Jan. 20, 2010 - Projects and Management
One of my current clients is working on a large project, a community service program which has the enviable characteristics of being not only helpful to the public it intends to serve, but also very appealing to the members who will be sponsoring the effort. As a result, this organization is besieged by offers of assistance. The project itself seems to be taking on giant proportions, outgrowing its original clothing at a dizzying rate.
It's a happy phenomenon, of course—but also one that is dreaded by association managers: suddenly a bright idea becomes a fast-burning wildfire which is sweeping the forest and threatening your carefully tended garden of planned activities and programmed resources.
That's the case with my client. And the question we are working through basically involves imposing the discipline of careful project management. There's no secret to good project management, by the way, but there are some learned control techniques, and these are applicable to every project, from the smallest committee meeting to a high-impact event of magnificent proportions.
The first step is to carefully define the project. That sounds simple, but in reality this is the first point of major failure in any given program. All participants come to a project design meeting with a different vision in their heads: the Christmas party is a five-course dinner, a cocktail party, a potluck. My advice to the manager: start with a blank slate, and then write a contract for what the project will be. I'd suggest you go through the actual physical exercise of writing down everything that would appear in a contract between you and your employers/directors: specific results you and your team will be expected to produce—how many you will serve, location, food, parking, invited guests, results (attendees will have fun, raise funds for charity, install officers and get enthused about the coming year, and so on). You really can't begin to plan the strategies until you have clearly defined--and agreed upon—the outcome.
In the case of my current client and her project, that's our first problem. There's no real definition that everyone can embrace.
Take time with this step: again, most of the failures in a project result from lack of care in articulating the expectations and making sure that key stakeholders share the vision.
Once the project has been defined, then the operaltional structure can be built. A clearly identified project will suggest the right action plan. In the case of the Christmas party example, the work areas might include publicity, logistics, entertainment—you know the drill. Design a breakdown structure for your project, a series of activities. Make the action steps small enough to be benchmarked and managed.
The third step is to allocate the tasks to your team members and order the actions so they can be performed in a sensible sequence. With more complicated projects this can be a complex task, and there are software programs designed to assist you. Again: keep the results in mind, and the outcome on target.
On method of staying on track is to establish controls early in the planning. One control will be allocation of resources: staff and volunteer time, and money. Another milestone will be the time sequence, a clear definition of when recognizable tasks will have been completed (“the Christmas party invitations will be sent out on November 15th”).
And finally (and most importantly and often most ignored) is the communication structure you will use to make sure that all members of the team are fully informed of progress. Even for the most limited projects, the reporting is important: it encourages enthusiasm, responsibility and a sense of progress, and it identifies the times when your milestones may have become millstones. Be clear on your project communication structure (“we'll have a report on your progress every Monday at 9 AM”).
Of course we all know managers who are so intrigued by the process that they overburden everyone with meetings to check on the progress, so be mindful of the balance between reporting and action.
And finally, plan for failure. One of Judith's first laws of association management is “Always have a Plan B.” What will we do if there's an ice storm and no-one comes to the party? Or if the guest speaker is snowed in and can't install the officers? Or, as in the case of my current client, the funding doesn't come through from the major sponsor? How will we cope and what will we do?
Behind every successful project—no matter how large or small-- is good, solid project management, and at the heart of every management structure is the careful definition of the expectations everyone has for the results.
“Ok,” I say to my client. “Let's go through this once again. How many people do you intend to serve with this your public service project? And over what period of time? And your three-year budget for the program will be? And...”
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Projects and Management : Off Stage