Sunday, 17 August 2014

People and plans: the key to successful project management.

I have led and been involved in several projects over the years and despite having no particular skills in this they all, generally, seem to have worked out okay. However, I thought it is high time I do something a little more professional than winging it and so decided to attend a course.

Luckily, my workplace was holding a two day course delivered by Metice Development Solutions. There were ten people in attendance with objectives ranging from gaining more confidence to tips on keeping to time. My objective was to get as many practical tips as possible so I was expecting lots of Gantt charts and other project related paraphernalia that I had heard about but had never got round to using

A project, according to Alan Reynolds our instructor, can be defined as “a series of interrelated activities undertaken to achieve a specific end result within a set time-frame” and usually contains the features listed below:

  • A start and end point
  • A specific projected goal or objective
  • Linked interrelated activities
  • A team  of people
  • Involves change

And the key to a successful project is:

  • A clear plan - to keep everyone on track
  • Context – all project participants should understand how their roles and responsibilities fit in to the bigger picture
  • Contingencies – have these in place for when plans go awry
  • Appropriate reporting – this should be in place to check that everyone is keeping to time with the plan
  • Enough people (and with different skillsets) to do the job to prevent overloading
  • Enough budget
  • Alignment with the organisation’s objectives

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  The main message that came out of this two day session was that this IS the easy part and that project management is not so much about Gantt charts but much more about relationships and the power to influence. So to run a successful project, the manager of it needs to have the following skills:

  • Leadership
  • Organisational
  • Communication
  • Motivational
  • Ability to model best practice
  • Strategic thinking/an overview
  • Delegation - Ability to identify skills & match those with people
  • Perseverance
  • Positive attitude
  • Knowledge of reasons for project
  • Knowledge of key people to contact
  • Promotes strong team building
  • Resilience i.e. can be calm under pressure

For a project to be successful everyone needs to be moving in the same direction.  From FlickrCC.

Preventing milestones from turning into millstones
A point raised during one of the many group activities was about the necessity of milestones and we agreed that they are important as they break down the main task into manageable chunks, provide an opportunity to review progress while also offering a sense of achievement.

To make the milestones work for everybody they should be specific, measurable and with deadlines. They must also be agreed upon by everyone in the project team. Last but not least, they should be the right number, size and frequency for the project – too few and the project may run off course, too many (or too large) and they become unrealistic and turn into millstones.

Situational leadership
Because of this emphasis on leadership skills we spent a significant part of the workshop looking at the Hershey and Blanchard model of situational leadership.  Their theory being that the style of leadership depends on whereabouts in the situation you are, for example, a new group needs information and clear direction whereas an experienced team require trust rather than micromanaging.
According to Hersey and Blanchard, there are four main leadership styles:

  • Telling (S1) – Leaders tell their people what to do and how to do it.
  • Selling (S2) – Leaders provide information and direction, but there's more communication with followers. Leaders "sell" their message to get people on board.
  • Participating (S3) – Leaders focus more on the relationship and less on direction. The leader works with the team, and shares decision-making responsibilities.
  • Delegating (S4) – Leaders pass most of the responsibility onto the follower or group. The leaders still monitor progress, but they're less involved in decisions.

We filled in a questionnaire to identify our leadership style in this context and according to the results I tend to use a mixture of S2 and S3 styles. I think this is generally because in the projects I’ve been involved in I haven’t been anyone’s line manager. Neither have I been tasked with getting other people to complete the project as it’s been much more of a team effort.
Day 2 of the workshop was even more focused on practical exercises and we started by identifying the lifespan of a project, namely:

  • Project definition – checking the scope and how it aligns with organisational strategy and departmental goals
  • Analysis and exploration – asking all the big questions such as who’s needed, what needs to be risk assessed etc
  • Planning the project - very similar to analysis and exploration but in much more detail
  • Implementation – putting all the plans into action at the scheduled time
  • Review – producing a clear, transparent report suitable for external and internal parties with outcomes and recommendations for future opportunities

Final conclusions
Halfway through this workshop I had misgivings as we seemed to be primarily focused on people management and leadership. While it is always an interesting topic, I didn’t feel it was what I had signed up for. However, as the workshop progressed and we incorporated the practical elements of planning into the theoretical elements of relationship building it all started to mesh together into a worthwhile exercise.

Ultimately, what I learned is that while it's important to have a plan and it's important to have people and leadership skills, it's absolutely vital that the project manager uses both of these equally and simultaneously to be successful.

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