When I teach classes on project management at AMA, covering everything from project requirements to lessons learned, there is one question I’m asked more often than any other. It usually goes something like this:
“Of all the tools and methodologies we’ve covered, what are the things I have to do to ensure my smaller projects are successful?”
To start, let’s define smaller projects as those of one to five duration weeks, with no more than three people on the project work team. For these projects, the good news is that you can focus on certain deliverables within the project management process—and still be following global better practices as defined in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).
Six essential elements of the project management process
Here are the six practices many experienced project managers define as needed to ensure a happy result with smaller projects:
The project charter is a critical component of any project. This is where we define the project objectives and the approach that will be used to meet said objectives.
Most successful project managers regard the definition of project requirements as one of the most critical activities. Typically, the requirements will evolve from the first version, but the project charter is a good place to start documenting them. It gives you something to show your stakeholder(s) and ask “Is this what you meant?”
Make sure you have identified all your stakeholders and that requirements are defined in a measurable manner.
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
The WBS is a hierarchical decomposition of the work to be done to achieve the project objectives.
The WBS doesn’t have to be broken down to a minute level of detail—especially if you are the only one working on the project. For small projects, it’s usually enough to have three to four deliverables, or major chunks of work.
Each deliverable can then be decomposed just one level into work packages. Sometimes, you may need to decompose the work packages into activities and maybe even sub-activities. Just make sure you don’t break the five-day duration/40 hours of effort rule at the lowest level of decomposition!
Although the schedule is usually displayed as a Gantt chart, project managers often develop some form of “network diagram” first, even if it’s just sticky notes on a board. This will enable you to see the entire flow of the project in one place and to play around easily with work package/activity sequencing options.
You will need to make sure you have enough work hours available to do the job—even if you are the only resource working on the project.
The easiest way to do this is to estimate the number of effort hours each work package requires. Then, aggregate this for your whole project. Compare this number to the total number of resource hours available in the planned timeframe. If the resource hours required total greater than 50% of the hours available, you are probably going to have to rethink your deadline, scope, or number of people working on the project.
Once you’ve completed about 80% of the project, it’s a good idea to start developing a “punch list” of outstanding items. As these are completed, get agreement from your stakeholders as to what remains to be done. This process is a best practice among project managers, and it makes final closure of the project smoother, with fewer surprises at the end.
If you are the only person working on the project, this debriefing can involve as little as comparing the project charter with what was delivered.
With multiple stakeholders and project team members, you’ll probably need to get a little more sophisticated. Try gathering stakeholders and team members together (co-located or virtually), and have them document “what went well” and “what went poorly” on individual sticky notes. Then, group these on a board, organized by “Process Group” as defined in the PMBOK® Guide.
Document these observations, circulate them—and make sure you incorporate them into your next project.
By following these basic steps in the project management process, you should be able to achieve what you want: a successful, on-time result.
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