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Some wag once said there are five phases to a project: wild enthusiasm, disillusionment, panic, punishment of the innocent, and accolades and honors to the non-participants. Of course, project management, is not about managing mood swings. Essentially, it’s a process of drilling down to assess, plan, and execute a project on an increasingly granular level to meet top-line deliverables (see figure). Add a little bit of Murphy’s Law, though, and the joke above can become frighteningly apt. Let’s take a look at some of the most common pitfalls in program management and the ways to avoid them.
Starting off on the right foot is key. Before you ever get as far as delivery dates and budgets in the initiation phase, you have to understand what it is that you’re doing—and why. “There’s a significant group of people who’d say it’s impossible up front to completely define the customer needs,” says Robert K. Wysocki, president of Enterprise Information Insights Inc. (Worcester, MA). “Things change throughout the project and those needs change what has to be done.”
Of course, the first thing to determine is whether the customer’s need really translates to changes in requirements, and what those requirements are. A customer may decide they require a feature because of a specific need, but the program manager and engineers may determine the need can be addressed in a different way. “Sometimes, instead of needs, it’s what the customer wants,” says Wysocki. “The project manager has to dig down deep, do a root cause analysis, continue to ask the question why, why, why until they really get down to the core of what that need is. A lot of project managers don’t do that, so they get started in a direction that’s fraught with problems.”
To accommodate changing requirements, a new approach called agile project management actually builds a re-evaluation step into the schedule. This represents a sea change from traditional project management. “A traditional project manager hates change,” says Wysocki. “The customer says ‘by the way, we also need one of these,’ so the project manager has all this stuff that has to be undone, redone, restimated.” Agile project management says don’t plan the entire project—specify the parts you really know, maybe even build them, and then step back and redirect as necessary. Yes, that adds to the planning overhead, but it saves wasted steps or undoing work. “You’re not wasting time,” Wysocki observes, “you’re actually saving time.”
Looking On the Dark Side
Whether you’re working with traditional or agile project management, the planning phase can be a make-or-break step. This phase involves converting the objectives, delivery date, and top-line budget established in the initiation phase to specific goals with concrete metrics and deadlines. A key component of planning is developing the work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS essentially breaks down a large project into successively more granular levels until the final level consists of a collection of two-to-three-week “work packages.” Complete the work packages in an organized fashion, the thinking goes, and your project will be done to spec, on time, and on budget.