A project could be something as relatively simple as designing a new kitchen, through to creating a new website to building your dream house. Or, it might even involve relocating an entire company overseas. Projects crop up in our personal life and in almost all areas of business and industry on a regular basis, but what makes for successful project management?
What determines the success or failure of all types of diverse projects, large and small, comes down to the same few key elements. There are, of course, many factors that vary between projects; not least of these are the people involved. Whether it is the client, various contractors or the project manager they will have different personal attributes. These can contribute positively or negatively to the success of the project. But the main areas that determine a genuinely successful project – the areas most likely to cause problems if not managed properly – are as follows:
The scope or requirements of any project must be fully defined at the outset and written down in full detail using unambiguous language. Every member of the project team must read and understand these requirements and also fully understand what has been specifically excluded. To ensure that everyone understands what is both in-scope and out-of-scope the requirements document should be reviewed together by the whole team before it is finalised. This is vitally important because if you don’t have a properly defined scope for your project then it can be difficult to avoid scope creep. And, whilst it is perfectly acceptable to allow for a minor amount of creep to exist within your project, it is important to make sure this is not too much.
What is scope creep?
Scope creep, which you might also see referred to as “feature creep” or “requirement creep” is used to define how the requirements of a project may increase over the course of its lifecycle. It is very easy for one deliverable to rapidly increase until you have five, or for the stakeholder to change the direction of the project partway through. Whilst a few minor tweaks might be fine for the budget and timescale of the project, the more things you allow to be added or amended the more likely it is that the project will overrun. This may mean going beyond the allotted timescale or going significantly over budget. This is a situation that needs to be avoided.
It is important to remember that whilst in a number of cases scope creep can be bad for a project there are also instances where scope creep can in fact be a good thing. Sometimes, it will lead the project to a better and more effective end. Sometimes change is all too inevitable as the needs of a customer can change along the way. A good project manager who has completed a project manager course expects scope creep to occur and ready to plan for it.
Once the requirements are fully documented, it is then possible to put together the project plan. There are many good project management planning tools available for complex business projects. But, for simple personal projects, a spreadsheet will usually suffice.
If, however, your project is more complex then you will want to consider project management software that is specifically designed for the task. This software ensures you can plan everything, share the information with all of the members of the team and allow everyone to update the software with any pertinent information and updates that they may have. As the project progresses, this will allow you to see exactly what is going on and where everyone is up to with their allotted tasks. This also means when your project team are spread out over a number of different sites, that everyone can feel included. It could also mean no information is lost; something that can happen very easily when you rely on emails as your form of communication for important information.
A project plan is simply a detailed list of tasks and who is responsible for each task with a set of milestones and dependencies. When every member of the project team has access to the project plan, they can see what each of them is working on. This also means that if a particular part of the plan is not going to plan and something is falling behind its allotted timescale that another team member may be able to help them with their task. That way they can ensure that the project does not go too far off track. This plan must be regularly updated to keep the project on track and manage any delays in the schedule.
It would be a very unusual project indeed if something did not go wrong at some stage during the project. So, if you can anticipate the potential risks before they occur then you may be able to prevent them from happening. Or, if you cannot prevent them, you may be able to better manage them because they have not taken anyone by surprise. Every project should have a contingency plan, or risk assessment, in place to deal with foreseeable risks.
A risk assessment should set out all of the potential issues that might occur with the project; these could be things like delays with a supplier, sudden unavoidable increases in prices or one of the team members being off sick for a while. They could also involve something not working as planned and having to revisit some of the previous steps of the project to work out what went wrong. Simply put, risks could involve anything that could have a determinantal implication for the budget, timescale or both of the project. Having some strategies in place to deal with these risks should they actually occur will make things much easier should the worst happen. Of course it isn’t always possible to plan for every eventuality, but a good project manager will try to ensure that they use their project management skills to ensure they have planned for as much as possible.
It is a common mistake to just hope the risks will not actually occur and therefore, not plan for them. But every type of project team should talk about likely problems at an early stage of the project. That way, they can suggest solutions for how they might be avoided. It is, of course, difficult to foresee every problem but many of them can be predicted.
A dependency is a package of work that needs to be completed fully by one individual or team before another piece of work (usually by another team member) can be started. Understanding in detail how and why the second task is dependent on the first task is critical to success. When a dependency breaks down and the first task is not completed (either satisfactorily or on time) this negatively impacts the next task. This could potentially affect further tasks or, indeed, the whole project.
For this reason, it is vital to fully document every known dependency at the project planning stage and to track them throughout the course of the project.
Of course, it is also important that all parties involved in a project understand what actually constitutes successful project management. There are 3 simple, yet crucial, elements that together determine the success or failure of any project – these are:
Although it may seem obvious that the cost of a project is a key element, in practice, costs can, and probably will, change during the course of a project. This will almost always be an increase in costs but if the reasons for the increase are understandable and could not have been predicted (so were not part of the contingency fund), then they may be acceptable to the client.
It may also be that a change in requirements has forced the increase. So, a project may not have stayed within its original budget but if the customer is happy with the revised budget, then this will not cause an issue. It is often the unexplained, spiralling costs that will cause problems in the relationship between client and contractors. Therefore, managing expectations is essential to avoid project failure.
By commencing a project with realistic costs and a realistic contingency included, it is more likely that adequate resources and a sufficient budget can be assigned at the outset.
As with the budget, time over-runs that could not have been anticipated and can be explained fully will often be acceptable to the client and will not lead to perceived project failure. But at all costs avoid modifying the schedule during the project in order to create the appearance of being on target. This common approach will undoubtedly lead to greater problems further along in the schedule. The key thing to remember in any project is that communication is essential. A stakeholder is more likely to be amenable to changes and delays in the project if you keep them in the loop as things progress. Otherwise, telling them nearer to the end that you are over budget or not likely to finish on time could come as a very nasty suprise.
Defining project lifecycle
Typically “project life cycle” or “project” creates the idea of something that is more of a defined effort. This might be as a result of a problem that needs to be responded to, a need or even an internal opportunity, and more often than not it gives the point where the assignment of a project manager to the project is made.
There are a number of different ways in which this effort can be formally launched (project initiation) and these are followed by essential planning activities (project planning). Once the project planning has been completed it is down to the project team to discuss the various tasks that make up the project (project execution).
Once all of these stages have been undertaken it is time for any of the key project deliverables to be handed off to anyone else who is involved in the project. This might be the customer, the stakeholder or a user group. This action will bring all of the project work to a conclusion. This life cycle for the project is important for many companies as it gives them the boundaries of involvement that apply to the project manager and the community of project management as a whole.
Each project life cycle will be defined by a set number of activities and a period of time that occur before the project. There are also similar activities that take place at the end of every project. It is these three distinct periods of time and activities that make up the overall project life cycle.
It is vital if a project is to be perceived as successful that the end result lives up to the expectations of the client. All too often the contractors and/or project manager view the project as a success because it has been completed on budget and on time. But the customer or client might be disappointed with the end result, and it has not fulfilled their requirements fully. This stalemate situation can be avoided if the requirements and assumptions are not only fully documented but also clearly explained to the client during the early stages of the project as well as at key milestones along the way.
Regular and frank communication between client and contractor will help to ensure that the expectations of all concerned are managed and understood fully.
Managing projects to a successful conclusion can be relatively easy for simple, personal projects, but the majority of projects undertaken commercially involve a far greater degree of complexity, larger teams and more stakeholders. It is always advisable to ensure that those assigned as project managers in these more complex situations have received the proper project management training. An appropriate course leading to a recognised project management qualification will teach proven ways to manage all aspects of a complex project and ensure a successful outcome is much more likely. A formal, controlled approach is particularly necessary when undertaking global projects with all the additional complexities they entail.