Project management is wonderfully vast. Every industry and sector needs project managers, and their work is vital to making all things work. As project management projects vary, so do the techniques competent project managers (PM) need to employ.
Why you need techniques
Project management isn’t just about making projects happen, but making them happen smoothly and efficiently. There are many moving parts to any project, and the PM has to help every stakeholder see how they all work together, how the timeline must flow, and be the organizational brain behind it all. That requires skill and know-how, but it also necessitates having methods that work best with various projects types and timespans.
The best PMs have a full complement of tools and techniques (regardless of industry) that they know well and can bring into play as the project determines fit. These techniques don’t eliminate the need for project management software but may work alongside and in many cases enhance use of the software available.
The following techniques will help you oversee and direct the projects under your purview toward success and manage your team efficiently and effectively.
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1. Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
At first glance, any project can be overwhelming. There is so much to do, and each deliverable or project within the project must flow to keep things moving. Guesswork at the beginning of any project usually spells disaster down the line. So it is imperative to plan out the work before anything begins.
The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) precisely does what it says it does. It takes the work and breaks it down into a series of smaller, individual tasks. That doesn’t just help you, as PM, to better organize things, but it is helpful to your team. Instead of concerning themselves with the entire project, they can focus on portions relevant to them and their skillset.
The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) says WBS is a ‘hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the team.’ A graph displays the completed product at the top of the page, extending to a box (or boxes) that shows larger tasks. Each larger task has lines that go to smaller tasks that will complete this larger one. The decomposition will continue until every job is listed.
You can easily accomplish this by taking your project, and determining the elements needed to make it happen. For example, my project is a party, and the elements are food, drink, entertainment, location, and people. I can take the element drink, and break down to non-alcohol and alcohol. As I continue, once I get to a point I can no longer use nouns and must use a verb, I have broken down to an appropriate level.
In a smaller project, you may be able to do this by hand, but project management software can assist you with larger projects. Whether sticky notes on a wall or a hierarchical structure, having the ability to create a visual representation of the work to be done is key.
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Scrum is a technique that comes from the Agile Development Framework. It entails the work of the project broken down into a Backlog of work consisting of Epics and User Stories with deliverables being produced in short cycles, called sprints. A team facilitated by a Scrum Master meets daily to discuss the progress and determine how they may efficiently remove any roadblocks. This is known to many as the daily standup.
The frequency of the discussions and the team’s function means that adjustments and revisions happen quickly and typically leads to a faster finish time and a more optimal result. It requires the PM to become a Scrum Master and play a servant leader role, facilitating the team towards self-organization and full accountability while facilitating roadblock removal.
In Scrum, sprints typically last two weeks, but can be any length as long as it is a time-boxed period. At the end of the sprint, the team will demonstrate to the customer(s), key stakeholder(s), and/or product owner(s) what was created during that time. Following the demo, the team meets to discuss in retrospect how working together went and how it could have gone better. That is in preparation for the next sprint planning session, and leading to the beginning of another sprint, which takes on another iteration, or deliverable of the overall project.
3. Gantt Charts
One tried and tested method is the use of Gantt Charts. They have been around for a while and have proven to work well for experienced PMs and beginners. Gantt Charts are a visual representation of identified tasks needing completion to finish the entire project, along with timelines of each.
You can see all dependencies, the time lengths, and how they interact and affect each other. Start dates and deadlines are also apparent. The charts can work well alone and can also be a visual, organizational tool used alongside other techniques.
These charts are useful for simplifying complex projects and the bar chart format allows you to quickly check on progress with a quick glance and are helpful in managing the dependencies between tasks.
Kanban is the Japanese word for a billboard, first developed by an industrial engineer at Toyota. They used it for scheduling to improve their manufacturing processes. Kanban entails using cards on an analog or digital board to show workflow. It’s instrumental in helping teams work well together because the emphasis is on the overall flow and not on any specific task or group.
In its most basic and simple form, Kanban takes each task and assigns them to one of three columns:
- To Do
You and your team move cards, or tasks, across the three columns as they complete tasks.
This method makes it easy for team members to see their tasks in the entire project context. It shows them what they must accomplish each day toward the broader goal. If needed, additional columns are added based on workflow such as “In Review” or “Testing” to name a few. Oftentimes, a “Priority” or “Rush” row is added near the bottom of the Doing Column for any fires that need to be put out. Prioritizing the cards results in greater efficiency.
Another great feature of Kanban is the Work-In-Progress (WIP) limit. This feature limits the number of tasks that may be added to the project at any stage. Being a core property of this software, WIP limits optimize work capacity and aid in the efficient performance of the team, while avoiding bottlenecks and overloading. WIP limits, tracking, forecasting, reporting functionality, and other features, mean that Kanban is a continuous improvement tool as well. As a company moves toward excellence, this software encourages each project to be carried out better than the last.
5. Critical Path Method (CPM)
Since the 1940s, in the Manhattan Project, the Critical Path Method (CPM) has become the mainstay of project management. CPM helps the project manager to create a project schedule that is used to make a timeline. CPM calls for a project model that includes all of the project’s tasks, the task’s duration, and where the dependencies lie; this is known as a network schedule diagram. It can also show milestones and deliverables within the schedule.
As a project may be considered a series of tasks that must be accomplished within a time frame to complete a larger project, a scheduling tool like CPM is crucial for knowing what needs to be done by when and keeping things running on time.
CPM uses the above information to work out the longest path for the outlined tasks and the shortest and longest possible periods. CPM evaluates possible start times, identifying the earliest and latest start and finish times. Float, or buffer time can be determined, helping to separate the most crucial tasks from those that are less consequential to the schedule. All of this data will indicate for you the shortest possible time for the completion of the project. CPM also helps with prioritization and decision-making.
The Waterfall takes the requirements of customers and project stakeholders and creates a plan to fulfill these requirements. It is a linear system of activities that flow through sequential phases. Simply put, one phase flows to the next.
Very often, project managers use Gantt Charts in conjunction with this technique. It allows them to include dependencies, subtasks, and follow the flow of tasks through the project life cycle.
An example of waterfall in five phases are:
- Design (Can use WBS to create tasks list)
- Implementation or Execution
- Review and Verify
- Maintain (and Modify, if necessary)
This method works best for known projects or work that has been done before that have distinct phases and few iterations or changes. The Project Management Institute, or PMI has one of the best known methodologies for waterfall project management known as the PMBOK Guide (Project Management Body of Knowledge) where projects move through 5 distinct process groups; Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing.
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Project management can be exciting work, especially if you feel competent and on top of things. There are hundreds of tools and techniques available to help your project run smoothly. The above techniques are just a few of those that can help you do and feel better at and about your work. Eventually, you will modify these techniques, or even blend them together or with others you pick up along the way, creating hybrid approaches. Regardless, always have these in your toolbox.
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