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Posted by on Jun 12, 2015

If We Know How To Be Successful, Why Is It So Difficult?

Last time I talked about my “three pillars of project management.” They were built from an analysis of project management success factors. During that analysis it struck me that I was reading about the same success factors that were being discussed when I started managing projects 20 years ago (e.g., Pinto and Kharbandra. 1995). So it struck me – if we have known how to be successful for so long, why is it so difficult?

I came up with a list of “challenges” that could help answer my question. I will provide these, with some ways to address them, over the next several blog posts.

Project Management Challenge #1 – Uncertainty

There is inherent uncertainty in delivering projects. Look at PMI’s definition of a project: “A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”   They go on: “…because of the unique nature of projects, there may be uncertainties or differences in the products, services or results that the project creates.” It is this need to identify and understand the uncertainty in projects that has promulgated and standardized project management processes and practices.

We can start with the baselines that comprise the key constraints on projects. We have to estimate the cost and the time to complete, of a “unique product, service or result; usually something that has not been done before – and thus the uncertainty.  In addition, estimates used to justify the project (e.g., business case, budget requests) are made some time before the start of the project. The cone of uncertainty provides a good visual of the relative amount of certainty over the life of a project.

Scope of UncertaintySource:

The one process that helps us better understand the uncertainty in delivering projects is risk management. This process identifies and manages future, uncertain events that, if they are realized, can impact project objectives. My mantra: risk management is project management.

Meeting the Challenge

There are several best practices that I have used to help reduce uncertainty.

  • Assumption documentation and testing. When we lack data in developing estimates, assumptions are used as to fill the gaps. The more details in our documentation of the assumptions, the easier it is to test the assumptions / validate the assumptions as we learn more and obtain additional data.
  • Using three point estimates. Developing estimates based on three points (optimistic, most likely, and pessimistic) provide a more realistic estimate – it accounts for the uncertainty in the estimate (the range from optimistic to pessimistic). It also helps identify those work packages with the greatest uncertainty (range) in the estimate and provides a way to focus efforts to reduce uncertainty on those parts of the project that are driving uncertainty. Several specific techniques and tools include PERT, Monte Carlo, and sensitivity analysis).
  • Asking one question. Risk management is easy – just continuously ask one question: “What is going to prevent me from getting this done?” It is forward looking and should be focused on important aspects of the project – completing a work package, meeting an objective, etc. Then frame the question in an “if – then statement:” if _____ occurs, then the project will_____.

Delivering a successful project not only involves knowing the “success factors,” but also understanding the challenges in managing projects, and more importantly, the ways to address the challenges. It starts with the basics of project management, and then applying the skills and tools to manage the challenges.

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