Friday, December 08, 2006

Project Management for the Professionals - Planning the Project

This post continues our series on project management. A list of of posts to date in the series can be found at the end of the post.

Having defined the project, we can now proceed to detailed planning. This means listing in detail what is required to successfully complete the project along the three critical dimensions of quality, time and cost. As before, steps are likely to be carried out on an iterative basis.

From a consulting perspective, the project brief represents stage one, whereas the proposal covers stage two. Again from a consulting perspective, the central point is never assume that the first stage has in fact been done properly. This is rarely the case.

Overview of Steps Involved

Key planning steps are:

a. establish the project objective.

b. choose a basic strategy for achieving the objective.

In practice, both a. and b. should have been established during the first phase. The objective now is to test and extend them.

c. break the project down into sub units or steps, specifying the relationships between the sub units.

d. determine the performance standards for each sub unit.

e. determine the time required to complete each sub unit.

f. determine the proper sequence for completing the sub units and aggregate this information into a schedule for the total project.

The degree of difficulty in steps c. through f. rises exponentially with the size and complexity of the project. Past a certain point, project management software is required if the project is to be expressed and managed in any meaningful way.

In most cases, such software is not required. However, in all cases simple graphical techniques such as GANTT charts and flow diagrams can be used to help project planning.

Flow diagrams simply express the relationships between the different elements in pictorial form. A Gantt Chart is a horizontal bar chart that graphically displays the time relationship of the steps in a project. Each step of a project is represented by a line placed on the chart in the time period when it is to be undertaken. When completed, the Gantt chart shows the flow of activities in sequence as well as those that can be underway at the same time.

g. determine the resource and financial requirements for each sub unit and aggregate costs into the project budget. Typical cost components are:

  • Labour
  • Overhead
  • Communications
  • Travel and Accommodation
  • Materials
  • Supplies
  • Equipment Rental
  • General and Administrative
  • Profit (if applicable).

So long as activities have been specified precisely, most input costs can be reasonably well defined. The usual exception is time. For a variety of reasons, time inputs are always underestimated. As a rough rule of thumb, initial time estimates by an in-experienced person can usually be multiplied by three to gain an estimate of total time outcomes. With an experienced estimator, a 1.5 multiplier usually provides a reasonable guide.

Development of budgets often forces project revision. The first budget estimates are often called the base line budget and are then used as a base for subsequent revisions not just of costing, but of basic project structures themselves.

h. design the necessary staff organisation, including the number and kind of positions and the dates and responsibilities of each.

i. determine what training, if any, is required for project team members.

j. develop the necessary policies and procedures.

k. develop the project plan as the basic planning document. This should specify outputs and outcomes, define activities clearly, specify the relationships between activities, and define the implementation path together with relevant budget information.

The steps described to this point are generally applicable to all environments. However, some additional features do come into play in a consulting environment.

Proposals and Project Plans

In general, the proposal to the client sets out our understanding of the brief (project definition) and the way we propose to meet the client's requirements (project planning). The proposal in combination with the brief are therefore critical project documents.

The proposal now needs to be turned into a project plan. In general, this is done once we know that we have been awarded the contract.

Where the proposal is very detailed, the transformation into project plan is relatively easy. However, where (as is often the case) the proposal has been prepared under pressure, development of the plan may involve significant additional work.

Preparation of the brief plan may reveal weaknesses in the proposed approach requiring corrective action. If significant, these may need to be agreed with the client during contract negotiation.

Again depending upon the form of the proposal and brief, task descriptions will need to be prepared. These should define outcomes, timing, relationships with other tasks and allocate responsibilities. The task descriptions form the basis for contractual arrangements with various participants in the project team.

Once prepared, contractual arrangements within the team (responsibilities, payment terms etc) should be agreed, subject to any revisions as a consequence of contract negotiations with the client.

The last stages in the planning process are to agree final specifications with the client and negotiate the required contract.

During contract negotiation either we or the client may suggest variations to the approach contained in the proposal. Care must be exercised here. In the euphoria of winning the contract, variations can be suggested and agreed too which may subsequently create real financial or performance difficulties.

All variations must therefore be clearly identified, their project implications specified, and any necessary changes made to the project documentation.

Previous Posts in this Series

Note on Copyright

Material in this series is drawn from the Ndarala Group Short Guide to Project Management. The material is copyright Ndarala but may be reproduced and quoted with due acknowledgment.

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