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Project Management – Which method? (#3 in the series Project Management Guide)
By Lasa Information Systems Team

There are lots of different project management methodologies available, each touted by its supplier as having some special magic ingredient or suitability to your project. But when you look at the different systems it quickly becomes apparent that they are all variations on the same theme and have a lot in common.

The same basic principles apply whichever system you use. The issue isn’t so much the system you use but how well you apply it.

Many project management systems are proprietary. Project management consultants sell them as a package of services that will include training sessions and consultancy alongside documentation that will include templates and guidance notes. These packages don’t come cheap, costing hundreds if not thousands of pounds. But this approach may be a cost effective solution for larger organisations that want to set up a structure to manage a number of projects.

In effect you’re paying to set up a framework that will include training for staff, plus consultancy and support to manage projects within your organisation. If your organisation is new to formal project management this approach may be the best way to get staff up to speed and to implement a standard approach to project management across the organisation. In selecting such a package you will need to be sure that the approach is appropriate for the scale of your projects, and that the style of the company meets your needs. Will their training style suit your staff? Will you be happy to work with their consultants? Smaller organisations will face the same issue on a smaller scale. Can you find a book or manuals at a reasonable cost, and is training available? Don’t underestimate the importance of training and support. A new methodology can be a challenge: good quality training and the availability of support can make all the difference.

PRINCE2

PRINCE2 has been adopted as standard by government, and its use is mandatory for most central and local government projects. This means that it is effectively non-proprietary in that you can buy the system (or a cheaper introduction) from the Stationery Office without a requirement to buy training or consultancy. The full PRINCE2 manual still costs hundreds of pounds and training is certainly advisable, but its availability and wide use by government mean that it is worth looking at. Indeed if you’re involved in a project with partners from the statutory sector you may find that the use of PRINCE2 is a requirement for the project.

Pros and cons

PRINCE2 is a heavy-duty system and is used to run large projects. It is therefore comprehensive, but also verbose and bureaucratic. This makes it somewhat intimidating, but it still has some advantages.

  • It has reached version two, which means it is tried and tested and is internally consistent.
  • It is readily available. You can buy PRINCE2 materials from the Stationery Office and you don’t have to get tied into an expensive package of training and support.
  • It is widely used particularly in government bodies.

The all encompassing nature of PRINCE2 is an issue: it is common to hear experienced project managers talk of using PRINCE2 “sensibly” or “with a light touch”; that is using the PRINCE2 framework and templates but not following every last detail of the system.

We tried to adopt that approach here. We’ve used PRINCE2 as the basis of our examples and templates because it is readily available. But we’ve tried to keep it simple, and have made some changes of emphasis to reflect the needs of not-for-profit organisations. We are not recommending PRINCE2 as the best system for voluntary organisations, just using it as an example of an established project management system.

The choice of project management methodology is less important than the way it is applied. Indeed any project management system will be better than none at all. The advocates of the different systems all claim some special strength to distinguish their system from their rivals, but in truth there is no magic bullet. The different systems have much in common and none of them will manage the project for you. They provide a framework, but the success of a project depends on the skills and intelligence of the people running it.

Do formal methods kill creativity?

Project management systems with their checklists and templates, processes and procedures reek of rigidity and bureaucracy. PRINCE2 evolved to meet the need of large government departments and shows its bureaucratic origins.

Project management systems clearly reflect senior managers’ desire to keep control of projects and there’s more than a hint of ‘painting by numbers’, as if success can be guaranteed if staff use approved templates and follow set procedures. Successful projects depend on good ideas, a genuine connection with user need, passion, dynamism, and competent people.

To succeed, a successful project needs much more than a cookbook approach, particularly where innovation is required. But sound techniques are needed even in the most creative project. Project management methods provide useful tools and techniques that represent accumulated best practice. How you to choose to apply them is up to you, but they are too useful to ignore.

Small projects

Project management is a necessity for big projects that involve large teams perhaps working separately on different parts of the project. In this context, clear documentation and sound communication are essential if everyone involved in the project is to work together effectively.

On a smaller project, involving perhaps two or three people, formal project management is less essential. In a small team, communication can take place more informally, especially if the team members work closely together. Agreement on objectives and the scheduling of work can all be done informally. But small projects can still go wrong. Communications can break down, things can get forgotten, and objectives can be subtly redefined especially where there are staff changes.

Project management systems can help even on the smallest project. Their templates provide useful checklists for any project; their procedures encourage good communications, and their structures provide accountability. The issue for smaller projects is to make use of project management techniques at an appropriate level.

It makes little sense to produce copious documentation on a tiny project; the effort has to be justifiable by the result.

The test must be: is it useful? A project definition document may appear bureaucratic but it will help you clarify ideas and will improve communication and accountability. A project schedule will help you plan ahead and allocate resources. A clear statement of what the project will produce will help you communicate your needs to suppliers.

If project management techniques make for a successful project, no matter how small, it is worth the extra effort.

Lasa Information Systems Team provides a range of services to community and voluntary organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST is responsible for maintaining the ICT Hub Knowledgebase.

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