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How healthy is your project?

David Schrapel
May 9, 2011

Choose your project carefully

We have all heard about people who, despite bad habits, seem to live forever. Medical research suggests that choosing your parents carefully is one way of improving your life, as some factors are hereditary. The same goes for projects, so look for an organisation that values project management.

Most project management methods have some time up front for you to clearly define what the customer wants. This time will enable you to analyse and treat any risks, and find out if this has been tried before. You can then put all of this into a plan and estimate clearly the costs in time and money terms of the project. One way to do this is with a business case, which you can use to drive the project to completion.

If project management as a discipline is not valued, then you aren’t working in a champion team, you are working with a team of champions. This means that you are on your own, and so you get little or no information about what has happened in the past. This makes the project riskier.

In any project, something can go wrong, and that is when support is very useful. The last thing I want to hear from governance is “Keep going, it will be all right!” when I know things are going wrong; that is like your doctor saying “There is really nothing much wrong with you” when you are in pain.

If an organisation has a project office and a governance structure with defined responsibilities, they can be a help too.

Have a life plan and a project plan

General Dwight D Eisenhower apparently once said: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” What this means to a project manager is that blind commitment to a plan when circumstances change is wrong, but planning ahead is very important.

When we develop a plan for our project, we are making a prediction for the future taking into account what we know at the time. This includes making allowances for any risks that may occur, including assumptions, which are really risks in disguise.

While an estimate may be a very good guess, it is still a guess, and if circumstances or our scope changes then the plan may need to change too.

If we have a plan, we have something to base our changes on. A plan must be much more than a schedule. Plans include things like prerequisites, external dependencies, lessons incorporated, monitoring and control measures, budgets, tolerances and descriptions of any agreed products to be produced. By having these in place, we have an opportunity to act rather than react to what has happened.

Part of planning a project is to include all of the little ‘value add’ things project managers need to do like reports, meetings, re-planning and that thing called managing. If you don’t, then it is going to be done on your time, which will cut into your life plan, and you do want the weekend off, don’t you?

Save what can be saved

Despite all our best plans, sometimes the best of projects get into trouble. There are probably as many reasons for this as there are projects, but what are we going to do about it?

Medical and emergency workers use a system of triage to prioritise injured people.  We can use the same principle in projects to make a conscious decision about treatment.

The first thing we need to do is decide how injured the project is. We can use our project documentation to help us do that and one of the most useful tools is our business case, which is a distillation of project justification.

If the project will still achieve the benefits expected, but to lower level, then the project is still viable. This suggests that the project should continue but be monitored to ensure that things don’t get worse.

If the business case is not viable, then a decision must be made based on how important the functionality is to the business. This also depends on how far the project is from completion and what level of resourcing is required to complete the work. The business case should be revisited to see if additional benefits could be achieved, and at what cost, or if the scope of the project could be reduced while achieving the maximum level of benefits. Any lessons learnt while looking at project recovery should be documented for future use and the project monitored.

If there is no possibility of rescue, then the project should be closed after alternative ways of achieving the benefits are explored. Our business case should have documented these alternatives—including doing nothing—and these should be revisited.

Remember that closing a project early is not a failure, as the project stopped before resources were wasted.

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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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