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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Improve the performance of a project with a good start

By Stephen Northcutt

Many projects fail due to cost overruns, falling behind schedule, and so forth. We can reduce the risk of project failure by investing some time in up front planning before we start. A key to success in project management is to identify all stakeholders and ensure that they clearly understand and support what the project should achieve.

Have you ever had a situation where someone brought you a new software program or tool that you didn't ask for, that you were not given a chance to provide input as to what you needed? How did you feel?

To avoid such problems, many organizations adopt a formal project charter. According to Wikipedia, "In project management, a project charter or project definition is a statement of the scope, objectives and participants in a project. It provides a preliminary delineation of roles and responsibilities, outlines the project objectives, identifies the main stakeholders, and defines the authority of the project manager. It serves as a reference of authority for the future of the project."[1]

There are a number of project charter templates available on the Internet to make sure that you dot all the "i"s and cross the "t"s, but a key concept is communication. It is important to send status reports in order to make sure people know what you are doing. Pick up the phone and talk to people.

Sending a project charter spreadsheet or Word document around the organization does not count as communicating the goals, scope, needs and purpose of the project. Many people do not open attachments.

Ensure communication has occurred. To be sure, a formal project charter is important though, and this will help the team and management maintain a paper trail.

It is also imperative that we understand each of the team member's roles. Someone holds the power, the true authority. If we don't have them on board, there is no possibility of success. Other members operate through influence; perhaps their reputation is what makes them an effective stakeholder. As a leader, you must identify anyone who serves as the gatekeeper between you and the people you need to work with to complete the project. Many projects have been stalled or harmed by naysayers, people who overtly or covertly refuse to support the project, usually because of their love for the status quo. Finally, almost every project has an evangelist; someone who truly believes in the mission of the project. When the evangelist, power broker and decision maker are the same person, it's easy to manage a project. Remember the quadrant of authority and attitude - all successful project management officers have two things in common: the authority to manage their projects, and a "can do" attitude. If your situation does not allow this, you probably cannot use project management techniques.

An important early step in the project is a work breakdown structure that, as the name suggests, breaks the project down into components. "The way to get beyond being overwhelmed and confused is to break the project into pieces, organize the pieces in a logical way using a WBS, and then get help from the rest of your project team. The psychologists say our brains can normally comprehend around 7-9 items simultaneously. A project with thousands or even dozens of tasks goes way over our ability to grasp all at once. The solution is to divide and conquer. The WBS helps break thousands of tasks into chunks that we can understand and assimilate. Preparing and understanding a WBS for your project is a big step towards managing and mastering its inherent complexity."[2]

NetMBA has a generic structure diagram and outline.[3] Another good resource is[4]