Three Keys to Getting Your Projects Under Control, Part 3

In the conclusion of the three-part series on successful project management, granular communications highlight performance lags and scope creep.

Within IT, the vast majority of activities outside the boundaries of operations and help desk are projects, i.e., one-time efforts pulling together a team, with a clear goal, budget and time line, and a final handoff, which leads to disbanding the team. And, as established in the previous two parts of this three-part series, most projects are out of control.

MORE ON SOA

Three Keys to Getting Your Projects Under Control, Part 1

Three Keys to Getting Your Projects Under Control, Part 2

Three Keys to Getting Your Projects Under Control, Part 3

ABC: An Introduction to IT Project Management

Some facts about out-of-control projects are well-documented. According to the Defense Acquisition University:

  • Once a project is 10 percent complete, the overrun at completion will not be less than the current overrun.
  • Once a project is 20 percent complete, the cost performance index does not vary from its current value by more than 10 percent.
  • The further the cost schedule index is from 1.0, the less likely project recovery becomes.

But how does management get projects under control? Two decades of successful project management in IT, capital construction, engineering and aerospace have revealed three keys to getting projects under control: plug leaks, have an idea and go granular.

In the first article we explored the first key to getting projects under control, "Plug Leaks," which means to clearly define and enforce the acceptable range of diversion. In the second article we examined the second key to getting your projects under control: "Have an Idea." To "have an idea" management and team members must be able to specifically answer the following four questions: Where are you going? How are you going to get there? What will it cost? What is the payoff?

In this third and last article in the series we will look at the third key to getting your projects under control: "Go Granular."

Go Granular

Granularization—not a word, but certainly a vital concept—is the third key to getting your projects under control. A basic dictum is that you have to track at one level of detail deeper than you ever have to report. In other words, to summarize and report at the task level a manager must track at the subtask level, and so on, down to activity and subactivity levels. Here are two suggestions to help along the way: Eliminate level-loading looseness and control communication at the granular level.

All too often, the responsible person assumes and reports a level-loaded scenario for each major activity, leading to looseness in tracking. For example, a team plans to deliver a function within a 10-week period. At the end of week one, the team reports 10 percent of the planned hours burned and of course, 10 percent completion. And so on, yielding a false sense of security to management and digging a dangerous pit just over the horizon.

Fear is often the driver of level-loading looseness. It is primarily the fear of reporting a slip to someone who does not realize that, in reality, projects do slip. A good project plan makes allowance for the inevitable slips.

The other major driver for level-loading looseness is that no one really knows all that has to be done at the early stages of a project, a task or an activity. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), as a project unfolds, there will be an increasing understanding of what is necessary and how to do it.

It would be wise to apply that insight all the way down to the granular level. Recognize that individuals and teams cannot know everything sitting in an ivory tower as they plan, no matter at what level they operate. As time goes on, they discover in ever-greater detail exactly what needs to be done. That is granular progressive elaboration. This has three additional benefits.

First, any deviation from the detailed plan will show up quickly. Performance lags will quickly highlight themselves, eliminating the traditional "10 percent burned/10 percent complete" report.

Second, the project will stay on track as the initial, broader requirements are refined and the project follows an ever more specific map. If and when it becomes apparent that the original scope (at whatever level) was inadequate, the groundwork will be in place to handle the deviation through the appropriate change management process.

Third, the process will quickly identify any turn or change in direction that is not a progressive elaboration of the original intent or scope, i.e., no more scope creep.

It is critical to have a communication plan that assigns names and contact information to every element at the lowest granular level. Additionally, it is important to add two categories to the traditional RACI chart (see below): backup and support.

BRASCI ("RACI" Charts +2)

Backup: person who backs up the responsible person

Responsible: person doing the work

Accountable: person who gets the credit for making it happen or whose "head will roll" if the work does not get done

Support: department, person(s) or organization(s) whose services are essential to success

Consult: person(s) who must approve a decision before it is made or an action before it is taken

Inform: person(s) who must be informed that a decision has been made or an action has been taken

Each person needs to have a backup person who receives a minimum of a 15-minute overview at the end of each week. During those 15 minutes, the responsible person briefs his backup on progress, status, significant documents, passwords, access, and so on. As a result, there is never a significant knowledge gap in the project. There is always someone else to turn to for specific information.

The communication plan also needs to identify every support person or organization that is necessary for successful completion. For example, when an organization plans to install a new application, besides the usual test and QA activities, it may require a new server, an upgrade on the operating system, increased power supply, coordination with the load-balance system, security authentication, etc. Identifying those people and organizations early in the project will eliminate many of the late-in-the-project panic meetings with the attendant overtime, heartburn and slips.

Now the rub: Understanding where the keys are won't unlock the door. When you take the steps necessary to ensure that leaks are plugged, and ensure that everyone has the same idea, and ensure that activities are tracked at the granular level, you will get your projects under control.

John Troyer has more than 20 years of successful experience leading teams as a project, program, implementation, deployment and department manager in a wide variety of disciplines and environments, including DoD, aerospace engineering, IT, capital construction, finance, procurement and cost reduction.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

FREE Download: Learn how leading organizations are rising to the cloud security challenge