodak company and since then he has worked with approximately 30 executives, 90 project managers, 300 engineers, and 10,000 customers. By project managers, for project managers - his project management products help thousands of international customers plan and track time for their mission critical projects. WebProNews Writer
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