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Working Towards Success: How to Keep the Project Afloat
By André Augusto Choma

To keep the project ‘afloat’ isn’t, certainly, an easy job. It requires extraordinary dedication from the project manager and his/her team; and success comes much more because of competence than chance. And that’s why, to succeed, the project manager’s attitude is an essential element in keeping the team constantly mobilized to deal with these risks. The project manager can’t prevent a storm from hitting his project, but he can anticipate its consequences, and in that way, prepare his/her team to withstand it.

How then, do we face the previously identified risks?

a) The generic scope: never think that defining the scope with the client is a waste of time! The scope is the starting point for all project “time and cost” estimates; the client will check all deliverables and accept the final outcome only once he has matched them against the original project scope. USE TIME to detail the scope and align expectations with the client and, whenever it’s possible, involve the most experienced technicians on your team. Determining a precise scope is the first step towards success!

b) Don’t plan, just wait for the changes: going directly to execution without planning adequately is working towards failure! Changes will definitely happen; therefore there is nothing better than defining processes by which the changes can be managed, as seen in the Perform Integrated Change Control process from the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide – PMI, 2008).

Projects With Good Execution Planning

Figure 1 – Capital projects without a good project execution planning tend to have more costly changes
Source: Industry Benchmarking Consortium 1999

A research developed by the Independent Project Analysis shows that projects without a good planning are more likely to have more costly changes (Tapia, 1999, p. 46), as shown on the Figure 1. The impacts that can result from a change request are evaluated based on the project plan; without a good plan to support this evaluation, wrong decisions can and often will be made. Without planning, the project loses its course, and a ship without a course is almost guaranteed to NOT reach its final destination!

c) Avoid communicating with the client: some clients involve themselves too much in the project execution, and sometimes it causes difficulties in the project manager’s work. But, even so, it is fundamental to be on friendly terms with the client. The project manager must understand the needs of the client and his company, and therefore, needs to establish good communication channels and to work as the client’s partner. A distrustful, meddling or undecided client can be hard to handle for a project manager, but keeping such a client distant will be even harder.

d) Not documenting the changes: not documenting the project changes is like driving the ship directly into an iceberg! All alterations must pass through an impact evaluation before getting (or not getting) the approval of the right people. Sometimes, after all the changes, the product delivered by the team can be significantly different from the one defined in the first version of the scope. If the project manager doesn’t update the plan along with the project execution, the final result will certainly be disastrous! Think about this situation: the changes weren’t documented, then the client refuses to accept the final product, based on the original scope. Where is the team left?

e) Adding extras to the contract: how many times have you heard that “Gold Plating” can be extremely damaging to the project? The client is anxiously waiting for you to deliver what’s in the contract and nothing beyond what’s in the contract. And to deliver that, within the desired time and cost, with the desired quality, is a great accomplishment! Significant changes to the project scope during execution can have huge impacts on project cost and schedule. According to Tapia (2001, p. 63), the schedule slip in capital projects, for example, is significantly influenced by project changes, as shown on the Figure 2.

Schedule Vs. Cost of Change

Figure 2 – The schedule slip in capital projects is higher when costly changes happen during execution
Source: Industry Benchmarking Consortium 2001

The proportion of project failures is high, so worry about executing exactly what was contracted. According to Tomczyk (2005), Gold Plating leads to scope creep, which may make it difficult or impossible to reach your project goals.

f) Not creating a risk response plan: this paper is about risk management! And I believe that you must have identified at least one of the ten risks listed as one of the “potential threats” to your current project. Or, possibly, you have suffered from the impact caused by one of them. It’s certain that we can’t predict or eliminate 100% of the risks from our projects, but waiting for luck to save us is like blindly navigating in an unknown ocean. The knowledge, hard work and wide vision all will be useless if the project manager doesn’t have the right attitude in leading his/her team in risk prevention. Risk management has a great value for all kinds of projects, and there are many tools that can help a project team act preventively. As show on the Figure 3, according to Giguere and Merrow (2007, p. 16), when no risk analysis or mitigation techniques are used, the execution schedule is frequently longer in capital projects, compared to projects that used some risk response techniques.

Executions Schedules Are Shorter When Risk Analysis Is Used

Figure 3 – The execution schedule is longer in capital projects when project teams do not perform a risk analysis
Source: Industry Benchmarking Consortium 2007

g) The concern with Quality: how can you correct a problem in the structure of a building, using just the final coat of paint? How can you guarantee the correct performance of software in its alpha test, if it was badly conceived? Do you still think it’s possible to correct defects only in the product’s final stages? All products must have their quality plans, and the achieved results must be compared to the plan at every milestone. The client will only be satisfied if he receives the project’s final product in conformance with the requirements. It’s also important to remember that, beyond taking care of the quality of the product, the manager is also responsible for the quality of the project management, meaning that the project must comply with what was planned.

h) Documentation vs Bureaucracy: not documenting the assumptions made in planning, the execution issues or the controlling actions of the project is like not following (and checking) the course of the ship during its voyage. How could you make a corrective action without making a project performance evaluation? How would you make a change without the formal approval of the client? Documentation is necessary to the success of the project, and must be treated seriously. Don’t forget about your “On Board Diary”, because, if conflicts occur during the project, only what was signed for will be valid.

i) Overtime: some extra effort is always necessary during project execution, be it because of a more stressed working environment, or because of over time work necessary before the most important deliverables. However, using overtime systematically during the whole project can be very damaging to the team. The natural exhaustion caused by excess work will decrease productivity, contribute to quality problems and put an end to the team’s motivation. For example: according to Merrow (2002, p.36), researches developed by the Independent Project Analysis shows that in a work week of 75 hours, the labor productivity in capital projects decreases around 14 percent compared to the normal wok week of 40 hours; as shown on the Figure 4.

Productivity vs. Work Hours

Figure 4 – The relationship between the use of overtime and poor productivity in capital projects
Source: Industry Benchmarking Consortium 2002

Never use overtime as a planned solution, that is, don’t consider that the team will continuously work beyond normal hours to finish the project in a tightly timed schedule. Consider instead an increase to the project team if necessary.

j) Getting rid of the paperwork at the end of a project: do you think that the documentation has no value at the end of a project? Don’t you want to take advantage of the lessons learned? The documentation collected during project execution is of great value to your company and its professionals. Past task execution data, and cost and risk information, are some of the best study materials a project manager can be lucky enough to get his/her hands on! Create a system for keeping the documentation organized throughout the whole project, thus making future consultations easy. This information is the starting point for continuous improvement!

Conclusion

Risk occurrence is common during project execution, no matter the size or the complexity of the project. To prevent risks from sinking the project, it’s essential for the project manager and his/her team to be aware of all the potential risk situations. Many risks are common to many types of projects, and many are caused by the lack of knowledge of the project manager or by not adhering to the best management practices. Therefore, it’s up to the project manager to command the team and to establish preventive procedures in order to keep his/her project “sailing along” on its way.

Andre Augusto Choma, PMP – Brazil (achoma@ipaglobal.com)

André is a qualified Civil Engineer, with post graduation studies in Construction Management. His professional experience encompasses Industry Construction, Government and IT Projects, consulting (including strategic planning and portfolio management) and training.

André is a Project Analyst at IPA (Independent Project Analysis) Latin America, Brazil, and the author of “How to Manage Construction Contracts With Contractors” (www.gestaodeempreiteiros.com.br), and has been a speaker in many Project Management Conferences around the world.

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