Project Management in a Nutshell

It's a nutshell

Acorn in a nutshell

Last week I ran a 3 hour workshop for researchers entitled “Project Management in a Nutshell”. This is a variation of a workshop that I have delivered to a number of different audiences. The problem for me is that project management is littered with jargon that makes it seem very daunting to the uninitiated. Add to this you have very complicated-sounding schemes like PRINCE2 which just fuel the mystique!

The reality is that PRINCE2 is a methodology, a process-driven mechanism which does little to inform anyone of the basic principles of good project management, it’s a bit like trying to follow a recipe from a gourmet chef without any basic cooking skills. So my focus for this workshop was to de-mystify some of the language and to concentrate on the important fundamental elements.

The slides I used are embedded below.

Some basic hints and tips then:

  1. Know who your stakeholders are, what they want and how to manage them. Unless you meet their needs and expectations, the project won’t be successful.
  2. Define the scope and get it agreed up front. This sets the boundaries of the project, what you will do and (more importantly) what you will NOT do. The most common reason for projects to be late, over budget or below par on quality is because someone changes the scope part way through.
  3. Once you have a scope, you have to break down what needs to be done into small enough chunks so that it can be monitored – need to be thorough here, no room for being vague
  4. When all the tasks are worked out then it’s time to take stock and ask the question, what could possibly go wrong? In other words conduct a risk assessment on your project, how likely is it to go wrong and what impact will it have. If both likely to go wrong and completely de-rail things, then it’s time for a plan B!
  5. Having said that, it’s perfectly acceptable to entertain some risk in a project – without risk there is no innovation
  6. A plan is a plan, it is not a fixed thing but it helps you to keep on top of where things are. Important as the project manager to have the oversight, don’t let others change the plan without discussion.
  7. Plans can and do change, it is almost a certainty in research that things will deviate from the original course in some way or other but this means you have to be alive to when things aren’t going well at the earliest opportunity so you have the opportunity to do something about it before it gets too late or just darn stressful!
  8. The type of planning/monitoring tool is not really important as long as you have a robust method, it’s the principle that matters more.

So there’s a few snippets to be going on with, what are your experiences of managing projects? Do they fit the above principles?

To close the session I showed the participants this simple tale about getting things done… works well for the PhD process I think!

Project Management in a Nutshell

PM in a nutshell

It's a nutshell

It’s a nutshell

Recently we ran our regular half-day workshop for researchers on “Project Management in a Nutshell”. The purpose of this workshop is to de-mystify some of the jargon which surrounds project management, and to consider some practical ideas for managing your project, be it a PhD or other research project. The discussion was very wide-ranging, so I’ll just summarise what I think were the key points:

Know who your stakeholders (the people and organisations who have some kind of interest in your project) are, and be aware of their expectations. We talked a lot about what happens when there’s conflict between the interests of different stakeholders, and between stakeholders’ expectations and how the project is actually developing. While there are no easy answers here, early recognition and honest communication are invariably key to resolving any issues.

The importance of planning. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start.

Project constraints. In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited money, time, academic freedom etc. But realistically there will be some constraints, so be aware of them and plan your project accordingly

Breaking it down into manageable, measureable chunks.

Risk awareness. What might stop you from completing your project? What’s your Plan B?

Project planning tools. Most of us are (too?) familiar with the ubiquitous GANTT chart, but there are lots of other planning tools out there. We particularly talked about PERT charts, which factor in time and allow you to identify your critical task pathways. It really doesn’t matter how high or low-tech your planning tool is – a simple list on a piece of paper can be just as effective – whatever works for you.

Review progress as you go along, keep your plan updated and your stakeholders in the loop as things develop.

Most of all, be honest with yourself and your stakeholders about how the project is going.

On this final point, we talked about the fact that ‘honesty’ is socially and culturally constructed, which can be a particular challenge for international colleagues who find themselves baffled by the nuances of British work-culture. In particular, the fact that direct challenges are generally taboo and that weasel word “nice” which can mean pretty much anything. I can recommend no better reading on this subject than Kate Fox’s funny, astute book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005).

Here are the slides: