Project management: simple but not that simple at all
Projects are one of the key learning elements at Proakatemia and I do not wonder why! There is a limitless amount of things to learn about projects and each project is a different experience. I feel like I know a lot about handling projects but every time I’m surprised again. Projects ask for true adaptation, harmonization and presentation of ones skills. I’ve always been interested in project management, because projects are like that; simple, but at the same time not simple at all. Projects can be counted, which means that they are not some abstract objects. But oh boy are they hard to follow and manage sometimes.
What makes projects so hard to understand and also manage, is the fact that every project actually has the same attributes but few people remember to apply or manage these in their projects. It means that project is a fairly simple concept, but we don’t know how to manage these simple features of a project. Project management is the most important thing just because of that! Every project can be simple, if the management is done well.
Last spring we established a company called Grafu designs with couple of girls from our team. In the summer we were already doing our first big project for a real client. We were creating a whole new brand face, all the materials, like brochure and roll up and also a website for the client. We were excited and nervous at the same time. The project was supposed to be all done in the end of summer. However, summer went on and things got more and more complicated. We planned the project in the beginning but since it was our first real project in the field, we didn’t know that much yet. Looking back now, we didn’t do such a good job with the management of the project. That affected the project so much, that we just finished it in December (!), almost four months late from the original deadline. It wasn’t all our fault but we could’ve avoided many things with proper management and planning.
Now that the project is finally behind us, I can start to look at it in a different light. I decided to learn more about project management to help us succeed in our projects with a bit more relaxed mindset in the future. The stress from the project grew so big that we didn’t even feel excitement about it anymore. And that’s not something you should try to pursue. Executing the project should be the easiest and the most fun part. We were doing what we love, but because of the somewhat bad project management, we lost the feeling.
In the hope of a better project experience, I watched this YouTube video of Deniz Sasal called Project Management Simplified: Learn the fundamentals of PMI’s framework. It was actually almost like a mini course into the world of project management. In the video Sasal went through the most important parts of project management and also enlightened where most people go wrong with it. In this essay I am going to go through all the simple (or not so simple) features of project management and open up, where we went wrong and in the other hand succeeded in our project in Grafu. I also hope that you don’t ever have to lose your interest in what you do in your projects after reading this essay!
TWO THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER CONFUSE
Sasal introduced two terms that people should never mix up:
Project life cycle = An ending series of different phases of a project. Phases could be for example design, coding, testing and so on. Everyone creates and decides these phases according to their project and needs. Project life cycle is highly customizable.
Project management process = Set of management phases, that should be executed in every part of the project life cycle. Phases are initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling and closing.
The reason why you should not confuse these two and why most people go wrong in project management, is the fact that we add project management process once to the whole project. It means that we manage the project life cycle as one, even though it has many phases under it, that need management as individual parts (Sasal, 2017.)
So for example in our project, our project life cycle had many different phases like designing the brand’s visual base, creating the brochure and roll up and building the website. All these phases need their own management process. We only planned the whole project as one and ended up in difficulties with schedules for example. We didn’t plan each phase closely enough and had no idea what it would actually take time to build the website for example. Even though we handled the project as one unity, it ended up being hard to hold together the whole project. I realize now, that it’s crucial to add management process to each phase of the project to actually be able to see and manage the big picture.
PROJECT MANAGEMENT PROCESS
So what is it that you need to do under every phase of the project life cycle then? A lot! I was actually surprised of the amount of things you should consider in the management process. Doing it many times even. But then as Sasal went on in the video, I realized, the more you do for the sake of management the more you get to enjoy the executing part (=doing what you love).
In project management process there are 5 phases; initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling and closing. Sasal opened up these phases very well in the video. It was also easy to see in which parts we went wrong in Grafu. Now I’m going to share what I learned about these 5 different sections of project management process and compare them to our experience with our project.
As the word itself tells, this part is about getting everything started. There are two important documents that you should create in this part for the project; project charter and stakeholder identification. These both are so called check points to see, if further planning is even necessary. Question that is answered in this part is whether you should proceed with this project or not (Sasal, 2017.)
Project charter is a simple document outlining few important things. It is like a mini project plan. This document should explain why you are doing and what you are doing. It can consist of things like business case, project objectives, goals, roles and responsibilities, assumptions and so on. This is not a place to go into too much detail, but rather to see the project from different angles already in the very beginning (Sasal, 2017.)
Stakeholder identification is a document where you should outline, who are part of this project. For example the client, teams, sponsors, mentor, workers, manager etc. What are their roles in the project and can they agree to this (Sasal, 2017.)
I think the part where we went wrong with our project right in the beginning was this stakeholder identification. We didn’t think about our own roles in the team too much and we also totally forgot the parts where we are going to need something from the client. It’s no wonder that the schedule didn’t go to plan since the client wasn’t able to agree to the terms and so on. That is definitely something you should pay attention to in the initiation phase!
Planning phase is the place to go more into detail. In this most important phase you should be looking to find answers to 3 main questions:
- What are we going to do?
- How are we going to do it?
- How do we know, when the project is done?
Project plan has many different parts under it: project requirements, scope, WBS, schedule, budget and remaining knowledge areas (Sasal, 2017).
Project requirements is a simple thing. You make sure you know what the client wants and expects. This means of course everything that you are supposed to deliver for the client. In addition this could also mean assumptions that you have about the client’s needs and hopes. In this part you should also hear the needs of all the other stakeholders in the project (Sasal, 2017.)
Scope is about choosing where to put your concentration on in the project. You have now gathered the important details of the project in the project charter earlier and now you have figured out what are the requirements for the project. It’s time to look through a scope and decide what is going to be visible inside the view and what’s left outside. There is no way that every requirement could be taken into consideration. In this part you should be very clear and specific. Project scope should not include anything ambiguous! You just simply determine what are the project goals, deliverables, tasks and deadlines (Sasal, 2017.)
WBS or work breakdown structure breaks the project down into smaller and more manageable pieces. For example if you have brand’s visual identity as a part of your project life cycle, then you break it down to a logo design, colour scheme, picture style and so on. Then under these you can add even smaller tasks (Sasal, 2017.)
If you wonder, how small should you go in the WBS, ask yourself these questions:
- Can I confidently estimate the cost and time requirements of this work package?
- Can I say, it’ll take one week or thousand dollars?
If not, you need to break it down even further. You need to be able to make assumptions about the time and price.
As part of creating a WBS, you should also do a WBS dictionary. It should explain every part of the WBS. What are the boundaries of every phase? If there is for example the logo design that I mentioned, what does it actually mean you are providing? If you do not define these things there’s danger to the project to flow over. There will be more and more to do (Sasal, 2017.)
In Grafu, we had this issue at some point, that the website we were creating for the client was supposed to be in two languages and we didn’t know this until the last minutes before the deadline. There were surprises coming everywhere! And I can tell, that’s exhausting.
When you are on the clear about what you are doing and you have broken things down to enough small pieces, you can start building schedule. In this part you simply estimate time for every small task in your WBS. In this tool called Gant chart can be helpful. It can look something like this:
Schedule was the part where we had most trouble in our project. We didn’t break things down into enough small pieces and that’s why it was kind of impossible to actually tell, how much time each part will take. When there were these huge delays because of weak planning, everything started to fall down. Preparing for delays or anything surprising is much more easier if you have a good schedule. If you schedule things well you also need to be sure everyone participating in the work actually have time to do it. That was our problem too. We scheduled things carelessly and weren’t realistic about time.
Cost and budget management happens the exact same way utilizing the WBS. You make cost assumptions to each part in your WBS. Using the schedule you can for example estimate the cost based on working hours of each task. This is a good place to check if you have been realistic when making an offer. Or to actually do the offer realistically (Sasal, 2017.)
This is the part, where we bring to live what has been planned. The part where you get to enjoy the doing! Now your job is to make sure that the team or you yourself stick to the plan. Executing is the easiest part, if the planning has been done well! If not, execution can be a nightmare (Sasal, 2017.)
In this part, you’ll also have to manage stakeholder’s expectations. You need to protect the scope you created. It means that you have to make sure nobody can add anything new to the project. You can of course consider something but you shouldn’t blindly agree to every suggestion and addition. Be careful with the change requests (Sasal, 2017.)
In our project this protecting ended up being very difficult! We didn’t define the scope and ended up doing everything new the client suggested. Half way into the project we realized we didn’t even know all the parts we were supposed to deliver to the client. At least for some parts we asked more money, but still. It’s difficult to stay in schedule, stick to the plan, or protect the scope, if things are not clear in the beginning.
Monitoring and controlling
Monitoring and controlling is like comparing the performance and the plan. This part obviously goes hand in hand with executing (that’s why the two are pictured as this rotating part in the demonstration picture earlier). It’s about monitoring the scope and the schedule. You kind of forecast if there’s going to be delays for example and what it means to the cost (Sasal, 2017.)
Due to our lacking planning, we didn’t have possibility to forecast delays! That led to the project being done almost four months later than supposed to. And even the bit of monitoring and controlling that we could’ve done, we didn’t know how to, since we had no clear vision of the big picture.
We are often surprised that our project just doesn’t get finished. When the product is finished, the project usually is not yet. You need to get for example a sign-off from the client or go through what the project taught you.
In our project we were surprised by the amount of time that was spend to emails and messages at Teams. And when we finished our deliverables, we still had to give reasons to our choices and format messages to the board behind the client. It was a lot of extra work in the end.
TRYING TO MANAGE A PROJECT WITHOUT PROJECT MANAGEMENT IS LIKE TRYING TO PLAY A FOOTBALL GAME WITHOUT A GAME PLAN.
– K. TATE
I think learning to be better at project management is one criteria of being successful. If you can plan things well, you are not only going to be more efficient but you also have more time to do your work well. The way you really want to display your skills and professionalism. It leaves space for you to be creative and enjoy your work. That, I promise, guarantees more happy customers than anything else you could do. Learn to be the best project management for the sake of your own happiness and mental health and that shows!
I hope you got some good tips from this essay to your future or ongoing projects! For me at least this helped a lot and in our next project in Grafu I’m going to do the project management process as well as possible! I wish you great moments with your projects as well!
Sasal, D. 2017. Project Management Simplified: Learn The Fundamentals of PMI’s Framework. Deniz Sasal. Youtube-video. Julkaistu 13.6.2017. Viitattu 11.12.2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKOL-rZ79gs&t=1364s