Activity Planning with the People Aspects in Mind

Poor project planning affects project staff negativelyTry this experiment. Pick up that winning proposal with its wonderful win themes and confident project plan. Technically it’s a work of art. But, from the people aspects, it can turn into what we in delivery call the “death march.”

I’m a “delivery guy.” Meaning that for most of my career I worked on projects that our company sold to our clients. So when I was able to participate as a member of the proposal team to help influence how the project should be delivered, I considered that nirvana indeed.

After all, “delivery guys” know that they can deliver what they proposed in the bid.

The problem typically came when the “sales guys” (and in this context I am being gender neutral, as in my experience sales people of either gender were equal opportunity offenders) wrote the proposal with little or no input from the “delivery guys.” Or the “sales guys” would impose win themes on the proposal writing team with such conviction that these themes could only have been dictated from on high (i.e. corporate).

The proposal writers’ job was to support the win themes on the one hand, and describe what could actually be delivered on the other – often a delicate dance with the truth. Oh yes, and propose a price THAT MUST ALSO HAVE COME FROM THE ORACLES ON HIGH, because no sane delivery person could have ever delivered such fantasy in the timeframes promised.

Lest you think that I dislike the “sales guys,” that is untrue. On the contrary, I owe them an incredible career. Thanks to them, I rarely had a non-billable day. And thanks to them and their uncanny ability to consistently and optimistically underestimate, I was able to achieve over 40 years of work experience in my roughly 25 years on the front lines as a delivery guy.

My premise for this series of 52 project management success tips (and if you’re keeping track, this is number 10) is that projects often do not achieve the client’s complete objectives, or fail outright, because of the disregard for the people aspects of project management. In my observations over the years, that disregard occurs at every stage of the project, whether in Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring, and yes, even Closing.

However, it’s my opinion that not taking the people aspects of project management into account begins most often at this very point in the project – in the Define Activities portion of the planning process. I like to call this the Project Time Management planning process, because it is here that we get our first true glimpse into what it will take to deliver without over-extending our project staff or the end-users loaned to the project.

In the latter part of my career, when I served client organizations as an independent project advisor, I assisted clients in the review of responses to their Request for Proposals (RFPs). In some cases I cautioned them that certain proposed work effort seemed ambitiously optimistic. Sometimes the client would take that into consideration and score the proposal appropriately; often, however, they would accept it as part of the fixed-fee effort.

Why not? After all, the bidding organizations must know what they are doing. And so it begins …

So how do we consider the people aspects of project management when responding to an RFP? Or, in the case of an internal IT shop, how do we develop a realistic Statement of Work (SOW) that shows executive management what it will really take to deliver their objectives?

I mentioned earlier that whenever we “delivery guys” were involved in the proposed approach and estimates for delivering the project, that was nirvana. We were given responsibility for our own destiny, and nothing cleared the mind more than that realization. Yes, win themes were important. Yes, we wanted to win so that we would have ongoing jobs and careers. Yes, there were opportunities to sharpen the pencil and get creative, to help ensure that win. But at the same time, we needed to be realistic.

From my experience, one of the first and best clues as to what is viable in estimating the proposed effort is to decompose the preliminary Work Breakdown Structure (refer to the article “Why You Should Build The Project Plan Around Your Client’s Viewpoint.”  We can do this by decomposing the work packages into the preliminary activities required to produce all the required project deliverables. These don’t necessarily need to be included in the proposal or the SOW, but this simple exercise at the outset can quickly provide the framework for what it will take to deliver the project.

That all sounds good, but aren’t I still caught up in the technical and/or process aspects of project management? When am I going to get to the people aspects of project management?

Look at it this way. The process of decomposing the project to the activity level, and then laying out the activities end-to-end with predecessor and successor relationships, is one of the fastest and strongest indicators of what it will take to deliver the project – and thus whether it can be done without the “death march” and the toll on project staff.

For example, before resource requirements and activity duration are estimated to any level of detail, a high-level Gantt chart of major activities can be quite revealing. Does the client have certain mandatory deadlines? Superimpose these on the Gantt chart to see if your plan can meet those hard dates. Does the client have numerous deliverables, all of which have mandated review timeframes? Add these review periods onto the timelines and see how far into the future the project end date is extended.

Several years ago, I was developing the proposed project schedule for a major bid that my employer was pursuing. In reading the RFP, there was nothing complex or out of the ordinary, and our executive was confident that we could meet the client’s mandated timeframes. However, the client had mandated over 40 deliverables, each one having the following review requirements:

  • a required fifteen workdays for the client’s project staff to review each deliverable, plus
  • five days for us to respond to their deliverable review comments, plus
  • five more days for the client’s to re-review and approve the deliverable.

That came to (15+5+5) x 40 = 1,000 project workdays just for deliverables review!

Obviously, when I developed the high-level activity Gantt chart, I showed parallel work effort. But even with that, the Gantt showed a significant extension in the project schedule solely due to deliverable reviews. As a result, we were able to convince the client to combine several deliverables into one and vary the review process durations based on the size and complexity of the deliverables. This reduced project duration considerably, bringing it in line with the client’s expected delivery timeframes.

This was a small exercise in using the technical and process tools of project management. However, it saved significant unanticipated work effort for the project team members, which undoubtedly would have come out of their weekends and evenings in order to meet the required timeframes. In this case, we used the tools in consideration of the people aspects of project management.

People aspects. People aspects. People aspects. Define the project activities with the people aspects in mind. Always.

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