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Ogres Have Layers... So Do Project Plans

"Tim, can you help us?  We have a project plan we need you to look at."

It wasn't the first time I'd received that request, and I always enjoy looking at a project plan to help troubleshoot.  Keep in mind, MS Project is my favorite tool.  I realize that there are challenges, and those who are unfamiliar with the tool can easily fall into many of the pitfalls that the software offers.  One of those challenges is simply in how the basic entry screen is set up.

Projectex The tool asks for too much information too quickly for many project managers.  It lends itself to asking for information that should not be input into a project plan.  For example, adding in start and finish dates on tasks creates unintended constraints.  Adding in resources automatically calculates work effort and duration... without the user often realizing it.  Even the folks at 37 Signals are anti-Project.  I don't know that I'd go so far as to call MS Project an "enemy," but I can certainly agree with the opinion that the tool... ANY TOOL... should focus more on facilitating communication that generating charts and graphs.

ShrekBecause of these software pitfalls, I tend to recommend the "Shrek Approach" to project planning.  Instead of attacking all task information requested on the "entry screen" on the first pass, I recommend creating custom tables and views to allow for an iterative approach to project planning:

  1. WBS Pass - The first pass on a project plan is simply building the tasks associated with the work breakdown structure.  Start with deliverables and then "back into" the tasks needed to achieve those deliverables.  Include milestones and notes.  Add in the WBS numbering column so you can see how the plan structure is developing.
  2. Dependency Pass - This pass is about building in dependencies and constraints.  (Hint:  use the "Split Screen" function to add in lag and lead times.)  Focus only on identifying how tasks are related to each other rather than on the duration of tasks.  Avoid constraining tasks to specific dates unless absolutely necessary (i.e., don't enter dates in the start or finish fields).
  3. Resource Pass - Build the resources for the project team.  In order to avoid scheduling WUHOTs to staff your project, the first pass of building the resource pool might be best accomplished by identifying skill sets rather than names of people (e.g., enter "JAVA Tester" rather than "Joe Bob Smith").  Add in other relevant information about your resource pool:  rates, calendars, etc.
  4. Assignment and Estimation Pass - Here is where you actually assign resources to tasks, determine how long (in both work effort and duration) each task will take, and perform an initial "reality test" to see if it will float.
  5. Leveling Pass - By the time you are at this pass, names should have replaced skill sets in your resource pool.  Ensure that these resources have reviewed their own tasks and verified the reality of them.  Also be sure that resources are not overloaded (MS Project can be fickle in how it defines overallocated resources; email me if you have questions on how to mitigate this problem).  If your project is part of a larger program, this is where that integration occurs.
  6. Approval and Baseline Pass - Obtain the approval of the needed stakeholders and baseline your plan.

Diana Lindstrom once compared a project plan to a musical score, a very good analogy (and certainly "prettier" than comparing it to an ogre like Shrek).  As some musical scores are longer and more complex than others, so are some project plans.  Determine the level of complexity that is appropriate for your plan and is custom to your project.  Then just choose the right "layer" of complexity for your ogre... er... um... plan.

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