7.1 The transition from planning to action

In working on a project, it is sometimes difficult to make the transition from planning to action.

It usually falls to the manager, as leader of the project, to make sure that activities are started; but not before it is clear who should carry out which tasks, and when. The first step for the project manager is to ensure that the plan is communicated to those who will be working on the project. It is not always safe to assume that others will understand the plan or its implications, particularly in terms of what they should be doing to make it happen. Plans are often focused on time-scales and schedules.

If you have used computer-based packages to develop a plan, at a high level of detail, that plan can be difficult for others to interpret. Make sure that the key people responsible for taking action on the first tasks understand what is needed. You may need to check that all the procedures have been gone through to secure their commitment to the project, and it might be necessary to issue a formal instruction to start work.

7.2 Defining team responsibilities

Depending on the size of a project, responsibility for each key stage may need to be allocated to a member of the project team.

Clear allocation of roles and responsibilities for tasks and key stages ensures that each piece of work is ‘owned’ by a particular person, and that overall responsibility for the work is spread appropriately between members of the team. Establishing clear lines of accountability for each team member is important to give them:

  • a role in the overall plan;
  • authority to act on behalf of the project;
  • a sense of commitment;
  • an understanding of your expectations;
  • responsibility to report to you on progress.

7.2.1 Target dates

The overall plan will indicate the start dates for each group of activities, or each task. A useful way of focusing activities on achieving outcomes is to provide clear dates for completion of stages and of final outcomes. If there are a number of different types of team, these may start and finish tasks at different times.

Where the work of one team depends on another having completed in time, there are important issues to consider. Although a good control system will provide information about progress on the tasks, the relationships between the people in the teams can have a profound influence on the process, with the potential to add considerable value or to cause considerable disruption.

7.3 Resourcing the project

Work will be delayed if the necessary materials and equipment are not readily available, or if the accommodation for the project has not been arranged. Although the project manager is responsible for overall resource allocation and utilisation, much of the work can be delegated. By conferring responsibility to achieve an outcome within the budget, more direct links between costs and outcomes are established. In most projects there will be organisational internal controls and statutory requirements to manage resources, for example in handling money or other materials.

In setting up the project responsibilities it may be necessary to identify people with particular qualifications or experience to manage specialist areas of work. Even when all the necessary physical resourcing has been agreed and planned with a sufficient budget to enable it all to happen, it will often fall to a project manager to take care of practical details and to encourage everyone to take action.

7.4 Controlling the project

7.4.1 Unique problems and constraints

In an ideal world, projects would be completed on time, within specified budgets and to the standards set out in the plans.

In practice, any project involves a set of unique problems and constraints that inevitably create complexity and risk. Plans are liable to change as work progresses, and each stage in the process may have to be revisited several times before completion. Projects do not exist in a vacuum: they often take place in rapidly changing contexts, and the impact of the changing environment on the life-cycle of the project has to be managed. In projects, new issues will emerge as activities evolve.

7.4.2 Monitoring as control

To control you need a plan that indicates what should happen and information that tells you what is actually happening. This is monitoring activity. By comparing the information about actual progress against the plan, you will be able to identify any variations.

Control is an important part of project management. It involves:

  • reporting the progress of the project against the plan,
  • analysing the reasons for variance between progress and plan,
  • taking action to eliminate variance.

7.4.2.1 Gathering information

Successful control of a project depends on the flow of information, so it is important to have systems in place to make sure that you get feedback on what is happening.

If the project team is meeting regularly to review progress, monitoring becomes more dynamic and changes to the plan can be achieved by consensus. Involving the team not only helps to keep everyone on target – it also builds commitment.

Monitoring is the most important activity during the implementation phase of a project, because it is the only way in which you can control the work to be sure that the objectives of the project will be met. To keep track of what is happening you may have to consider gathering information on two levels:

  • macro levels – to include overall business objectives, time, budget, quality,
  • micro levels – to include tracking individual tasks; that they have been initiated, that they are running on track and that they are due to complete as planned.

Project status reports and project status meetings are formal reporting structures that enable you to collect and collate this information. However, if you rely on others to provide all of your information you may miss early signs of difficulties – many experienced project managers make a point of ‘walking the project’ to keep in touch with the day-to-day issues that emerge as work progresses.

Control is only possible if you have a plan against which to measure progress. If the plan is clear about what should be achieved and when, it is possible to monitor progress to be sure that each outcome is of the right quality and achieved at the right time.

7.4.2.2 Milestones

Milestones are measuring points that are used in reviewing the progress of a project.

Milestones can be set in different ways, to reflect different purposes. For example, milestones are often used to provide an agenda for regular meetings which review the project. These reviews should take place, weekly, monthly or quarterly, depending on the nature of the project.

Another approach is to set the milestones to reflect key phases of the project. Sometimes such milestones are established in this way to enable reviews to consider whether the project should be continued or should stop at this stage. Some organisations take a more challenging approach and inquire at each review whether the project should be terminated, expecting an adequate defence to be made in terms of the continuing value of the project to the organisation.

7.4.3 Interdependency of systems

The control system approach to project control provides a simple overview of the process of planning, measuring against the plan and taking action to bring things back into line if necessary.

This suggests that events will move in a fairly linear way. Life is messier than this, however, and every time that something happens it will have an impact on everything else around it – so the interdependency of systems is important to consider.

7.4.4 Project status reports

Project status reports are regular and formal. You will need to decide how often they are necessary – depending on the size and nature of the project, this might be weekly, monthly or quarterly. In some situations reports might need to be hourly if a problem is causing serious concern and has the potential to delay progress seriously. Daily reports might be necessary if there are implications for arranging work for the following day.

What guides are there for deciding the frequency of reporting? Two of the biggest influences are:

  • the degree of risk involved;
  • the time it would take to recover from failure to complete important milestones.

Other considerations might include:

  • how quickly the project could get out of control;
  • the time it would take to implement contingency plans.

The project sponsor may have a preference about the frequency of reports and review meetings.

To prepare the report, you will need to have information from the members of the project team on:

  • completion of delegated tasks;
  • completion of key stages;
  • any work that is behind schedule (and why);
  • any issues that need to be resolved (as soon as they arise);
  • any difficulties anticipated in the near future.

Once you have set up a system for regular reporting you will probably have to make sure that it happens, at least in the early stages. Be prepared to chase up reports and to insist that they are necessary and must be presented on time.

The information gained from project status reports will be helpful in compiling reports to stakeholders, but different types of report may be appropriate for stakeholders with different concerns. For example, the project sponsor may be most concerned with the overall progress against goals, but stakeholders concerned with only one group of project objectives may only want information about these. There may be confidential information to be shared within a limited group of stakeholders. Some stakeholders will only have an interest in the overview and the implications for the organisation.

7.4.5 Project meetings schedule

You need to decide early on what meetings are essential to the monitoring process. All your stakeholders will expect to receive reports at regular intervals, whether formally or informally. So you need to ask yourself:

  • Who needs to be informed?
  • About what?
  • How often?
  • By what means?

Effective communication involves giving information, collecting information and listening to people. To ensure the smooth running of your project, you might need any or all of the following:

  • formal minuted meetings which probably run to a schedule which is outside your control,
  • meetings with your sponsor (which might be on a one-to-one basis),
  • progress meetings with the project team,
  • individual meetings on a one-to-one basis with team members,
  • ad hoc problem-solving meetings when particular issues need to be resolved.

Meetings need a clear purpose and focus, and they should be recorded on project schedules. They should be time-limited and given proper priority in diaries, so that time is not wasted by waiting for inputs from key people. Meetings will only be respected if they are managed to avoid wasting time and effort.

7.4.6 Maintaining balance

Monitoring is also concerned with achieving a balance of the three dimensions of the project:

  • cost – the resources available;
  • time – the schedule;
  • quality – the scope and appropriateness of the outputs or outcomes.

Many of the difficulties in implementing a project are caused by poor time management. This will have a direct effect on the costs of the project, as well as on the quality of what is achieved. So there need to be systems for monitoring:

  • the time spent on project tasks;
  • the resources used (people, materials and equipment);
  • compliance with applicable quality standards.

These are the three dynamics that are always key to keeping a balance in managing a project. There are a number of options for how you might take action to maintain this balance, once monitoring has provided you with information that suggests that action is needed.

  • Splitting the key stages to avoid each following another when there is no necessity to have one in place before the next: If it is possible to carry out two or more key stages concurrently, you will speed the project up, but you will need to resource all the concurrent stages rather than waiting for one to finish so that staff can be moved to the next stage.
  • Making savings by removing or reducing contingencies from estimates: as the project work progresses you could review the contingency time and budgets that had been estimated. You will be in a better position to judge how much contingency is likely to be needed as the project progresses.
  • Re-evaluating the dependencies in the logic diagram: You may have been over-cautious in making the first judgements about the sequence of activities. As some outcomes are achieved, you may find that you can avoid some of the dependencies.
  • You may find that you can make more use of slack time to speed up completion of tasks.
  • Avoiding duplication of effort: If you can minimise duplication you can make savings of time and effort.
  • Re-negotiating lengthened time-scales if an unanticipated problem causes a delay that cannot be recovered: If this is the situation, it is worth calculating whether lengthening the time-scale would be more cost-effective than increasing the resources to enable completion on time.
  • Increasing the resources available will usually increase the costs, so this should be considered alongside other options. It may be possible to increase resources at a limited cost by reviewing the use of existing staff. For example, instead of getting new people with appropriate expertise assigned to a key stage which is falling behind schedule, you may already have such people within the team but carrying out activities that have less need of that expertise.
  • If a project is facing serious delays or is running over budgeted costs, it is worth considering the quality targets. Reducing the quality or scope of specified outputs or outcomes may be possible. In considering this option, it is worth reviewing what quality means to each of the key stakeholders. Additional features may have been included in the project and these add very little value for the majority of stakeholders.

Monitoring expenditure is usually exercised through regular reports. In many organisations the financial aspects of a project would be subject to their usual financial procedures. There may be decisions to make about the number and levels of budgets, and about how frequently budget-holders should receive information about expenditure and reports on their current position.

7.4.7 Tracking progress

Gantt charts and critical path diagrams are useful for tracking project activity and for making necessary changes to the project plan. Project-planning software may also be used; the original chart is kept as the standard and any modifications are superimposed.

7.4.8 Controlling changes to the project

Sometimes an addition or change to the project will be requested.

This can be difficult for those who manage the project, because you will want both to maintain good relations with your client and to protect your profit margin and budget for resources. The first step is to assess the extent to which this will cause a need for additional time or resources. Perhaps the change can be accommodated in the project plan within the existing time-scale and budget, for example by altering some of the tasks in the later stages. Once the implications for time and cost of the requested change are known, you can decide how to respond to the client.

The change might be agreed without any charge to the client. There might be a case for making an additional charge, and you will have the full costing for the modification to support your claim. You may want to negotiate with the client to achieve a solution that suits both of you, again with full understanding of the implications. Whatever is decided, you will need to be fully informed of the cost and time implications of the proposed change before you enter discussions about how it could be managed.

Once any change has been agreed, it is usual to review the project documentation, making a formal amendment to the project brief, and amending the schedules and budgets and noting changes in the plan. You will also have to communicate the changes to anyone who needs to know in order to take appropriate action.