Tag: planning

Can Decomposition Be Taken Too Far?

Creating a detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) is a critical process in project management. When you have defined each deliverable, you need to determine how, when, and by whom the necessary work will be executed. Up to a point, hierarchical decomposition can be a very useful approach. It allows you to “eat the elephant one bite at a time” so to speak. It also provides the basis for prioritizing, sequencing, and tracking deliverables. In the PMBOK chapter of “Project Scope Management”, you can find sample diagrams showing such a structure at different branch levels:

  • The project
  • Various phases
  • Subprojects
  • Work packages

Technically, there is nothing to prevent you from further decomposing your project into sub work packages and sub-sub work packages and so forth ad infinitum. However, even with very complex projects there comes a point where this practice has diminishing returns.

WBS Considerations

The primary question to ask when you are subdividing a project into work packages is “Am I creating more work?” If the administrative time involved in defining, creating, assigning, and tracking a work package is greater than the actual time required to complete the tasks in the work package, the answer is obviously “Yes”. Project management should be about making your job simpler – not more complicated.

As an example of excessive decomposition, let’s say you need 100 widgets assembled for your project. You wouldn’t want your WBS diagram to show each widget as a separate work package that had to be reported on individually. That would require an enormous amount of administrative labor for you and for your team members. At the other end of the scale, you might not want to have a single work project for the whole widget construction deliverable because you have different departments involved. In this situation, it would make more sense to have the sourcing of the widget components listed as Phase 1, the widget assembly as Phase 2, and the widget Quality Assurance inspection as Phase 3.

Too Much Decomposition is Bad for Employees

Basically, you don’t want to turn project management into micro-management. This decreases efficiency and negatively impacts team morale. The individuals actually responsible for completing the deliverables or schedule activities shouldn’t feel that they are being treated as if they don’t know how to do their jobs. This is one reason you may want to have them involved in creating the WBS – especially since they may have additional insight into the most logical way to group various tasks.

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Avoid Communication Pitfalls In Project Management

One of the most complex and challenging aspects of project management is undoubtedly communication. Unlike other factors that can be broken down into dollars, hours, percentages, or other statistics, communication is primarily concerned with the human element of the project. This introduces a huge number of variables. For example, a project that involves more than one country may require the translation of information and concepts into another language. Even projects carried out within a single culture can face communication problems based on differences between stakeholders (and other environmental factors). These may include:

  • Expectations, attitudes, and personality
  • Education level
  • Industry or field of specialty
  • Medium preference (written, verbal, visual, etc)
  • Organizational hierarchy

All of these issues should be taken into consideration during the planning phase of project management. The “how, who, when, and what” of communication are all impacted by the factors listed above. Here are a couple of methods you may choose to improve the effectiveness of your project communication:

Recognize Distinct Stakeholder Groups

These categories will include individuals who have authority over the project, those who have some input, and those who will be impacted but have little or no control over the process itself. Obviously, communication that requires a response or recommendation from the recipient should be directed to those with decision making capabilities. In contrast, you might want to avoid soliciting feedback from individuals who have no authority to make decisions and whose recommendations are likely to be dismissed. Asking for input and then ignoring it can be worse for morale than simply informing people that a topic is under review and letting them know when a decision is reached.

Inform, Then Confirm

Distributing the appropriate type and quantity of information on a regular schedule is only half the picture in project communication. You also need to verify that information has been received and comprehended. With electronic communiqués, you can have your email system notify you when a message has been opened. However, this doesn’t mean that the person reading it understood the information.

This is particularly problematic when you are communicating a list of incidental actions the reader needs to take that fall outside the scope of his/her usual assigned duties. It is very common for a recipient to miss one or more items if several issues are addressed in a single email. One way to avoid this with simple projects at a small company is by sending instructions for each task in a separate email. For more complex projects, collaborative software that permits multiple users to review, manage, and confirm tasks makes more sense. A good program will allow you to set permissions for who can view, revise, and submit information about tasks, problems, and resolutions at any level of the project.

When a project management system has a built-in communications platform, extensive use of this feature can significantly streamline the implementation of a comprehensive project communications management plan. It will also promote the use of automated reporting to make regular distribution of relevant project data more efficient. Of course, to make the best use of such software, you may need to communicate with stakeholders in advance to encourage adoption of the system.

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Do You Work Effectively with Your Procurement Department?

As a project management specialist, getting what you need when you need it is imperative for a successful outcome. This means you have to work closely with your company’s Procurement Department (Purchasing). If you are constantly at odds with the purchasing agents, this can hamper your ability to work effectively. Things don’t have to be this way since your departments share some of the same goals (to stay on track and under budget). Here are 4 possible areas for improvement in communication and collaboration:

Give Early Notice

If you are commencing a large project, the Purchasing Director may need to assign a buyer full time to fulfilling your requisitions. That impacts the manpower available to devote to other tasks. As a professional courtesy, you should keep the Director apprised of the scope of upcoming projects. Don’t simply send over a huge list of required items and services that will take Purchasing by surprise. When buyers have to scramble to get things done, costly mistakes are much more likely.

Plus, you might think an item is available off the shelf when it actually has a 6 week lead time. When you make assumptions, your project may experience unexpected delays. The more information the Procurement Department has up front, the more accurate your overall project management planning will become.

Don’t Make Agreements

Unless you have the authority to spend your employer’s money, never agree to buy anything from a vendor. This applies to verbal statements and written contracts. The number one way to make your Procurement Department angry is by usurping their authority. When they have to go back and renegotiate a deal and break promises you made to a vendor, this makes their job much harder than it should be.

If you do speak with vendors directly, it may be OK to ask for initial price quotes. However, make it clear that you are only doing a preliminary investigation into costs and that a purchasing agent will be in charge of any further discussion. Don’t try to haggle about pricing – you may inadvertently disclose information that should be kept confidential. Experienced buyers know how to finesse vendors and maintain control of the conversation. It is in your best interest to leave negotiations to trained purchasing agents.

Double Check Your Specs

You and your staff members are the experts on what you need to complete your project. This means you are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the specifications for the components, equipment, or services you requisitioned are correct.

A good purchasing agent will do his or her best to become conversant in the technical terminology required to discuss your project requirements. However, buyers often handle the procurement of dozens (or hundreds) of different items in an average week. This means there is a limit to how much new knowledge they can absorb. When they buy exactly what you tell them to and it turns out to be the wrong item, you will take the blame for the mistake.

On the other hand, you need to be on the lookout for buyers who substitute a cheaper product in order to get a better price. They may be under pressure to do this to stay within budget – or simply to enhance their next performance evaluation. For critical components, always ask to see the final specs prior to order placement. Make this type of request politely in writing (email is fine) so it will be taken seriously and you will have a copy of the correspondence for your project management records.

Prepare to Defend Your Preferences

The Purchasing Director typically has the final say over which vendor will be awarded a contract or purchase order. If you have a preference for using one vendor over another, you must be able to clearly show how this choice benefits your company. Buyers are expected to be impartial in their decision making process and they expect the same attitude from you.

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Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Planning

In project management, top-down planning gives senior management control of the decision making process. Top-level managers are often reluctant to accept advice or guidance from lower level employees. Therefore, upper management should be specific with their expectations if they want those who aren’t part of the planning process to follow the plan. Often this type of planning, which can invoke fear or rely on incentives, creates problems with motivation and moral.

Some critics might hold that using top down planning in project management is not taking full advantage of talented employees who could have much to offer the project. On the other hand, top down planning allows for the division of a project into steps which can be studied and tasks properly assigned.

With bottom-up planning, a greater number of employees are involved, each with a specialized area of expertise. Team members work together and and take their plans to the next higher level until reaching the senior management level for approval.

Advantages to bottom-up planning is that lower-level employees take a personal interest in the plan which can improve motivation and moral. Though lower-level team members help to develop and implement the plan, it is primarily the project manager’s responsibility to see that the project is completed within budget and on time.

A blend of the two approaches is probably best in most cases. Needs can be determined at the top with accountability falling at lower levels. By combining the vision of senior management with the skills of lower-level team members efficiency and project success are more likely.

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Murphy’s Law and Project Management

Almost everyone knows Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” In project management it is no different, but as manager you must decide who is in control, you or Murphy. The tips below could help you stop blaming Murphy and actually, with a little patience and planning, make Murphy your friend.

A good project manager knows that some events are not within your control. It is the way you respond to those events that can make all the difference. When unexpected events occur, it’s natural to feel stressed and the stress is magnified when something happens at an inopportune time. The only way to reduce this stress is to take action and maintain control of the situation. Deal with the problem and laugh in the face of Murphy. Letting problems continue will only cause them to snowball which could mean your project is doomed.

Anticipate the likelihood that things will go wrong during the life of the project and they will probably go wrong at the worst possible time. The best thing you can do as project manager is to plan thoroughly, control internal processes and proactively manage the project.

So the next time you hear yourself blaming Murphy for things that are going wrong think about whether it’s really Murphy at work or just a result of poor planning. It it’s the latter, maybe it’s time to step up your game and if Murphy is the culprit, take action immediately, solve the problem and move on with the project.

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