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I have been asked to jot down a few Do’s and Don’ts about project management. I have enlarged this slightly to include the implementation of a structured project management method and a look at what benefits some users feel they have obtained.

DO remember that projects are about change. A quote from John Barnfield of Reading Borough Council in a article about a project case study is, ‘Change frightens people and they need to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it and how it affects them.’

DO get top management support. This has to include sufficient training for top management that they understand their responsibilities. DON’T exclude the management of the customers or recipients of the results of projects from this education. Another John Barnfield comment is, “Our experiences highlighted that some early doubters became accepted users of the methodologies once misunderstandings and early fears were identified and corrected.” He also said, ‘Lengthy, detailed presentations are inappropriate at senior level. Concentrate on the benefits for them and how they will be directly affected.’

DON’T skimp on training project managers in the method. DON’T assume that, having given the training, all projects will run smoothly.

DO ensure that there is a sensible business case for a project – and monitor project progress against that business case. Be prepared to stop the project if the business case for it disappears.

If you are senior management, DON’T think that you have passed all responsibility for a project to the project anager. The appropriate representatives of senior management, representing business, users of the final product and suppliers of the development effort, should have ultimate responsibility for a project. The project manager presents information about progress, accomplishments, changes, risk, quality and business case status at key points, but the decision to stop or continue rests with this directing body. An old comment but a good one by the then OGC on work done by the Cheshire Constabulary, ‘The overriding message that emerges from reading this case study is that the Cheshire Constabulary was able to achieve senior level commitments to the adoption of (a project management method), which gave credibility and visibility to the way the major change programmes were to apply the approach. We know from experience that this commitment is crucial to an on-going improvement programme in project delivery capability.”

DON’T assume that if you are the project manager of a medium-to-large project you can combine project management with performing a technical job for most of your time. Project management takes time. The bigger the number of staff, the more time is needed for co-ordination, work allocation, monitoring, planning, controlling changes, risks, quality, reporting, and so on. I remember being asked by one new project manager why he had to work until 7.00 o’clock most evenings just to keep up with his plan, which had seemed very reasonable when he set it out. We had a look at his plan and, sure enough, there he was, 100% dedicated to the most difficult technical jobs. He had not allowed himself any time for updating the plan, checking how all the staff were performing, reporting to senior management, holding team meetings, making telephone calls, being interrupted, and so on. Even in a small project the project manager must dedicate some of the time to actually doing the project management job. In a medium-to-large project the project management job quickly becomes full-time.

DO remember that quality does not look after itself, just because you are paying high wages to attract the best staff. You need to know at the outset what the customer’s quality expectations are. These are not always ‘The product must never fail, must be easy to use and be a tremendous advance on what we have today’, but whatever they are, it is important to clarify them at the outset. Let me give you two examples.

Many years ago I was ready to take a job with a telecommunications company who were about to win a major project to set up a packet-switching network in Australia. Suddenly, some intelligent person working for the customer realised that most of the network would run across the desert middle of Australia, and therefore any faults would be costly and lengthy to repair. So the invitation to tender was withdrawn and reappeared with quality requirements that said the mean time between failure of any hardware or software product was to be four years. This was backed up with penalty clauses. The telecommunications company looked at their development plans and realised that they did not contain production and testing standards that would guarantee the required level of quality. In the end they decided not to bid for the contract as they felt there was a risk of failing to meet the quality criteria.

The second example comes from an oil company. An exploration party had returned from South America with data from a seismic survey. There was very little time left in their exploration contract with that government, and they needed to know very quickly whether the data showed the likelihood of gas or oil reserves. The results were to be studied by scientists, so their quality criteria were speed and accuracy. It didn’t have to be easy to use and its useful life was just the one use and then throw it away.

Two radically different approaches to quality expectations, but they make a great difference to how the product is developed. I remember one lecturer saying, ‘Quality is like carpet underlay. It prolongs the life of the product, but it’s very difficult to put in after the event.’ Once you have defined the quality expectations, you have to plan how to achieve that level of quality, including identifying which standards, tools and personnel you need, then you need to identify in detail how that quality is to be checked and what records of the quality work need to be kept. You can guarantee that if time or bonuses come under pressure, the first unofficial (i.e. without your knowledge) avenue for time saving will be to cut down on quality work. Your project management method must have enough checks and balances in it to ensure that this does not happen.

I particularly like a comment that came from the Cheshire Constabulary – ‘There is an understanding that projects are like ‘silly putty’. If you squeeze them in one place, they will expand somewhere else, and people are encouraged to talk scope and risk, rather than just cope, which is the natural tendency.”

Filing sounds like a boring topic, hardly relevant to good, dynamic, thrusting project management! But DO support project management with a standard filing structure. It can bring many benefits, including less frustration when you can’t find a document that you want, or you suddenly realise that you or someone in the project is working from an obsolete version of a document. Here is what Reading Borough Council has to say. ‘Standards for a corporate filing area applicable to all project managers were established. This includes a standard folder structure with a ‘copy and paste’ facility to allow anyone to establish the required hierarchy quickly and easily…. (Wide viewing capability) allows people to learn from other projects.’

DO remember that a move to working with a project management method will not happen overnight. John Barnfield observed, ‘Be realistic in your expectations. Change like this does not happen overnight, however well you promote it. Culture change can take 3-5 years.’ Once you recognise this, you will be ready for the next ‘don’t’ – DON’T expect everyone to have the same enthusiasm for the approach (as you).’

Here are some other comments from three case studies. These happen to be from companies that have implemented PRINCE2® as their project management method, but you should be looking for the same benefits from any other structured method.

In answer to the question, ‘What have been the major benefits of using PRINCE2’, the Cheshire Constabulary said ‘We could not have delivered such extensive business change without a structured approach and the strong business involvement in the process.’ When looking at the difficulties encountered, they said, ‘Most of the difficulties were one step removed from the method itself and were difficulties we would have had even if we were not using PRINCE2, i.e. projects mean change and change itself can be difficult for some people.’ As far as drawbacks went, the comment was, ‘Some people at grass roots level who perhaps can’t see the whole picture perceive it as an overhead. People who are carrying responsibility for project see PRINCE2 as an investment. It’s an overhead in the way oil is to an engine – without a structured approach the business change projects would grind to a halt.’

The use of a structured project management method by Reading Borough Council resulted in the following statements of the benefits achieved:

“The (project management method) ensures that each project has to be justified by a business case, which is open to on-going scrutiny to ensure that objectives are going to be met. If not, the project can be stopped before further resources and expenditure are wasted.”

“Efficiency is improved, which links well to the Best Value regime, because:

  • there is a common approach and language for managing change
  • the common approach is easily understood and communicated
  • staff can be interchanged easily
  • project documentation is easy to access
  • there is a good mechanism for passing on lessons learned
  • problem projects are more easily identified
  • risks are identified and managed.”

‘Staff recruitment and retention are improved because a structured approach provides a career qualification path for project managers and programme managers.’

‘Management by exception reduces input required by senior management without them feeling that they lose control and there are clear lines of accountability.’

‘The approach facilitates audit and is supported by external auditors.’

‘Stakeholder and corporate communication and control are improved by good working links into existing corporate management processes.’

I hope that this brief note encourages others to examine their approach to projects and, as the song says, ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.’

Summary

  • Implement the introduction of a project management method from the top down. Senior management must be involved and supporting the use.
  • Don’t skimp on training – for all levels of staff, including senior management. Consider the use of a consultant expert in the method to advise on roll-out of the method to existing projects and its use on that important first project.
  • Remember that a valid business case should be the driving force for any project. Make sure that it’s there before a project starts and continue to check its survival throughout the life of the project.
  • Remember that project management is a job, not just a title. It takes time and resource. It may seem like an overhead, but it will yield more successful projects if done properly.
  • Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. The project management method you select should be tailorable and flexible to fit any size of project. Just like the old Erasmic shaving soap; not too little, not too much, but just right!
  • Do ensure that you find out what the quality expectations are at the beginning of a project and build in the necessary quality standards, work and checking to provide a quality product. Remember the motto – Get it right first time.
  • Projects mean change. That means that there will be opposition and fear. People skills will be needed outside the scope of the project staff.

Read more about PRINCE2 in the PRINCE2 manual.

About the Author:

Colin Bentley started in data processing in 1965 with English Electric-Leo-Marconi, rising to chief programmer. He moved to IBM in 1969 as a development manager. He moved to be a Director of Simpact Systems in 1975, working on the development of the PROMPT II project management method, the predecessor to PRINCE.

He has written over twenty books on project management and authored the original PRINCE2 manual. He was Chief Examiner for PRINCE2 for eleven years until 2009 when he retired. Before his retirement his clients included The Stock Exchange, Tesco, NHS in Northern Ireland, the BBC, Microsoft and Ordnance Survey.