Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Planning a Project

My last post was about the importance of preparation. This follows on with that thought. Over the last few weeks I have worked with a few clients to sort out some messes. That's fine - that's one of the things that I do, after all. Fire fighting, we call it when we're trying to make it sound exciting. Most of the time, however, it wouldn't be necessary if all the more boring stuff was done in the first place.

I'm talking about planning, yes, but also Operations, Logistics, Project Management, and just good old fashioned management.

For example (and - notwithstanding the fact that I have asked permission from my client to write about this - I will not be identifying anyone), I have a client who has a new Contact Management Systems (CMS) that is trying to go live. Three weeks ago, I was brought in to try to sort out the mess that my client had got into. Some necessary work wasn't being done and there was a stand-off between my client and their supplier that had resulted in the first round of lawyers' letters. No-one was happy - the supplier was annoyed (to say the least) that they felt they were being asked to do additional work for no payment, and my client was very annoyed that necessary functionality wasn't available and they were being told that they needed to pay over the contract price to get it.

Both parties were at fault. Both parties had made (large) assumptions about the way the other party would work. Both had been guilty of under-communicating.

Now - a couple of weeks good work (and a long week next week) and we are back talking to each other, we have a proper project plan in place, and the new system should go live at the end of next week. I'm tempted to say 'well done me', but that's not my point. My point is that the whole débâcle could have been avoided in the first place.

The project was under planned and under thought. There are some simple steps (particularly with software, but this applies to web site development etc too) that had not been completed.

  • Have a person in charge
    • Someone in your firm needs to have the time to look after this - every day
    • Ideally they will have a powerful champion - someone on the Board who believes in the project and will help as required
  • Have a full specification
    • So have a document that goes into vast detail about as much as possible. State the obvious at every stage. Dot everything that should be dotted and cross what needs to be crossed. Have pictures of some of the screens you want to see if they are important - actually, have pictures of most of the screens even if they are not.
    • Discuss the specification internally and, if in doubt, re-write it or add more pages.
    • Work done at this stage saves weeks of problems later in the project
    • Discuss it in excruciating detail with the supplier and get them sign acceptance of it (and then please remember to keep a signed copy. If I had £5 for every time a client said that a contract had been signed, they were sure, but no-one was sure where it was...)
  • Have a project plan
    • When will the work be done
    • When will you as the client deliver the things you need to deliver them
    • Get dates agreed for every stage of the project
    • Get the supplier to agree the project plan and sign it (see above about keeping a copy of this too)
  • Have meetings
    • Have a weekly meeting with the supplier through the project
    • Honestly - have a weekly meeting with the supplier. Small problems will stay small problems, not develop in to catastrophes
    • Keep notes about the meetings and follow up on action items
    • Hassle the supplier (nicely) to make sure that they stay on plan
  • Celebrate meeting deadlines
There - that's not too hard. You can make this much more complicated, but this level of simplicity will make sure that the project generally works well first time.

If this approach is adopted for projects, then you might not need me to help sort out the mess!

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