Yesterday I introduced the first of six project management tips drawn from a list of baking advice I found in one of my favorite old references: a 1933 General Foods Cookbook called “All About Home Baking“. I use this list when teaching a series of workshops I call PM-101 to illustrate how effective project management is mostly about consistent application of plain common sense.
2. Use Good Tools. Using the right tools can make almost any endeavor run more smoothly. Our cookbook suggests that when you’re baking, good tools can:
- make the process easier and faster,
- increase accuracy and reduce mistakes,
- and yield more consistent & predictable results.
Panning in on Your Project: In baking, the appropriate utensils are obvious, but what tools will you need as the PM of a big change project? I recommend at least three:
- Planning Software: Consider using a good project planning package like MS Project to lay out your time line and communicate the dependency of activities. It can also show the critical path and alert you to areas where bottlenecks may cause trouble. MS Project can do a thousand other cool and complicated things, but these four are paramount.
- Use a balance sheet to track the budget and compare your cost performance to expectations. For novice PM’s, I recommend a simple spreadsheet that shows what has been spent in a given reporting cycle compared to the planned spending for that period. If you have this data, it’s a simple bit of math to calculate the total remaining budget and illustrate the cumulative spending compared to the cumulative expected costs as of a given date. There are many great Earned Value tracking tools that offer deeper insights – but be careful – this is an area where the value of the information may not warrant the work needed to collect it. Keep up on budget tracking at all costs (pun intended) because this is one of the easiest areas for team members to blur the numbers and cause you to get into big trouble with their sponsors.
- Track risks and issues using another simple spreadsheet or database. The PM should capture risks and issues as they surface and then track them to resolution. Make sure to note the risk/issue, who needs to be involved in settling it, any critical dates or dependencies and how it was eventually worked out.
Other Cool Tools… The three tools above are fairly basic and they can help you avoid some of the more common headaches that occur on change projects. A few more advanced tools you might want to consider include:
- The resource leveling features of MS Project and most other software packages allow you to track how much work is assigned to each person on your project and notice when they are so over-loaded that it begins to impact the overall schedule.
- Project portfolio tracking tools give you the ability to show how a set of inter-related projects are unfolding. Your company may want to shuffle priorities and balance resources across projects to optimize results at a more strategic level once you see this data.
- Cost and effort estimation tools allow you to identify parameters that describe the work elements of your project and use them to generate detailed time lines and resource plans. Tracking estimates against actual results can make future estimates more accurate.
- Integrated dashboards automatically draw status information from your project plans each time they are updated and roll it up into visual graphs and status indicators for accurate and timely progress reporting.
The Bottom Line on Tools: While there are tons of useful tools to help you manage your change initiative, there are only a few that are critical. Use good tools and you will avoid some of the real challenges that sink many projects. (like not knowing the true status of things…) One final hint: once you start using them, project management tools can eat up a lot of administrative time. Be sure to recognize what value the gizmos are generating and avoid spending more time on tools than you do on the actual work.
So… If you’ve ever eaten or served the results of a kitchen failure, you know how an accurate set of measuring cups and the right oven can make all the difference in the quality of the finished cake. So can the topic of tomorrow’s post: good ingredients.
Question for Chatter:
- What tools have you found to be most useful to the effective management of a change project?
- Where can we go to get good PM tools – especially on a tight budget?