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What Your Turkey Can Teach You About Project Management

The problem with project management is that everyone thinks it’s boring. Well, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that everyone thinks it’s boring but it’s still really important. Project management is what lets you deliver your art – whether that be design or development.

In the same way, a Christmas dinner cooked by a brilliant chef with no organizational skills is disastrous – courses arrive in the wrong order, some things are cold whilst others are raw and generally it’s a trip to the ER waiting to happen. Continuing the Christmas dinner theme, here are my top tips for successful projects, wrapped up in a nice little festive analogy. Enjoy!

Tip 1: Know What You’re Aiming For

(Turkey? Ham? Both??)

The underlying cause for the failure of so many projects is mismatched expectations. Christmas dinner cannot be a success if you serve glazed ham and your guests view turkey as the essential Christmas dinner ingredient. It doesn’t matter how delicious and well executed your glazed ham is, it’s still fundamentally just not turkey. You might win one or two adventurous souls over, but the rest will go home disappointed.

Add to the mix the fact that most web design projects are nowhere near as emotive as Christmas dinner (trust me, a ham vs turkey debate will rage much longer than a fixed vs fluid debate in normal human circles) and the problem is compounded. In particular, as technologists, we forget that our ability to precisely imagine the outcome of a project, be it a website, a piece of software, or similar, is much more keenly developed than the average customer of such projects.

So what’s the solution? Get very clear, from the very beginning, on exactly what the project is about. What are you trying to achieve? How will you measure success? Is the presence of turkey a critical success factor?

Summarize all this information in some form of document (in PM-speak, it’s called a Project Initiation Document typically). Ideally, get the people who are the real decision makers to sign their agreement to that summary in their own blood. Well, you get the picture, I suppose actual blood is not strictly necessary, but a bit of gothic music to set the tone can be useful!

Tip 2: Plan at the Right Level of Detail

Hugely detailed and useless Gantt charts are a personal bugbear of mine. For any project, you should plan at the appropriate level of detail (and in an appropriate format) for the project itself. In our Christmas dinner example, it may be perfectly fine to have a list of tasks for the preparation work, but for the intricate interplay of oven availability and cooking times, something more complex is usually due. Having cooked roast dinners for fourteen in a student house where only the top oven and two of the rings on the hob actually worked, I can attest to the need for sequence diagrams in some of these situations!

The mistake many small teams make is to end up with a project plan that is really the amalgamation of their individual todo lists. What is needed is a project plan that will:

  1. reflect reality
  2. be easy to update
  3. help to track progress (i.e. are we on track or not?)

A good approach is to break your project into stages (each representing something tangible) and then into deliverables (again, something tangible for each milestone, else you’ll never know if you’ve hit it or not!).

My personal rule of thumb is that the level of granularity needed on most projects is 2-3 days – i.e. we should never be more than two to three days from a definitive milestone which will either be complete or not. The added advantage of this approach is that if find yourself off track, you can only be two to three days off track… much easier to make up than if you went weeks or even months working hard but not actually delivering what was needed!

In our Christmas dinner example, there are a number of critical milestones – a tick list of questions. Do we have all the ingredients? Check. Has the turkey been basted? Check. On the actual day, the sequencing and timing will mean more specific questions: It’s 12pm. Are the Brussels sprouts cooked to death yet? Check. (Allowing for the extra hour of boiling to go from soft and green to mushy and brown… Yeuch!)

Tip 3: Actively Manage Risks and Issues

A risk is something that could go wrong. An issue is something that has already gone wrong. Risks and issues are where project management superstars are born. Anyone can manage things when everything is going according to plan; it’s what you do when Cousin Jim refuses to eat anything but strawberry jam sandwiches that sorts the men from the boys.

The key with a Christmas dinner, as with any project, is to have contingency plans for the most likely and most damaging risks. These depend on your own particular situation, but some examples might be:

Cousin Jim is a picky eater. Have strawberry jam and sliced white bread on hand to placate.
Prime organic turkey might not be available at Waitrose on Christmas eve. Shop in advance!
You live somewhere remote that seems to lose power around Christmas on a disturbingly regular basis. (number of options here depending on how far you want to go…)
Buy a backup generator.
Invent a new cooking method using only candles.
Stock up on “Christmas dinner in a tin”.
Your mother in law is likely to be annoying. Bottle of sherry at the ready (whether it’s for you or her, you can decide!).

The point of planning in advance is so that most of your issues don’t blindside you – you can spring into action with the contingency plan immediately. This leaves you with plenty of ingenuity and ability to cope in reserve for those truly unexpected events.

Back in your regular projects, you should have a risk management plan (developed at the beginning of the project and regularly reviewed) as well as an issue list, tracking open, in progress and closed issues. Importantly, your issue list should be separate from any kind of bug list – issues are at a project level, bugs are at a technical level.

Tip 4: Have a Project Board

A project board consists of the overall sponsor of your project (often, but not always, the guy with the cheque book) and typically a business expert and a technical expert to help advise the sponsor. The project board is the entity that is meant to make the big, critical decisions. As a project manager, your role is to prepare a recommendation, but leave the actual decision up to the board.

Admittedly this is where our Christmas dinner analogy has to stretch the most, but if you imagine that instead of just cooking for your family you are the caterer preparing a Christmas feast for a company. In this case, you obviously want to please the diners who will be eating the food, but key decisions are likely to be taken by whoever is organizing the event. They, in turn, will involve the boss if there are really big decisions that would affect the project drastically – for instance, having to move it to January, or it exceeding the set budget by a significant amount.

Most projects suffer from not having a project board to consult for these major decisions, or from having the wrong people selected. The first ailment is eased by ensuring that you have a functioning project board, with whom you either meet regularly to update on status, or where there is a special process for convening the board if they are needed. The second problem is a little more subtle. Key questions to ask yourself are:

  • Who is funding this project?
  • Who has the authority to stop the project if it was the right thing to do?
  • Who are the right business and technical advisors?
  • Who are the folks who don’t look like they are powerful on the org chart, but in fact might scupper this project? (e.g. administrators, tech support, personal assistants…)

Tip 5: Finish Unequivocably and Well

No one is ever uncertain as to when Christmas dinner ends. Once the flaming pudding has been consumed and the cheese tray picked at, the end of the dinner is heralded by groaning and everyone collapsing in their chairs. Different households have different rituals, so you might only open your presents after Christmas dinner (unlikely if you have small children!), or you might round off the afternoon watching the Queen’s speech (in Britland, certainly) or if you live in warmer climes you might round off Christmas dinner with a swim (which was our tradition in Cape Town – after 30 mins of food settling so you didn’t get cramp, of course!).

The problem with projects is that they are one time efforts and so nowhere near as ritualized. Unless you have been incredibly lucky, you’ve probably worked on a project where you thought you were finished but seemed unable to lose your “zombie customers” – those folks who just didn’t realise it was over and kept coming back with more and more requests. You might even have fallen prey to this yourself, believing that the website going live was the end of the project and not realising that a number of things still needed to be wrapped up.

The essence of this final tip is to inject some of that end-of-Christmas finality ritual into your projects. Find your own ritual for closing down projects – more than just sending the customer the invoice and archiving the files. Consider things like documentation, support structure handover and training to make sure that those zombies are going to the right people (hopefully not you!).

So, to summarise:

  1. Make sure you start your projects well – with an agreed (written) vision of what you’re trying to achieve.
  2. Plan your projects at the right level of detail and in an appropriate format – never be more than a few days away from knowing for sure whether you’re on track or not.
  3. Plan for likely and important risks and make sure you track and resolve those you actually encounter.
  4. Institute a project board, made up of the people with the real power over your project.
  5. Create rituals for closing projects well – don’t leave anyone in doubt that the project has been delivered, or of who they should go to for further help.

About the author

Meri is a geek, a manager, and a manager of geeks. She’s a CTO (these days at @MOO) and also runs micro-consultancy ChromeRose, helping digital & technical teams be brilliant. An alumna of Procter & Gamble and the Government Digital Service, she has had a career spanning development, project, programme & product management and more recently engineering & operations leadership. She’s led teams ranging in size from 30 to 300, mostly with folks spread across the world.

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