An open source project scheduling tool.

An Introduction to Project Management using Planner

As a project manager you have three main responsibilities:

  • Define what the project is supposed to accomplish.
  • Decide how the team should do the work.
  • Make sure that everyone works together toward the common goal.

It would be wonderful if that was all you needed to know to be effective as a project manager. In fact, you need to apply skills in twelve specific areas. Some of them you probably have already learned and will apply to your project without having to think about it. The rest you will have to learn and master on the job.

The best source to make sure you have these skills is the book Simple Project Management. It explains each of the twelve essential skills and offers step-by-step instructions. Here we will provide only enough information to get you started.

As a project manager you must satisfy each of these twelve areas:

  • Define the scope of the work you will contract to do for the customer.
  • Make sure that the value of the project justifies its cost
  • Decide how to handle each important risk.
  • Schedule each part of the project so that you can easily monitor the team's progress toward completion.
  • Manage all essential communications.
  • Acquire needed resources.
  • Take action to assure the quality of the result

The project team must do at least well enough in all twelve areas for the project to be successful. It is unfortunately true that great performance in one will not compensate for poor performance in another. As the project manager, it is your job to make sure that each is addressed.

Open Source Tools for Project Management

Planner and other open source tools can be a great help in managing a project. We'll get into more detail on how to use the tools effectively, but first a word about picking the right tool for the right task.

A few years ago I was shocked to learn that some people used a spreadsheet program to write memos. It seemed like a poor choice, especially because they also had a word processing program available to them. Apparently they had invested a lot of time and effort to learn one program and didn't want to take the time and effort to use another. Instead they choose familiar inefficiency. They choose a tool that limited their thinking instead of a tool that would lift them to a new realm of possibilities.

What software tools should the project manager use? We'll cover the use of three of them: the word processor, the spreadsheet, and the project scheduling tool. We will be careful to always use the right tool for each task. Sometimes, when it is useful to do so, we will enter similar data into more than one tool. We will show how each tool helps the project manager to communicate, make decisions, and monitor progress.

Start with the scope

When you are assigned a project, start by defining its scope and its intended benefits. In the process you will learn a lot about about the customer's needs and help to create the commitments necessary for the project to succeed.

Your objective in defining the project scope is to draw a line around the work that the project team will take on. Everyone associated with the project should understand where that line has been drawn. You will also want to make that their understanding does not drift during the life of the project. Because of these requirements it is almost always necessary to put the scope in writing.

Many approaches can be used to define the scope. You can collect the information from one-on-one interviews or bring it out in group discussion. Keep the scope document as brief as it can be and still accomplish its purpose. Some scope statements are one line long, others are hundreds of pages. On many projects the scope is defined in summary at first and then in detail later.

While the scope is usually defined at the beginning of the project, that is not the rule. Instead, the rule is: if the project does not have a defined scope, draft one and start using it. Refine it as you go until you have created an agreed-on scope definition.

Take advantage of your word processor to define and communicate the project scope. Keep everyone up-to-date with the current version. Many word processors will allow you to show the changes (usually with deletions as crossed out text and additions as underlined text). Use this feature if you have it. Explain the consequences of each scope change.

Put together your team.

Your project success depends on having enough people with the right skills to get the project done. As soon as you have a rough understanding of the scope and some ideas of how you will approach the project work, start mapping out what people you will need.

Identify the major areas of work that have to be completed. Make an educated guess at how many people will be required to work on each and how long they will take to complete.

It is often useful to enter these major areas of work into Planner as tasks. This can help to clarify the overall project time line. It will also help to clarify how many people you will need and when you will need them.

Make sure that the approach you are considering will fit within the required time frame and cost. Start immediately to recruit the key people you will need for the project.

Like defining the scope, assembling the team is usually done at the beginning of the project, but that is not the rule. The rule is: if you don't already have the people and skills required to complete the project, find out what you will need and start recruiting.

Estimate the effort required to complete the project.

An estimate is prepared by examining the work that has to be done, dividing it up into pieces, and figuring out approximately how long it will take to complete each piece (or task). Keep notes on the pieces you identify and how you came up with each estimate. Often it helps to use a word processor to keep track of what each piece consists includes and a spreadsheet to capture any formula you use to create the estimates.

The most common and most serious error in estimating is to omit tasks. For each task you identify, your estimate may be too high or too low. For each task you omit, the error is 100% too low. You notes will help you identify all of the required work.

There is a project management joke that is worth remembering:

    Question: When do we really know how long it will take to complete the project?

    Answer: After we are done!

If you have done other projects like this one you may be able to give your customer an accurate estimate of the work required. Otherwise, you can offer at best an educated guess. Make sure your customer understands the difference. Often your educated guess will be treated like a commitment or budget that you can't exceed. If so, be sure to add a margin for error.

While the focus of this activity is the creation of the estimate, we are really:

  1. improving our understanding of the scope,
  2. making sure that the project can be completed using the proposed approach,
  3. preparing to monitor the teams progress towards completion.

In every project, part of the time will be spent on important activities in addition to the tasks you define, for example: meetings, coaching, answering customer questions, evaluating the impact of proposed changes, etc. Add an adjustment to the estimates to account for this time. Depending on your circumstances this often comes to between 20% and 40% of the task estimates.

Put together a schedule

On the face of it, a schedule is just a chart or a table that shows when each task is supposed to start and finish. It has other important purposes that may not be immediately apparent.

  • It serves as a point of reference to monitor the teams productivity and schedule performance.
  • The schedule justifies the project manager's belief that the project can be completed by the target date. (See the book for suggestions on how to handle unrealistic target dates.)
  • It acts as a commitment to the customer and to management of when the team will complete its work.

The first decision in creating a schedule relates directly with its role in monitoring performance. Decide how frequently you will take schedule status. On a six month project you may choose weekly status, on a two week project you may choose daily status, or on a week-end project you may choose hourly status.

Next look at the tasks you have identified for the project. Combine tasks that are smaller than about half you status period. Schedule and assign these smaller tasks as a package. Divide tasks that are larger than about twice the status period. Define clear criteria for completion of each piece.

Planner allows you to enter the names of people who will work on the project so that you can use the tool to help you think through task assignments. If it is obvious to you who will work on each task, don't use this feature. Just because data can be entered into the tool doesn't mean that it should be. On the other hand, if the task assignments are not obvious, enter the peoples name and make tentative assignments of people to tasks.

If your draft schedule would not allow you to reach your target dates, try rethinking assignments or change you approach. Be careful to make sure your people are not overbooked.

(This section is a work in progress -- more will be added soon.)

Twelve essential project management skills

  1. Scope - Set limits
  2. Contract - Gain commitment
  3. Customer - Satisfy the customer
  4. Value - Deliver benefits
  5. Cost - Look before you leap
  6. Risk - Anticipate problems
  7. Schedule - Complete tasks when planned
  8. Monitor - Make necessary adjustments
  9. Team - Match people and tasks
  10. Communications - Follow up on vital information
  11. Resources - Provide tools and support
  12. Quality - Set high standards

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Copyright 2003 by Brian Christensen