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How healthy is your project?

David Schrapel
May 9, 2011

What is a healthy project? I asked this question of a number of my project manager peers and got answers that talked about the sort of problems you might see in an unhealthy project. But anybody who has tried to stay healthy in mind and body knows that there is a fundamental difference between leading a healthy life and getting cured. These are my top tips for what you might do to get and stay project healthy.

Look after yourself

The first rule of having a healthy project is to have a healthy project manager! So the first bit of advice is for you, and that is to get and stay healthy. This means all those things we have heard about like exercise, good food, proper rest and activities outside of work such as a hobby. Not doing any of those? Well, now is the right time to start.

Being a project manager also involves a fair bit of stress, so think about how you manage it. I received some good advice early in my career when I was being overwhelmed by problems, and that was to learn to delegate. As a technical lead, I was used to fixing things myself, but as a project manager you need to delegate and manage the problems that need to be fixed by others, and get them what they need to be successful.

Medical evidence and common sense says that you make better decisions when you are healthy, and getting out for a healthy lunch and a half-hour walk will help you cope better.

Improve your project fitness

Now you need to get your project fit. If you are using a project management method then make sure you exercise it during the project. While you may not do in detail all of the steps and activities, a project management method is a good checklist to make sure you have considered all of the important things.

I would like a dollar for every time I have heard the words “I used the XYZ method, but there were too many documents to produce” as an excuse for not using a project management method. The problem is not with the method, it is with its application. You might consider using a sizing template to give you some parameters to help decide what size the project is, or even if it is a project at all, and how much method to use.

Good personal hygiene is all about preventing illness, and good project hygiene is all about doing those everyday things required to keep the project healthy. Examples include monitoring project progress to plan, keeping track of external suppliers, managing risks and issues, managing scope change, and reporting to project governance. None of these things are used to directly produce the project’s products, but they are important for keeping the project healthy.

Maintain your project relationships

In personal health, having a good social network is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and so it is with a project. Most projects don’t operate in isolation as they are affected by activities around them, so get out and talk to your fellow project managers. You may just find that there are things happening that are important to your project, but nobody thought to tell you.

This will not only reduce the chance of project failure, but in fact make you more successful. If you have a project office supporting projects, they can help out by collating lessons learned and a project list, which may give you some ideas about who to talk to.

Communication is also important in life and in projects. When you start a project, start thinking about your stakeholders and develop a communications plan and use it! Remember that we are talking communication, not broadcast, so provide a feedback loop so that you can get comments back as well.

Get a project check-up

Project health checks are often seen as something you use to diagnose problems when things have gone wrong. But just like in real life, you can and should use them to get early notice of problems. Most project management methods have a health check that is tailored to the project lifecycle and enables you to get a snapshot of how the project is going.

For a long-term project you may want to do this at the end of each stage, say every six months or so. In shorter projects, you may need to do it more frequently, but try and arrange it just before major expenditure so if the project closes early it can avoid the expense.

If you find an area of concern with your project, remember to do something about it; it is no use having the information and then ignoring it. This is where project governance can help you, and as with health problems, early intervention is always better.

Manage risks

An issue is a risk that has occurred. In projects we are custodians of resources that are expected to deliver some increased capability to our organisation so we need to manage the project risks so that we deal with the minimum number of issues.

While doing a project audit, I once saw a risk log that had more than 200 entries. I wondered how a project with 200 active risks ever got started, but when I looked closely I saw entries like “There is a risk that a meteorite may hit the building” on the list. While there is a risk that this may happen, it is not very likely and is certainly not going to be managed at a project level!
So identify you project risks and have appropriate treatment and monitoring in place to enable you to react appropriately.

David Schrapel
David Schrapel is a certified PRINCE2, MSP and P3O trainer with Tanner James. He has worked in Australia and overseas in the telecommunications and IT space at every level including strategy, business analysis, architecture, and project and program management. He has also been extensively involved in the rescue and termination of troubled projects.
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