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Recommended Online Project Management Tools And Techniques

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pms9The way teams handle project can differ significantly depending on a company, but even then it tends to follow a predictable route. You may prefer structured projects with a strict sequential pipelining like engineering and construction or event-chain projects such as product launchings product launchings, or possibly exploratory projects with decision points spread across phases such as clinical trials and research studies. No matter which method you prefer, in this article we’ll discuss several recommended online project management tools and techniques that will help you meet your project goals.

To give our topic some consistency across different industries, we’ll review the recommended online project management tools and techniques in line with the five traditional stages without focusing on more specific project management approaches like PRINCE2, agile, or critical chain project methods. The general stages are: Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring, and Closing.

Through Google search, you’ll find that many of the tools are free online or you can create them in a spreadsheet or document file, while a project management tool with more features may require paid subscription and comes with a demo.

Initiation Stage

It’s the first step to realizing your project. Your objective at this stage is to define the project’s objectives and boundaries. The objectives are directly related to your overall business strategic goals.

  • What are you running the project for?
  • Is it to raise profits (revenue-specific)?
  • Capture more territories (market-specific)?
  • Promote or launch a new product (promotional-specific)?
  • Add business infrastructure (asset-specific)?

Based on the objectives, you can define the project boundaries, and, finally, get the approval of major stakeholders (project sponsors, company executives, clients, suppliers, and resource persons) before proceeding to the Planning Stage.

Tools and Techniques

These are high-level documents to give the project manager and major stakeholders the big picture. Annotations may be needed as the project progresses, but make sure that each change is approved by all concerned parties.

Project Charter – It lists the project boundaries as agreed upon by all stakeholders. The Project Charter defines the scope, schedule and budget of the project, and the controls to ensure the project goes smoothly.

Stakeholder Register – It documents each stakeholder’s deliverables, communication and collaboration strategies. It also tracks changes as the role or interest of stakeholders may change throughout the project’s lifespan due to business reorganizations or priority shifts.

5 Ws and 1 H – a technique to answer the critical questions–what, who, when, where, why, and how–to define the project boundaries:

  • Why is the project needed?
  • What will the project deliver?
  • Who are the main stakeholders?
  • When does the project start and end?
  • Where will the project be implemented?
  • How can we accomplish the project?

In-Frame/Out-of-Frame – it’s a two-column list of set controls. On the left column, the In-Frame lists the major elements that are expected or requested to be accomplished by stakeholders. On the right side, the Out-of-Frame lists suggestions (often by an influential stakeholder with a limited understanding of project details) that are related to the project but are not required. This project management method makes it easy to set the boundaries when various vague interpretations by different stakeholders muddle the project requirements.

Project requirements – a document that shows all managerial, technical and business requirements by the project, and is usually a reference for suppliers, project partners, or regulatory agencies. Depending on project size, the document can consist of a page or hundreds of pages.

Project dimensions – a document that categorizes project requirements as: “constraints” (you can’t skip it or the project is canceled); “drivers” (you have some flexibility to change or skip it); “degrees of freedom” (they’re not required by stakeholders so you can skip them, but they can contribute to the overall quality of the project).

Communication matrix – a strategic quadrant that shows the level of communication required for each stakeholder. The quadrant is divided into two axes, each one in turn is measured with a high or low mark:

  • Axis X – Does the stakeholder require a high or low oversight of the project boundaries?
  • Axis Y – Does the stakeholder have a high or low interest or personal concern about the project outcomes?

Collaboration matrix – a strategic quadrant that shows the level of collaboration required for each stakeholder. The quadrant is divided into two axes, planning and action, with each one marked with high or low rating.

  • Axis X – Does the stakeholder has a high or low influence to change program implementation details?
  • Axis Y – Does the stakeholder has a high or low involvement in conducting program activities?

Planning Stage

This is the second part in our review of the recommended online project management tools and techniques. After the Initiation Stage, you’re now ready to start the second phase in project management: planning. Again, although project dynamics may differ across varied organizations, the recommended online project management tools and techniques for planning can apply to any projects, from engineering to clinical research to events marketing.

The Planning Stage (sometimes called Design Stage) is the roadmap that guides managers throughout the project’s life. Planning is critical to any project; without it or with limited planning, the project will teeter and may fall flat on its face even before accomplishing anything.

There are many project management sites that offer free web based tools or you can create your own using a spreadsheet or document app. Again, what is a good or the best tool for one manager may not be for another, so use these project management tips as a general guide, especially if you’re a small business and a greenhorn to the nuances of project management.

To better appreciate our comparison of the recommended online project management tools and techniques, let’s break them down according to the three critical intertwined elements of the Planning Stage: scope, schedule, and resource. For simple projects, some of the tools and techniques may be redundant; just pick the ones that you think fit your needs.

Scope Tools and Techniques

Your goal here is to identify all necessary work to accomplish the project. What are the activities and tasks to create the deliverables in every stage of the project? The scope also includes activities that are not deliverables, but are critical to delivering the outcomes. They can be meetings, reviews, documentation, and administrative tasks needed to complete the deliverables.

Traceability matrix – a table that shows the requirements for each sub-projects managed by different teams throughout the whole cycle. The sub-projects typically follow departmental functions, such as: business objectives (management), product requirements (production or operations), logistics support (logistics), regulatory requirements (administrative or finance), and security requirements (management or logistics).

Each sub-project has the team’s objectives and intentions on how to accomplish it. Likewise, the traceability matrix acts as a monitoring tool that shows the status of each requirement, whether it’s unmet, partially or fully fulfilled.

Project scope statement – A more detailed account of the Project Charter (a high-level document in the Initiation Stage), describing the major deliverables, criteria of win/loss, constraints, and exclusions. This documents is funneled down to the team members to ensure they are on the same page as the stakeholders, who have the Project Charter.

Deliverables deployment diagram – A deconstruction diagram, often a mind-map layout, that breaks down a deliverable into tasks that are further broken down into actionable tasks through a series of questions, like–“What is needed to accomplish the deliverable?” “What is needed to accomplish that task to accomplish that deliverable,” and so on until the most basic tasks are identified and assigned to the right person.

Work breakdown structure or WBS – A hierarchical chart that chops major deliverables down into smaller, chewable sub-activities (represented by a box) and handled by smaller teams. The chart can have as many boxes and layers as needed with as many teams in different levels working simultaneously or in sequence. Accomplishments typically start from bottom up.

WBS dictionary – A table that shows the details in each of box in the WBS hierarchical chart. It’s both a planning and tracking tool, showing the sub-deliverables and their status. Other information include: persons in charge; duration; budget; and risk factors.

Schedule Tools and Techniques

It’s the second element of the Planning Stage. You have two goals here (with the help of your team leaders):

  1. Display the schedule of all project activities from the major deliverables down to the individual tasks
  2. Analyze the project schedules to identify risks, bottlenecks, wins/losses

Milestone chart – A timeline that identifies the critical stages of the project and which are the major presentation points to major stakeholders. Each milestone is represented by a triangle in the line, providing stakeholders with a quick view of the project’s major accomplishments.

Task list – Each team member has his or her own task list. It’s a simple two-column table that lists specific tasks on the left and their completion date on the right. The task list helps the individual to focus on his or her tasks alone, even as he or she keeps tab of the team’s overall tasks.

Gantt chart – A horizontal bar chart that visualizes the progress of tasks and activities. Each task is represented by a bar that cuts across a horizontal header timeline (daily, weekly, or monthly); the left end of the bar marks the task’s starting date and the right end marks its end date. A bar can be linked to another bar with a vertical arrow for sequential tasks, such that the first bar must be completed first before the other bar is started.

Network diagram – A flowchart that shows the preceding and succeeding relationships of the tasks to each other. Some tasks need to be accomplished prior to starting other tasks; while other tasks can be done simultaneously or independently. Compared to Gantt chart, this flowchart is more simple and is used as a quick-view tool to measure the duration of a sequence of tasks or identify which team members should be working together, parallel, or in sequence.

2-D task list – It’s a matrix that tracks the completion dates of related tasks under the same umbrella task (a matrix equals one set of tasks). The vertical side shows a list of items, while the horizontal side indicates the tasks to be done on the item. The box where both sides meet shows the date of accomplishment. This tool is useful to track complex projects with numerous sets of tasks occurring at once.

Calendar view – A calendar of tasks to be done daily or weekly.The calendar is useful for assigning specific tasks to specific persons on a daily routine.

Critical path – A network diagram that presents different time scenarios to complete a critical project or phase, so you can choose the shortest completion period. For each scenario, a box, which represents a task, is laid out with other boxes along a chronological line. In each box, you put the estimated period to complete the task. By putting the boxes end-to-end, you can easily estimate how long one scenario takes and benchmark it against other scenarios. Make sure your completion date assumptions take into account not just the actual production time, but the time needed to get the resources for the tasks (for instance, budget).

Resource leveling – A technique used to reallocate resources due to changes in project schedule or budget. It requires the network diagram and estimated durations and resource requirements for each task. The leveling identifies floats (also called slacks, parallel tasks that can be delayed without affecting the overall deadlines). Resources (or a part of it) for floats are re-assigned first to tasks with critical paths. Once the critical paths are covered, the remaining resources are allocated to other tasks, prioritizing those with the least allowable delay period. Resource leveling allows the project to stay the course even while waiting for additional resources due to a schedule or budget change.

Critical chain – In cases when resource leveling has delayed a project or a resource is constrained by multi-tasking (for example, a coder working on simultaneous projects), the critical chain shifts the tasks compromised by the constrained resource (the coder) to another unconstrained resource, if any, so the project maintains its schedule. This new sequence of tasks is the critical chain and is based on the availability of the constrained resource. Other tasks are plotted parallel to the critical chain and provided with buffer deadlines. The critical chain requires the network diagram, critical path, and resource leveling estimates.

PERT – Program Evaluation and Review Technique developed by the U.S. Navy in the sixties to define the boundaries of project duration. PERT identifies the worst case duration estimate by risk-averse managers, the best case duration estimate by risk-taker managers, and the middle case duration between both estimates. PERT averages the three estimates to come up with a more realistic simulation of project duration.

Schedule acceleration – A set of techniques used to speed up project completion. These techniques come with risks and costs, so care must be given to closely monitor how the project is progressing along the revised schedule:

  • Buffer management – reduces the buffer in the tasks
  • Crashing – adds resources to the tasks
  • Fast-tracking – starts a task prior to completion of its prerequisite task
  • Split-to-phases – divides the project scope in separate objectives and focuses resources on just one of these objectives to finish it first, at the expense of the other objectives. This technique is useful when that specific objective is expected to generate revenues sooner than later.
  • Mainline-offline scheduling – divides an activity between generic work (for example, creating template reports) and specific work that needed predecessor tasks (for example, data to be culled from sales team’s report). The generic work can be completed, even while the specific work is pending.

Resource Tools and Techniques

It’s the third element of the Planning Stage. Your goal here is to describe how the resources will be applied to project activities, which can be broken down into two parts: human resource and budget. You need to identify human resources and how to deploy them; and the impact of these resources on the overall business financials (the budget).

Team list – A simple listing of all team members and their contact information to make sure all participants have been notified about the project.

Responsibility matrix – A table that ensures team members understand their level of involvement in the project. Project tasks are listed on the vertical side, while team members are indicated on the horizontal side. The matrix, the box where vertical and horizontal items intersect, shows the member responsible for accomplishing the task, who is designated as “R”. Other members may also be designated using the RACI legend: “A” for a member whose approval is needed; “C” for a member who should contribute to accomplishing the task; and “I” for the member who needs to be informed that the task has been completed.

Staffing management plan – A spreadsheet that shows how a team will be deployed across various sub-projects that need the skills of its members. The document indicates the team’s allocated time per sub-project, often defined in percentage (20% for sub-project A; 40% for sub-project B; and so on). The spreadsheet also tells how many team members are allocated per sub-project.

Project spend plan – A spreadsheet that lists the intended purchases for the project. The purchases can be divided between capital or investment and expenses. Capital is an actual asset gained through the purchase (example, a computer, car, or desk), while expenses refer to cashouts like travel costs, meals, or exhibit materials.

Project budget – A spreadsheet that shows how the project team intends to spend the resources throughout the project calendar. Each row shows a task, while each column is designated as month (each month can be broken down further into weeks). The cost of spending is indicated in the matrix (task-month intersection). Each column can be summed up to show the total monthly cost, which in turn is summed up to show the total project expense. A graph is used to visualize the cost pattern. Moreover, the project leader can transfer the data in the project budget to the company’s financial system, and use its templates, forms, or screens in the budgeting process.

Project appropriations request – An organizational process that may be recorded in forms, spreadsheets, or even an intranet site showing the assets created by the project (example, new servers, physical office expansion, or new coffee maker). The finance department will take these new assets into account for the fiscal year’s Balance Sheet and Earnings Statement. The appropriations request includes important information about the new assets:

  • name and type of asset
  • purchase price or development cost
  • date when asset is used or put into service
  • its financial benefit to the company
  • return on investment
  • depreciation schedule
  • its residual value after depreciation

After the Initiation Stage and Planning Stage, you’re now ready to implement the project.

Execution Stage

The Execution Stage ensures that project activities and tasks are followed according to the goals set in the Initiation and Planning stages. The resources, deliverables, and deadlines have been identified, now you’re ready to start the actual work. Again, the recommended online project management tools and techniques for the Execution Stage may vary depending on your project management needs; what is important is you have a guide to develop your own set of tools.

Likewise, many of these tools are free or web based or can be created using simple spreadsheets or documents. These tools are also good enough for a wide range of projects, but feel free to develop your version, which you think may be the best project management tool for your enterprise.

Your main goal in the Execution Stage is to ensure that appropriate resources are applied to the right activities to finish them on time and within budget. This means keeping a close tab on three things as the project progresses: deliverables, performance information, and requests for project plan changes, if any.

Let’s break down our comparison of the recommended online project management tools and techniques for the Execution Stage based on the management of your internal resources (project team leadership) and external resources (project procurement).

Project Team Leadership Tools and Techniques

Your goal is here to ensure a smooth work relationship among members of the team and among teams of the project. Dealing with a diverse set of individuals, often with conflicting objectives, different needs, and work dynamics, and the fact that you may not have direct authority over many of the members, requires solid team leadership. These project management tools and techniques will help you develop procedures on how to form teams and manage their members’ behavior.

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FORMING TEAMS

Core team – The core team is useful to clarify the roles and responsibilities of team members. It is an ad-hoc group that is accountable for the day-to-day planning and execution of a specific sub-project activity (for example, transportation). The core team consists of a core team leader and core team members from different functions (for example, logistics, sales, customer service, engineering, etc.).

The core team leader is directly accountable for accomplishing his team’s tasks on time and within budget. He has the authority to make decisions within the sub-project; but any issues that overstep the boundaries of his activity need the approval or attention of the project leader, major stakeholders, or other core teams.

To create a diagram for the core team, imagine a pie and at the center circle is the leader. Each slice represents a core team member from a particular department. An outer ring indicates the extended members belonging to each slice (or department), who are added or taken out of the core team as the need arises. They are not full-time members of the core team, but they contribute to accomplish certain tasks.

For the project’s duration, the core team leader has an explicit authority over his members. Furthermore, the core team leader can be a member of a bigger core team that handles more complex activities.

Matrix management – Project teams can be organized using three approaches: projectized organization, functional organization, and matrix organization. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, but many project managers today prefer the matrix approach.

  1. Projectized organizational approach – creates teams that are 100% focused on one project. They do not cross over to other projects during the duration of their project. The advantages are that the members are strictly aligned along the project goals and the team can be quickly mobilized. However, best practices are not easily shared with other project teams and resources may not be optimized. Some members may be sitting idly while waiting for predecessor tasks to finish. This approach works best for stand-alone projects or when team mobilization is top priority.
  2. Functional organizational approach – deals with separate but coordinated functional departments to accomplish the project. The executive management discusses the project with department heads, and each department agrees to do their portion on a given scope and schedule based on their department’s skills and resources. The advantages are: a) specific tasks are completed by the most qualified persons or specialists; b) department heads can balance their internal workload. The disadvantages are: a) the department heads have little accountability of the overall project budget and schedule except their own department’s; b) in case of issues between departments, the lack of authority over the other department can cause delays coming up with a resolution.
  3. Matrix organization approach – attempts to achieve both the advantages of projectized and functional approaches. This approach can be a Weak Matrix or Strong Matrix.
    • The Weak Matrix looks like a functional structure with a major addition: each functional department has an assigned core team member whose job is to communicate with the other core team members about their respective functional plans and deliverables to achieve project goals. One of the core team members is designated as project leader, who will facilitate the meetings and resolution of issues. In cases of defaults, the project leader elevates the issue to senior management. Obviously, there’s a degree of delay during this elevation of issue.
    • On the other hand, the Strong Matrix adds two layers to the structure: the functional manager on top of project leaders, who in turn are on top of their respective core team members. Essentially, the core team members have two bosses, the functional manager and project leader. It seems to pose a problem when core team members are trapped between the differing or even clashing opinions of the two bosses. However, in practice, since the bosses are accountable to project deliverables, they will resolve clashing issues between them or among their core team members across different functional departments. Without needing to elevate the issues to senior management, the teams can accomplish their tasks faster. The Strong Matrix is ideal for more complex projects.

MANAGING TEAM BEHAVIOR

Project team development – A technique used to analyze the nature how teams develop and the cycle they go through. As teams are formed and reformed throughout the project duration, some teams fail to function smoothly. Don’t be alarmed; rather, know that when you put together individuals from different backgrounds (function) and with different bosses, they usually follow Tuckman’s “forming, storming, norming, and performing” model.

In the forming stage, the members are acquainted with each other and their assigned roles. At the storming stage, issues over turfs, standards, priorities, and experiences arise. This is the stage when the team appears to fail, but after resolving the issues, the team moves on to the norming stage when agreements or compromises are forged. As trust and bonding develops among members, the team is now at the performing stage and ready to accomplish its deliverables.

Project team conflict management – A technique useful to resolve issues that are hampering team performance (and delaying the project) is the GRPI model, which stands for:

  • G – goals of the project agreed upon by the team
  • R – roles and responsibilities assigned to team members
  • P – processes or activities as defined, estimated, and planned by the team
  • I – interpersonal relationships among team members

When problems arise, start the model from the bottom up (I-P-R-G). Identify if there are interpersonal relationship (I) issues first and resolve them. Then identify if the processes (P) are being followed properly according to plan; if not, move up further and revisit if the roles and responsibilities (R) are assigned correctly to the right members. In worst cases, the roles and responsibilities do not accurately fit project goals (G), or there’s a misalignment between goals and tasks. At this stage, the stakeholders or senior management may be needed to intervene.

Project team negotiation – this technique is useful when resolving an issue with grey areas that a compromise is needed. At the least your core team leaders and members should understand and able to use the Thomas-Kilmann Model so they don’t have to escalate their issues to you, the overall project leader or, worse, to senior management and major stakeholders.

The model is a quadrant that shows four possible compromise scenarios governed by two elements: concern for relationship (how will the compromise affect interpersonal relationships between teams or team members) and concern for substance (what do each team or team member gets from the compromise). The scenarios are as follows:

  • High concern for substance, high concern for relationship – Collaborative, the ideal scenario when everyone works together and gets what each wants.
  • High concern for relationship, low concern for substance – Accommodate, when you keep the relationship healthy by giving way to some of the other party’s argument.
  • Low concern for relationship, high concern for substance – Defeat, when at any cost you just have to get your way at the expense of your relationship with others.
  • Low concern for relationship, low concern for substance – Withdraw, or being indifferent to the issue. You just take what you can get and leave.

You now have a basic idea how to form teams and manage their behavior. Let us go back to the Project Leader and Core Team Member and further explain their roles and responsibilities. Likewise, we’ll talk about the various leadership tools and techniques that can help project managers handle team members.

Project Leader – the person who has the overall responsibility to ensure the project is planned and executed to meet its goals. The project leader is supported by his lieutenants, the core team members, who lead their respective functional teams. The project leader has the following major functions:

  • presides over core team member meetings to keep tab of activities and issues across the project’s various functions
  • keeps senior management and stakeholders informed on the project’s big picture
  • maintains the project plan
  • reviews that changes in the plan are in the best interest of the project objectives
  • takes action if project decisions are misaligned or elevates the issues to senior management or stakeholders

Although the project leader is expected to be hands-on on certain aspects of the project (usually where he is good at), he relies on his core team members to lead their respective teams to execute the day-to-day tasks.

Core team member – Also called mini-project leaders, they are the lieutenants of the project leader and representatives of their respective functions (for example, logistics, marketing, production, finance, etc.). Depending on the size or complexity of the project, core team members may or may not have team members under them. Core team members have the following key functions:

  • ability to identify and analyze risks in their function (it’s imperative they have this skill to avoid delaying predecessor tasks)
  • execute day-to-day activities or provide oversight to their members (also called extended team members)
  • represent their function in core team member meetings
  • commit to their function’s schedule and deliverables

Going back to the project leader, perhaps his biggest challenge is that he doesn’t have direct authority over many of the team members, who report to their respective department bosses (unless it’s a projectized approach where the project leader has permanent team members). To mobilize his motley crew of various specialists and generalists, a project leader needs to master three leadership techniques: risk management, project communication, and situational leadership.

Risk management – A process of activities that manage the risks that may affect the project or one of its objectives. Your goal as the project leader is to ensure risk management is done and the triggers are closely monitored.

Risk management involves a five-step process: 1) risk identification; 2) qualitative analysis; 3) quantitative analysis; 4) risk responses; and 5) risk monitoring.

  1. Risk identification – involves anticipating the possible problems that may delay the project. A simple and effective tool to identify risks is the Fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. Imagine a fishbone and at the head of the spine is the major problem (for example, “delayed launching”). Each bone attached to the spine designates a specific function or aspect of the project (for example, legal, transportation, promotion, editorial, etc.). In each bone, you can list all possible problem scenarios that can happen within that function. You can create a number of fishbone diagrams for every conceivable major problem (delays, launching fail, cancellation, etc.).
  2. Qualitative risk analysis – assesses the degree of risks as: red (the risk has a major impact on the project); yellow (the risk is significant but manageable throughout the current plan); or green (the risk is insignificant or a red or yellow risk that has been addressed).
  3. You can create a risk matrix using a 2×2, 3×3, 4×4, or 5×5 diagram, depending on the project size. The horizontal line represents the risk’s project impact from low to high, while the vertical line represents the likelihood of the risk happening from low to high. The boxes within the intersections of high on both lines or a high combined with a medium are set as red. The boxes in the middle or the combination of a high and low are set as yellow. Meantime, the boxes in the intersection of low on both lines or the combination of a low and medium are set as green. Fill in the boxes with the risks you have identified.
  4. Quantitative risk – analysis measures the risks using figures or values. Following a qualitative risk analysis, this technique shows to the senior management or stakeholders how much the risks will impact the business; hence, the need to mitigate the risks. The following are some of the more useful methods for this analysis:
    • Sensitivity Analysis – compares two scenarios: the project plan without the risks factored in; and the project plan that features the risks and their impact on the plan.
    • Failure Mode Effect Analysis (FMEA) – the risks are quantified based on safety and security scenarios (for example, a defective mechanical part of a car can cause a crash). This technique is used for technical or quality assessment.
    • Decision Tree with Expected Monetary Value – a more complex and time-consuming analysis that shows a chronology of risk events and the decisions to address them and how much both aspects will cost the business.
  5. Risk response techniques – allow the project leader to implement the right response to the analyzed risks. Based on their degree of impact, risks can be addressed in five ways:
    • Avoid – the project plan is changed to circumvent the risks
    • Mitigate – the project plan is modified so that when the risks occur the impact is minimal
    • Transfer – the project plan includes hiring an outsourced agency to handle the risks
    • Accept – the project is not changed because the risks are non-critical
    • Contingency – the project plan is maintained but a plan B is developed in case the risks occur
  6. Risk monitoring and control – starts after the Planning Stage to check for risk triggers as the project progresses. Risk triggers are listed and shared with the teams so the core team members can spot them at once and the project leader can mitigate the impact. New risk triggers are added and tracked following previous risk mitigations.

Project communication – Aside from risk management, the project leader needs to have good communication skills to convey the following to his team and superiors:

  • what the project requires
  • when does it need the requirements
  • how should they be done
  • what other activities must be integrated

The bigger the project, the more communication planning and execution are demanded from the project leader. In a complex project, the project leader may be spending all his time performing communication and risk management horizontally (to sub-projects and suppliers) and vertically (to senior management and stakeholders). He needs to guard against one sub-project’s problem creating a domino-effect to other sub-projects.

In general, the project leader needs three things to communicate effectively:

  1. Communication plan – a quick-view table showing the category of communication, type of meeting, its frequency, topics, attendees, presenter, and notes or comments. Depending on project complexity, you can have four communication categories:
    • Management meetings – face-to-face or via an electronic medium. In the communication plan, you need to identify which managers need what information, the frequency they need it, and the detail of information.
    • Project team meetings – ad hoc conversations, conference call updates, chats, emails, or formal meetings. In the communication plan, you need to identify the team’s function, their deliverables and issues. Project team meetings enable you to track the day-to-day (or lack of) progress of the project.
    • Management reports – periodic reviews of the project for senior management or stakeholder. The report includes recommendations of the previous report, project status, issues, and next steps. Each report should be written as a stand-alone document, providing briefers to managers or stakeholders who may not be privy to the project.
    • Project records – documentation of the project for future use. The records may be used: to develop future business strategies; as reference for next-generation project team; legal archive; or sharing of best practices.
  2. Communication technology assessment – what communication tools are available to you? Here are some of the common communication tools today:
    • Formal meeting
    • Informal meeting
    • Report
    • Email
    • Phone call
    • Conference call
    • Voice mail
    • Cloud-hosted tools

When reviewing your communication options, keep in mind three things that can make the tool an advantage or disadvantage: location of all parties; confidentiality of information being shared; and organization’s culture how meetings or discussions are held.

Team list – a database or spreadsheet of all senior managers, stakeholders, core team members, and extended team members with their contact information and designated functions. The list is provided to all project team members so they know who to call for specific questions or issues.

Situational leadership – After risk management and project communication, the project leader needs this third skill. Developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, the Situational Leadership Model offers two styles of leadership: personnel development and project mode.

Personnel development builds long-term relationship with your followers, as the project leader guides them to achieve a level of motivation and capability.

On the other hand, project mode is short-term and the aim is to complete project activities correctly and in time.

For most projects, the second style is more appropriate given the ad hoc nature of projects. The project mode avoids micro managing followers, where they may feel constrained, mistrusted, or even demeaned.

In both leadership styles, the key is to identify the level of readiness of your followers based on two factors: motivation and ability to perform the assigned tasks. They can fall on any of the four readiness scenarios (your goal is to achieve the fourth scenario):

  1. Low motivation, low ability – the person is unskilled and unwilling.
    • Leadership style: directing, provide clear directions and strict accountability to push the person to finish the task
  2. High motivation, low ability – the person is unskilled but willing.
    • Leadership style: coaching, encourage the person while training or equipping him with necessary skills
  3. Low motivation, high ability – the person is skilled but unwilling.
    • Leadership style: supporting, focus on motivation by creating relationship interactions to unearth causes of lack of motivation
  4. High motivation, high ability – the person is skilled and willing.
    • Leadership style: delegating, this person is your ace talent; take care not to over lead him

Project Procurement

The second aspect of the Execution Stage is managing external resources, also called project procurement. Your goal is here is to put into contr act the suppliers and vendors that have been identified and selected in the Planning Stage to perform outsourced activities. At this stage, you need to go through standard procurement activities, such as, source selection and negotiations.

In conjunction with the Control and Monitor Stage, where the actual administering of the contracts are monitored, the project procurement involves the use of Project Management Information System (PMIS).

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PMIS is a set of communication techniques used by the project team to collect and share data, plans, status, risks, changes, meetings, and other information relevant to the project. The aim is to keep everyone in the project informed about all aspects of the project.

In the past, before the information technology boom, PMIS is referred to as the “War Room,” where core team members, project leaders, and even stakeholders and senior management huddle, discuss, share, negotiate, argue, and just about any kind of communication concerning project activities. Times have changed, the War Room now called PMIS, and the venue extended to electronic or web based platforms, but one thing remains: data is shared in one location. PMIS can be: a shared physical folder or file; shared electronic folder or file; a web portal; or an Intranet portal (LAN).

Likewise, PMIS can take the following forms depending on the complexity of the project and each featuring its own advantages and disadvantages:

Project management software – Useful for full-scale or complex projects, which have to deal with huge sets of resources and activities to monitor.

  • Advantage – Project management software allows quick processing to track the inter-relationship between and among activities and resources or generate insights based on a collection of complex datasets.
  • Disadvantage – The use of project management software requires training, which demands time and effort from the project teams. With different levels of technology aptitude among the team members, the time to create project plans and maintain project status may be significant to pose a risk of delays to deliverables. Furthermore, team members who are not using the project management software frequently may have difficulty reading and maintaining project information.

One solution is to hire specialists, who are well versed in using the project management software. They are assigned to create and maintain the project plan in the software, developing template reports and standard formats and distributing them to team members, senior management, and stakeholders.

Spreadsheet – A shared file (electronically or physically) often used for simple or focused projects. Clear-cut activities and resources are planned and updated using several spreadsheet columns.

  • Advantage – It’s easy to use even for team members with limited technology aptitude. Team members have no difficulty accessing and understanding data in the PMIS spreadsheet. Likewise, it can manage huge sets of data by simply adding worksheets, columns, or rows.
  • Disadvantage – The spreadsheet cannot process complex inter-relationships of datasets. Tracking multi-faceted activities is difficult.

Meeting room – An actual or virtual, cloud-hosted room that features a whiteboard, Post-it notes, and boards (or walls) where information is pinned on or actually written. In the room, team members deliberate project activities that demand rapid change or re-planning. Meeting room is ideal for projects with extreme dynamics or require fast decisions and rapid responses. War rooms are typical of this PMIS structure.

  • Advantage – decisions, plans, and project tracking are quickly deliberated and appropriate responses made.
  • Disadvantage – requires everyone to be present in the physical meeting room (a logistics issue) or it requires adequate training to use a cloud-hosted meeting room (a technology issue).

Control and Monitor Stage

At the Control and Monitor Stage, your goal is to track, review, and revise processes or activities to ensure the deliverables are in line with project goals.

Since no two projects are exactly alike, the habits and patterns for each project differ drastically, and the frequency and sequence of these habits and patterns add to the complexity of the differences. In short, projects are unpredictable and almost always they do require some changes along the way. Your aim is to control and monitor these changes, while keeping project goals on steady course. Specifically, as the project is underway, you need to analyze performance reports and determine if a change is needed, and if yes, how much and when.

The comparison of recommended online project management tools and techniques will help you control and monitor changes, especially for complex scenarios like in adaptive and extreme projects.

As a project leader, what is important is you understand the different recommended online project management tools and techniques and use all or any of them to your enterprise. Many of these project management tools are free or cloud hosted tools with simple yet top features for a good price.

Project Control and Monitor Tools and Techniques

Let’s discuss the project management tools and techniques for control and monitor based on the four objectives you need to accomplish at this stage:

  1. Collection of project performance information
  2. Analysis of project performance
  3. Reporting of project performance
  4. Management of project change

1) Collection of project performance information

Pulse meetings – Short and frequent meetings to gather project information about the day-to-day activities of a team.

In the pulse meeting, the beginning and completion of activities are stated and communicated to the rest of the team members. The aim is to track the progress of activities and identify issues early on. However, the solution for issues is discussed on a separate meeting, usually following the pulse meeting and only includes concerned persons.

Pulse meetings can happen several times a day in extreme projects (example, disaster response) or once a week for smooth-sailing projects. The project leader can be hopping from one pulse meeting to another to review the daily or weekly deliverables.

Variance reports – A formal report that compares between what happened and what should have happened in project activities.

Since project estimates are not precisely accurate, project activities often create a variance or difference after their completion. You need to measure these variances to get a good picture how the project is progressing (is it under or over achieving its objectives and by how much?) and identify and resolve risks in the bud.

The variance report is generated by PMIS or other business management systems. The variance is expressed in absolute value (example, X no. of modules completed) and represented in percentage (example, 25% buffer deadline spent).

Moreover, the variance is shown using two references: current and cumulative. Current variance shows the difference between estimate and actual result of a specific activity. It covers the variance since the last reporting cycle.

On the other hand, cumulative variance calculates the difference between estimates and activity results since the project has started. It covers all previous and future variances. While the current variance tells you what is happening right now, the cumulative variance shows how the entire project is progressing so far.

Program reviews – A regular meeting among sub-project leaders and their team members to give all teams the big picture how their different activities are falling into place along with each other. Program reviews are best suited for complex projects.

Unlike pulse meetings which collect data on day-to-day activities of a specific team, program reviews collect data across teams or sub-projects (and even suppliers or vendors) to check how all activities are integrated or interfering with each other. The information gathered from program reviews is useful to ensure all teams are continuously aligned with each other and along project goals. How critical are regular program reviews? There’s an old joke about two teams constructing a bridge from opposite ends, only to fail to meet in the middle because one party claims the other is higher, while the other party claims the other is lower. Clearly, these guys didn’t bother to run program reviews during construction.

2) Analysis of project performance

Technical reviews – Formal meetings involving technical experts who are not part of the project team. The experts provide an objective and in-depth analysis of the project’s technical aspects to assess if the deliverables are accomplished accurately and completely. Common technical reviews include design reviews, code reviews, security reviews, and product readiness reviews.

Based on the technical experts’ analysis, additional actions to complete the project may be required or more testing may be needed. In rare cases, a complete redesign of activities may be recommended to align the deliverables with project goals. The recommendations are forwarded to senior management, to be deliberated during the management review (discussed below).

Project forecasting – Involves estimating the outcomes of the project based on ongoing performance of activities and deliverables and collected project status information. Likewise, a review of risk events and future risk triggers are factored in. The usual forecasted project outcomes are: project duration, overall project cost, and quality level of deliverables.

Make sure you have adequate information to create accurate forecasts. The rule of thumb is to wait until 25% of the activity or deliverable is done before making a forecast. If waiting is not an option, stick to the original estimates you’ve created under project schedule in the Planning Stage.

Problem solving – A technique that aims to resolve an issue using clearly defined step-by-step procedures.

When deciding which problem-solving method to use, make sure it’s either already working for your team, or your core team members and key project stakeholders have agreed which method to use. Here are some more questions to ask to further shortlist the right problem-solving method for your team:

  • Is it team-based or individually driven?
  • Will it rely on data from previous projects or just the current project?
  • How will resolution actions be identified and approved?

Furthermore, here’s a good model for problem solving showing a step-by-step process:

  1. Clarify the problem
  2. Determine the root of the problem by checking the details
  3. Evaluate the options to resolve the problem
  4. Choose the best option
  5. Implement the solution
  6. Validate the solution by assessing the outcome

3) Reporting of project performance

Project Management Information System (PMIS) – A clearinghouse of information about the plans and results of project activities. PMIS can be in physical (actual folder or file) or electronic form (web portal or Excel file). The data collected in PMIS are shared and used to keep everyone involved in the project informed about its activities and deliverables including: plans, status, risks, changes, and meetings. A more detailed explanation about PMIS is discussed in the Execution Stage.

Management reviews – formal meetings between the project leader and key stakeholders or senior management to assess how the project is progressing against its original goals.

Unlike pulse meetings and program reviews, which are undertaken at the project leader level, management meetings are set by the stakeholders to tackle project-related topics that they deem most important. The aim is to check if the project can attain its goals, and, if not, identify what the stakeholders can do to help complete project.

Management reviews can take the following forms: conference meetings; informal discussions (working breakfast or lunch); written report; or an update in a project dashboard. Minutes are taken during the review and action item list is compiled by the project leader.

Project dashboards – A tool (table) showing a snapshot of project status information presented to stakeholders to help them make decisions if changes are needed, or as an overview of project statuses across a portfolio of projects. Key status items that are tracked include, schedule, cost, and performance or quality of deliverables.

In a portfolio of projects, the dashboard benchmarks how projects are integrated or interfering with each other, and how far or near each one is to achieving their goals. By using the red-green light technique, stakeholders can quickly measure the projects’ statuses. Green means project activities are meeting their goals; Yellow indicates a problem, but the project team is resolving the issues; and Red alerts the stakeholders the problem is severe and the project team needs help.

4) Management of project change

Change management log – A tool (table) used for complex projects to track changes across sub-projects.

Complex projects get more complicated as a change in one sub-project affects another sub-project, which in turn cascades into another and so on. The change can be due to milestone realignment or shift in business priorities.

The log tracks all these changes spanning the sub-projects and ensures that the changes are implemented properly. Likewise, it can also track changes within a sub-project in multiple locations or with multiple phases.

Closing Stage

Project completion doesn’t stop at fulfilling deliverables that meet project goals. As the project leader, you need to officially hand over these deliverables to senior management or stakeholders and conduct administrative tasks to close the entire project.

Moreover, closing the project doesn’t always mean it’s successful; it can be partially successful or even failure. Failure can be the direct inability of the team (including stakeholders) to fulfill the goals or an external factor that rendered the project irrelevant (example, new government regulation or technology disruption).

The Closing Stage simply formalizes the end of project development so outcomes can be measured and assessed against the overall goals with finality.

Our comparison of recommended online project management tools and techniques for the Closing Stage helps you achieve four objectives:

  1. Gain acceptance of the stakeholders about the outcomes
  2. Put resources back to the organization
  3. Capture lessons or best practices learned for future projects
  4. Ensure all supplier contracts are closed with the procurement department

As in previous stages, you can use all or any one of these project management tools and techniques that you think is the best for your enterprise. Likewise, many top project management websites offer at least an online tool with free or demo subscriptions. What is more, some of these project management tools are easy to create using any good spreadsheet or document software.

Closing Stage Tools and Techniques

We can divide the Closing Stage using four techniques to meet the objectives at this stage. These are: closeout approach; stakeholder acceptance meeting; punch list; and lessons learned assessment.

Closeout approach

While closing supplier contracts is straightforward (payments and deliverables are fulfilled), closing the internal administrative aspect of the project varies. Generally, there are three ways how a project is closed.

Project inclusion – The project team is also the user of the deliverables. In essence, the project team hands over the project to itself. This may appear redundant, but the Closing Stage marks the transition from the project’s development phase to its operational deployment. Since business operations are overseen with different, often predictable, management and financial techniques, the project team becomes an operations team.

Project extinction – When the project fails to meet its objectives, a formal closure is needed to redeploy or terminate resources. Similarly, this step helps to stop running costs of the project (example, unused server hosting or idle project consultant).

Project integration – The project team hands over project deliverables to another team, which will use the deliverables for business operations. This approach can be tricky when the recipient team refuses to accept the deliverables or requests additional changes. The standoff can be resolved in the stakeholder acceptance meeting or by providing a transition phase. During this phase the project team conducts beta runs to gradually integrate the deliverables into the recipient team.

Stakeholder acceptance meeting – A formal meeting between the project team and the senior management or stakeholders. The meeting benchmarks the project deliverables against the overall goals. The stakeholders use the Project Charter developed in the Initiation Stage to assess if the deliverables have satisfied each of the goals set in the charter.

For complex projects, all sub-project teams and their managers are recommended to attend this meeting to present a complete and accurate picture of the deliverables. In case of an acceptance deadlock, negotiations or recommendations to extend the project are expected between the project leaders and senior management/stakeholders by using the punch list.

Punch list – A technique to identify the gaps between what the project team is presenting as deliverables and what the stakeholders want. The gaps are listed as each deliverable is deliberated by both parties. After which the project team estimates the cost and schedule to complete each gap and the stakeholders agree which items to pursue. A new task schedule is developed identifying the end points of each task. After completing all the punch list tasks, no further items are added and the project is considered closed.

Lessons learned assessment – A case study of the project often developed by the project leader or a specialist from the Corporate Communications department. The case study defines four important aspects of the project that will be useful for future project managers to emulate (best practices) or avoid (failures). These are:

  • Business case – how did the project benefit the business to justify its costs? The focus here is on the strategic aptitude of senior management or stakeholders that approved the project.
  • Project plan – how well was the plan developed? The focus here is on the planning competency of the team in preparing for the activities, calculating risks and costs, projecting schedules, and developing team work.
  • Project management methodology – were the tools and techniques used appropriate to the project? The focus here is on the methods adopted across the project lifecycle: initiation, planning, execution, control and monitor, and closing.
  • Team performance – how well did the teams follow the methodology and execute the plan? The focus here is on the team leaders and members, who may conduct self-assessments like 360 reviews to appraise each other’s performance.

With proper closing, the project team can accurately measure its success or failure. In short, the Closing Stage clearly identifies the credits (if successful) or accountability (if a failure) due the project team and its leaders and members.

Conclusion

Project management varies across industries, disciplines, and environments, and across levels of complexity, size, and competency. Still, all projects share some common traits, with a beginning and end, so to speak. The recommended online project management tools and techniques we have discussed across the Initiation Stage, Planning Stage, Execution Stage, Control/Monitor Stage, and Closing Stage are but the best practices culled by different project managers and experts throughout the history of project management. Many of these methods were developed by improving on previous experiences, so these tools and techniques are still a work in progress. As projects get more complex and as technology disrupts present practices, expect new tools and techniques sooner than later.

Category: Project Management Software

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