Project Management Q&A with Georgia State Graduate Students

Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited by course instructor Dr. Charles Xiaoxue Wang to be a guest speaker during his graduate class in Project Management at Georgia State University.

My session with the students turned out as an extremely focused “question and answer” session on project management relating my real world corporate experience to their readings from the course textbook “Effective Project Management” by Robert K. Wysocki.

Below are a sample of the student questions and my answers:

1.  If you were managing a project and the due date got moved up by 10% of the time allocated to complete the project where would you make changes?

A: Attempt to reduce the duration of the critical path by the same amount by which the date has been reduced by trying one or more of the following:

  • Reducing scope
  • Adding more resources
  • Overtime
  • Doing multiple tasks that were planned serially, concurrently

2. In your experience, what are 3 “red flags” that a project is in trouble?

A: Three key red flags that I monitor are:

  • Constant change requests
  • Late deliverables
  • High number of defects/poor quality in deliverables

3. We have learned in our class that the theory of project management has changed a great deal over the years. The model has moved from a rather linear approach to what we are currently studying which is a much more fluid approach to the model. Where do you see project management going in the next 3-5 years? How can we as new project managers ensure that we are marketable?

A: There is a clear move towards a more agile/fluid approach to project management, particularly when dealing with software projects. In addition to this shift to agile project management, in the future you should expect project managers to need deep domain expertise rather than have just general project management skills.

So, if you want to be a highly sought after PM in the future, it would be beneficial to start in a business analyst role or a similar subject matter expert role in order to learn your industry inside out.

In addition to this, I expect in the future more project managers will have to move beyond just managing scope, cost and budget but also playing a role in delivering the technical details of the project. I see this happening because project teams are getting smaller due to the economy driving smaller budgets.

However, just because budgets are smaller does not mean organizations don’t want big results. So project managers will have to figure out how to deliver quick wins with small budgets in order to justify additional funding for the projects.

4. In the event that a project does get off track, what would you consider to be the best strategy for course correction?

A: The first thing I recommend is to execute a root cause analysis with your key team members and come up with a corrective action plan. The next step is to evaluate how far off track you are and decide if your critical path is impacted or if you will miss a major deliverable date.

If so, you then must plan how you will communicate this news to the project sponsor and relevant stakeholders with emphasis on the corrective action you are taking.

 5. What one tool do you use the most to ensure successful monitoring of a project?

A: I would say there is not any one tool you can use to achieve this. However, a good start is a detailed project plan in MS Project that highlights your critical path, dependencies, allocation of resources, and progress.

This plan will only be as good as the data in it, so you will also have to have a strategy on how you want to keep it updated either through status reports or a dedicated resource whose job is to stay in touch with task owners on a regular basis.

6.  In your experience, is there a 1-to-1 correlation of tasks to micro-deliverables, where every task has a micro-deliverable, or do you find that there can be a number of micro-deliverables in one task.

A: The answer to this question is dependent on a number of factors:

  • How important is the deliverable
  • What is the duration of that deliverable
  • How tightly coupled the deliverables are based on the task owners experience
  • How many resources are assigned to the task

Typically I like to split task into micro-deliverables in the following scenarios:

  • If the duration of the task is much longer than other comparable task within that WBS,
  • If there are multiple resources assigned to one deliverable, and/or
  • There are components of that deliverable needed as input to start another task that can be done earlier or later than other components.

7. What is the best strategy to be a successful project manager?

A: First and foremost learn how to be a great communicator. In order to do this in the project management world, you must first have an expert understanding of the business and functional requirements you are delivering.

Then you must be comfortable customizing your communication style for three key audiences:

  • Business sponsors
  • Project team members, and
  • End users

8. One article we read talked about the effectiveness of requiring team members to complete micro-deliverables once a week as a way to get a more accurate estimate of actual project completion status. Have you used this method? If so, did you find that it helped? What are some examples of micro-deliverables?

A: Yes, I use this method on a regular basis as using micro-deliverables is a very effective way to keep a project under control. Micro-deliverables are helpful because you don’t have to guess on what percentage complete a task is; it is either not started, started, past due, or 100% complete when you status the project week to week.

A good example of a micro-deliverable is a requirements document. The micro-deliverables for this are business requirements, functional requirements, and business rules. You could even go a level deeper and break each type of requirements document into logical components.

9. Working as a project manager in IT, I’m guessing you might have experienced dealing with scope creep. Are there ways to avoid it? What are the best ways of handling scope creep once it has happened?

A: The best way to handle scope creep is to have a change management process at the onset of the project. This process must be supported by senior project sponsors as it will only be effective if implemented from the top down by leadership.

If scope creep has already happened and it is something that you can’t reverse, you should first take corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again, then make sure the change that caused the scope creep still proceeds through the change management process to document all the downstream impacts and inform all stakeholders of an additional changes that will be implemented to reduce negative outcomes.

10.  The textbook we are using in this class talks about the importance of project planning and developing such things as Work Breakdown Structures, project network diagrams to determine the critical path, Gantt charts, Joint Project Planning Sessions, etc. Based on your experience, what is one of the most essential and important steps of project planning that needs to happen before a project is commenced?

A: Joint planning sessions are critical. Even if you do all of the planning as a solo effort or internally within your team, you must still get stakeholder buy-in. A good way to do this is to bring all of the key people to the table and let them provide their input into the plan.

The plan will be much easier to enforce when all stakeholders feel they have ownership in the plan by participating and being heard in planning process.

11. What are some successful communication strategies you have employed?

A: Successful project communication starts with excellent stakeholder analysis. Each stakeholder has different communication needs. Your job as a project manager will be much easier if you consistently deliver the right message to the right stakeholders at the right time.

The only way to do this is to know your stakeholders well and develop a communication plan customized to their needs.

12.  How do you address issues with management, when you know that they will be reluctant to proceed and you know it is imperative for them to follow through on the plan?

A: There is no easy way to do this, but I would start by presenting at least two possible solutions to resolving the issue with each of the solution options supported with a pros/cons analysis based on metrics of the scope, time, cost and quality impacts.

If I am sure one option is clearly the best, then I would focus the discussion on how not proceeding with my recommendation will cause a negative outcome.

I would only do this additional step if there are no doubts in the accuracy of the metrics used to come to this conclusion.

13. We have read a great deal about misreporting of progress by team members. How do you validate progress and what do you do about misreporting?

A: It is a good practice to spot check progress through peer reviews or through your personal technical expertise. If you find that someone is purposely misreporting progress on a critical deliverable, I would remove that person from the project if I have an alternative individual of the same or better quality.

If not, and I can verify that they have intentionally misreported their progress; I would give them a written warning.

14. When is it most useful to use project management software and when is it more bother than it’s worth?

A: Project management software has always been useful for me when there are significant consequences involved with missing scope, time, and cost objectives and when there is a need to report actual vs. baseline.

It becomes more of a bother than it is worth when there are no consequences for missing the above objectives or if the project has very few tasks and subtasks