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A simple guide to project management

Posted by on August 25, 2016

By Dr Cliff Collis FRSB, former professional registers and training manager at the Royal Society of Biology, and a specialist in communication for scientists.
Dr Collis is running an Introduction to Project Management Workshop at the RSB on Monday 19th September.

Project management is very different from staff management. Project management needs an eye for detail while not losing the big picture, keeping close to the plan while being ready to change if necessary.  Nothing is more frustrating than a project going awry, but nothing is more rewarding than a project with a successful conclusion.

A project has expected outcomes within specified constrains, e.g. budget and timelines. It involves identifying what must be done, what would be nice to do, what is really unnecessary – you can’t do everything. You must decide how best to achieve success.

All it requires is a little logical and common sense, of the sort used every day to organise our lives.

Project management goes through clear stages:

1. Getting Started – Defining the project

Projects are to meet new needs and bring new benefits. Having a clear idea of what these are and how to meet them is crucial, having only vague ideas of what is needed, leads to poor planning and a nightmare project.

You need a clearly articulated goal and realistic objectives showing how to achieve it.

2. Planning the Project – What to do and how to do it

Planning involves a definition of deliverables, who will do what, with whom, how, when and at what cost.

One useful metric relationship is the on time, within budget and expected quality triangle. If one of these changes, it will affect the others.

Planning is the first ‘guestimate’ of the budget – can you afford it, will the benefits pay for themselves? You should be realistic and although there are unknowns you should try for an accuracy of 20-25%.

You also need a credible timeline, identifying those activities that can be done in parallel and those that follow in sequence, in particular critical path activities where delays will impact the timeline and end date.

You should identify and prioritise stakeholders, develop a communication plan – who will communicate with whom, when, about what and how. What is best, an email giving people time to respond and provide a record, or a phone call for a more personal relationship? You need a risk assessment and contingency planning to minimise potential points of failure.

Proper planning, a robust budget and project schedule are important for success.

3. Implementing the Project – keeping on track, dealing with issues

Once started keep to the plan as closely as possible, but be ready to make changes if needed. You are responsible for monitoring the project; measuring and controlling its progress, keeping it on track, on time and on budget, and manage issues that occur. Avoid scope creep – adding unplanned work. Accurate tracking is essential!

Regular and effective communication with stakeholders and successful team meetings prevent misunderstandings and disagreement. Regular team meetings with progress updates and issue discussion are essential, you must know what you want to achieve at each meeting to ensure proper progress.

Implementation is where you really need to have one eye on the details and the other on the big picture.

Closing the project – A Time to Celebrate

A proper closure team meeting is an excellent opportunity to evaluate the project; what went well – congratulations, what didn’t, how can you solve similar problems next time, any useful future projects?

Proper project closure enables a suitable psychological ending for the team, so they can usefully carry the experience to their next project, and finally to celebrate, to say ‘thank you, well done’ so they can happily move on and want to work with you again!

Nothing is more gratifying than a successful project and a happy team in spite of any difficulties that arose!

Dr Collis is running an Introduction to Project Management Workshop at the RSB on Monday 19th September.

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