9 Ways to Engage Project Staff in Activity Planning

Plan Detailed Project Activities with your Team MembersHow successful have you been in defining effective project schedules with detailed activities and solid estimates? Have you relied too much on your organization’s boiler plate and tools?

Or have you used the vast reservoir of project experience that is resident within your project teams to assist you in developing the best project schedules possible?

In an earlier blog post, “11 Sure-Fire Tactics to Involving Your Team in Project Planning,” I emphasized (as the title suggests) that project leadership must include project staff in developing the overall project management plan. In this post, I continue that discussion as it relates to the more detailed process of activity planning.

Whereas project planning at the outset of a project may be as much art as science, by the time the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is satisfactorily developed, and detailed activity planning is underway, the project planning effort becomes more science than art.

As much as we would like to believe that we can just input some basic parameters into a sophisticated planning spreadsheet, and out will come a scientifically accurate project estimate, most of us do understand that this is not a plug-and-play exercise. To avoid project pitfalls down the road during project execution, it is incumbent on project leadership to include the team members in this scientific exercise – and by scientific, I mean the vast, real world, roll-up-your-sleeves, empirical and anecdotal experience that project staff bring to the planning table.

How to employ people aspects of project management in developing better activity list, schedules, estimates

Here are several suggestions that, while using the available tools and processes, rely heavily on utilizing the people aspects of project management to develop more achievable detailed project plans:

  1. Trust and delegation. Project Managers need to realize that they are not the anointed ones solely endowed with the capability of defining project activities and estimates. They need to delegate the development of the detailed project schedule to those who have been on the front lines of project delivery most recently. This helps boost team morale as team members feel like major contributors. Additionally, staff who helped develop the estimates will perform their best to meet the timelines during project execution.

    Project Managers can learn to listen to their project staff, trust their opinion and let them learn a new skill while providing their expertise.

  2. Better defined activities. Project staff, fresh off another engagement, have the required experience to skillfully establish a sold set of activities. They know what worked, what didn’t work and where they were able to innovate. They have a better feel for how much effort will be required for a given activity. Staff should be permitted to deviate from the boiler plate planning tools that are often resurrected for new engagements.

    Likewise, involving the end-users who have been loaned to the project provides the project team with a perspective of activities that need to be performed based on the knowledge and subject matter expertise of the client staff. Involving client staff at this point not only educates their IT counterparts, but provides insights that would have been missed had they not been involved in the planning effort.

  3. Decomposition of activities into smaller tasks. This sounds like a basic process element of project management, and it is. However, I’m still amazed at how often this part of the process is done haphazardly or incompletely, with an attitude that “we know how to do this so why document all of that detail.”

    From my own experience, the projects that I worked on were long-term and very large. Without a detailed decomposition of tasks, it would have been difficult to allocate resources and track progress. But the main benefit was that staff, down to the lowest levels of the project hierarchy, were more comfortable when they were presented with manageable tasks and task estimates – even more so if they had a hand in developing the detailed schedule.

  4. Clear roles, responsibilities and expectations. Beginning with the project scope statement and the WBS, project staff should be informed of their roles, responsibilities, and expectations for delivery. By clarifying these items from the beginning of the project, and then employing the staff in developing the detailed project activities and estimates, the project sub-teams become organized and prepared to manage themselves.
  5. Communication. Maybe this should have been the first point. I have both worked on projects and observed projects where the lines of communication were not well established. The project management staff had their huddles. Client management had their huddles. Cross-team communication happened when there was an outright project breakdown, then often began as a finger-pointing exercise.

    By involving team members and end-users in the activity planning, it opens up the lines of communication out of necessity. The teams and project management staff learn to ask good questions, understand each other, clarify project requirements, and work together in a more cohesive and cooperative manner. Everyone has “skin in the game” and will do their best to uphold their responsibilities.

  6. Staff allocation. One of the beneficial fallouts of involving staff in activity planning and estimating is that they see the immensity of the project, while at the same time gain a sense that it is doable. In realizing the significance of their upcoming contribution to the project, they also get a sense of the need for breaks and vacations, and when best to schedule their own.

    With staff involved in activity planning, it is unlikely that time away from the project will be neglected in developing the estimating assumptions. Similarly, project staff typically have a better sense of team members’ skill levels, and can influence resource allocation more effectively.

  7. People Management. When project management staff perform all the detailed activity planning, it is easy to see how project team members can feel relegated to being a cog in the overall plan to be fit into whatever activity seems appropriate. However, when project staff, including end-users, are involved in the detailed activity planning, they tend to be more thought put into the planning process.

    There is a major benefit to this. As project activities are executed, the people who are doing the work understand the plans and schedules that they helped create in a deeper way. The lines of communication opened during planning process are now open to assist staff in effectively executing their tasks. Roles and responsibilities are better understood, and project outcomes are more likely to be viewed consistently across the project.

  8. Realistic deadlines. There will always be tension between project management staff and team members with regard to project deadlines. Project Managers want to finish the project on time, regardless of the challenges along the way, and will put an optimistic spin on estimating activity effort. Project team members want to try to mitigate the challenges that they know will pop up, and will tend to estimate conservatively to have ample time to deal with them.

    However, by having the team members involved in the activity planning, they begin to understand the areas of complexity, the inherent risk areas, and opportunities to shorten the activity durations. At the same time, project management staff begin to understand challenges that they had not considered, not having been deep in the trenches for a while.

  9. Sensible risk management. On many of the projects I have served, risk management seemed to be the purview of senior project management staff, the Project Management Office (PMO), or a separate Quality Assurance vendor. By having team members develop the activity list and estimates, they can bring fresh experience to potential risks that need to be managed. They have been deeper in the project delivery trenches, and have been there more recently than many senior staff. As a result, they are able to identify and help quantify true project risks.

I’ve been challenged in this area by Project Managers and others who feel this perspective is too optimistic, that project team members don’t have the experience to be able to define the correct activities and estimate well. My response is that Project Managers are not abandoning this process to their staff, but rather delegating detailed work to them. In doing so, they are coaching, challenging assumptions, opening communication lines and developing future Project Managers.

What I don’t tell them, however, and what they soon learn for themselves, is they themselves learn from this delegation. They are able to develop solid detailed activity plans with the fresh perspective and more recent experience of the staff doing the work.

Win-win. And the final plans tend to be more realistic and achievable.

Imagine that.

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