Project Management for the People
- By Patrick Marshall
- Oct 31, 1997
"Plans are useless," Dwight Eisenhower once observed of making preparations for battle, "but planning is indispensable."
Good project managers know exactly what Ike meant. Juggling people and resources with critical deadlines is not a job for the weak-hearted or short-tempered. And just when you think you've got all the X's and O's in the right place, somebody comes along and tells you that you can't have all the supplies you were promised.
Planning is, in short, an ongoing process, not a one-time undertaking, and you have to be light on your feet to respond to the changing situation if you hope to reach your goal, whether it's landing 150,000 troops on the coast of France or coordinating the construction of a new transit system.
Of course, it takes a lot more than smart, quick-thinking project managers to make projects successful. It also requires a balanced combination of tools, training and organization. "At many state and local agencies, those things are sorely lacking," said Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management, a consultancy based in San Ramon, Calif. Still, state and local government agencies are beginning to ask for help. "We're dealing more and more with state and local agencies," Kapur said.
The Right Tool for the Job
Even managers with photographic memories need the right tools to track and manage the myriad details of a large project. And managers in state and local government agencies have a lot more tools to choose from than Eisenhower did. PC-based project managers help you track projects that can include thousands of tasks. You can set milestones so that you'll be alerted if things aren't getting done on time. You can schedule resources-people, equipment or facilities-and have the computer tell you if you've committed more resources than are available. And you can track the costs involved in completing projects.
"The bottom line is that the software keeps me from making mistakes in time assignments and resource assignments," said Gary Brooks, a project manager with the Yukon Territorial Government in White Horse, Canada. Brooks, who works in the government's information systems department, is using Scitor Corp.'s Project Scheduler 7 to manage the development of an online case-management system for the Ministry of Health and Social Services. It's a process that consists of 386 separate tasks, including the acquisition of hardware, the building of software and deployment of the system. "The most powerful thing about the program is assigning resources," Brooks said. "I'll run a report and suddenly notice that I've assigned a particular resource for 11 hours on a day. That wouldn't work."
The software also comes in handy for brainstorming "what-if" situations. "I can make a hypothetical change in one task or resource and see what impact it will have on the time line and overall costs," Brooks said. "And I can get results pretty much instantaneously. It makes it easy to plan changes without having a terrible impact."
Searching for the Grail
Desktop project management programs have become very powerful, but the bigger and more complex a project gets-and the more people it involves-the more likely the programs are to show their cracks. And the cracks generally involve communications with other departments or with people performing project tasks."We use Microsoft [Corp.'s] Project to manage bridge and road work," said Robert Ooley, an analyst with the Public Works Department, Santa Barbara, Calif. "But it's not a day- to-day program for us because it doesn't integrate well with Windows-based e-mail."
Ooley would like to be able to set up the program in such a way that when an engineer sits down to fill out a current activity form in Microsoft Team Manager, the information would be fed automatically into Project.
The demand for better integration doesn't stop there. "I'd like to have time card information fed into the project files so that we can track costs better," said Scott McGolpin, engineering section manager at Santa Barbara's Public Works Department. As it is, time cards are processed by a different department, and the engineering department can't access the data electronically. Despite the lack of integration, however, McGolpin is grateful for the time and effort that Project saves him. "Most of my training was in engineering school, where we put Gantt charts together by hand," he said. "It was great to jump into being able to do this electronically."
Integration is also a concern for Jeff Christiansen, the deputy executive officer for program management for Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). "I always talk about the Holy Grail of program control," said Christiansen, who oversees several multibillion-dollar transit projects at a time. "For me, that means linking cost, schedule estimating and change-control systems all into a single package."
Christiansen's department is overseeing the building of light and heavy rail systems. The work is currently broken into four main projects that involve about 30 schedulers, and all are using Primavera Systems Inc.'s Primavera Project Planner (P3) to track the work. Christiansen hasn't had to deal with the training issues many other managers face. "All our people have had heavy civil construction experience and heavy transit experience," he said. "And without exception, they all had Primavera experience. We didn't demand it, but they always had it. P3 is the same the world over. That's what's so great about it; it's easy to find people who are familiar with it."
With an organization as large and complex as the MTA, Christiansen puts a priority on integration with relevant data from other departments. To accommodate that level of integration, the district has written its own code to partially integrate P3 with its accounting, personnel and other systems. But the integration is far from complete. Christiansen figures that more complete integration will ultimately be provided by a smart contractor. "I've talked to several firms that are looking for an angle to get onto these larger contracts," he said. "A company that's able to bring in an integrated system and put these different pieces together with custom coding would have a real edge. It would certainly make me a happy camper."
Knowledge Is Power
Having the right tools, of course, is only part of the solution. Knowing how to use them is at least as important.
"The software tools are only helpful to those who know project management," Kapur warned. "For others, they are only a waste of shelf space." He said program managers have to understand concepts that include resource leveling and critical-path calculations. "Without knowing such things, all the software really does is help people print multicolored graphs," he said.
While there are some very capable project managers in government agencies, Kapur said, "Training is one of the more critical gaps at the state and local government level." Indeed, a survey of state officials conducted by Kapur's firm showed that only 7 percent reported having a well-designed program for developing project management skills.
Mike Cottrell-Tribes, a project manager at the Yukon Territorial Government, agreed. "Having the software take care of details leaves more time for managing, but we need more training for advanced project management," Cottrell-Tribes said. "I've learned what I have by trial and error, but that's the hard way."
One of the lessons learned is that project managers in the public sector have special challenges that those in the private sector may not face. "The biggest challenge for me is when I have the responsibility to deliver a project but I don't have any authority over the players," he said. "I get lent out to different departments to run a project. I'm in charge of the project, and my head is on the block, but I don't have control over the resources, so I constantly have to make sure the steering committee is on board. You learn certain tricks for motivating all the players."
That sentiment is echoed by Brooks. "If I was doing it over again, I'd want more training on people-management skills," he said. "How do I assess their skills and their applicability to the project? We've got lots of people out there with lots of different skills, but we've got to keep them pointed in the right direction. That's people management."
A Stitch in Time
Jim Johnston, a regional administrator for Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality, adds another caution for project managers: Don't fall behind.
Idaho was recently sued by a sportsmen's group that alleged Idaho was failing to live up to its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act. "They won, and the judge has told Idaho to get in compliance," Johnston said. "That means we have to test and prepare detailed reports on 962 streams, and it has to be done over the next eight years. This is a massive undertaking."
Johnston picked Scitor's Project Scheduler 7 for the job because he had worked with an earlier version of the product, and he knew it was capable of handling the large number of tasks the department faced and of managing multiple projects that shared resources. "We absolutely can't fall behind," he said. Accordingly, the department has sent 16 members of the staff to a three-day accelerated training course on Project Scheduler 7 to cut down on the learning time.
"The next hurdle is to take what we learned in the accelerated course and put together a schedule that defines the work that we have to accomplish," Johnston said. "The monthly updating on the 962 streams has to come from six locations into a central location. That means setting up read and write capabilities for different users. The mechanics of how we administer all this is a toughie, and we haven't worked it out just yet.
"Catch-up is always a tough game to play," Johnston said, "and we've got 25 years of catching up to do. It would have been a lot simpler if we'd been doing this all along."
-- Patrick Marshall is a senior technical analyst with the FCW Test Center. He can be reached at [email protected]
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The Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management
Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management, San Ramon, Calif., has helped hundreds of clients, including an increasing number of state and local government agencies, to improve their project-management capabilities. Over the past 24 years, he has distilled what he calls the "seven deadly sins" most likely to sink a project.
Sin No. 1: Mistaking half-baked ideas for viable projects. According to Kapur, this most often happens when there's a disconnect between the originator of an idea and the person who implements it.
"One of the things we teach our clients is that they need to understand intelligent disobedience vs. malicious compliance," he said. "Intelligent disobedience is when people are punished for speaking the truth." The smart executive encourages staff to speak their minds openly.
Sin No. 2: Dictating unrealistic project deadlines. Four things are critical to completing a project: schedule, functionality, cost and quality control. All of these have to be in balance. "Unfortunately," Kapur said, "many executives only understand the schedule element because it's the most measurable."
Sin No. 3: Assigning underskilled project managers to high-complexity projects. There's very little formal education of project managers, Kapur said, and that's especially true for public agencies. "Nobody is training anybody," he said. "These are babes in the woods."
Sin No. 4: Not ensuring solid business sponsorship. All projects must be owned by business people, not by information technology people. "Most business people run away from project management," Kapur said. "This is a very big sin for state and local agencies. Project managers generally don't have any political savvy, and there's so much politics in the agencies."
Sin No. 5: Failing to break projects into "chunks." "Most managers have not learned how to break projects down into manageable pieces," Kapur noted. "Chunking is not a technical problem. It's a management problem."
Sin No. 6: Failing to institute a robust project process architecture. Projects that fail tend to go from half-baked idea to execution in only a couple of days. "People start pouring concrete and hammering nails [and] then they wonder why they end up with a mystery house," Kapur observed. "Why don't the states get together and develop a standard process? They have the same types of problems. But I don't see a movement in that area."
Sin No. 7: Not establishing a comprehensive project portfolio. Does the airline tower know how many planes are on the ground, how many are taking off and how many are landing? At many state and local government agencies, there is no central coordination of projects.
"For each department, there should be a portfolio that shows what is their capacity and what is currently taking place," Kapur said. "I've never seen any agency do this. Instead, they have to scurry around for four or five days to find out where things are. That's pathetic. They should know."