Projects are all around us, both formal & informal. I have engaged in a project management speciality on Coursera starting with Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management with Yael Grushka-Cockayne from University of Virginia. With the aim to learn more about properly managing projects, here is a few learning which I took from the course.

What is a project? 

A unique set of activities to product a defined outcome within an established time frame using a specific allocation of resources

– Harvard Business Review

Project Definition:

First consider what is the goal – then outline the three main objectives:
  • Scope
  • Time
  • Budget

Define the constrained objective and find where we can optimise, where can we compromise. For example the budget might fixed so that is constrained, we will need to optimise the scope and compromise the timeframe.
Reasons for failure:
  • Little or no planning: no clear goal, scope or estimated timeline
  • Lack of leadership and commitment by stakeholders
  • Lack of training on new technology
  • No lesson learned from historical projects
  • Lack of product manager training
  • Biases: optimism, suck costs, confirmation

Measuring Success: 

  • Deliver a initial set of deliverables
  • Does the outcome, at completion satisfy the customer
  • On time?
  • On budget, under budget, how much?
Considering the Organisation & Stakeholders
  • Who will be doing the work?
  • Who is the product manger?
  • Who is paying for the project
  • Who will consume the product / service
  • Who are those effected by the the project?

Steps to take:

  1. Identify Stakeholders
  2. Gather Information
  3. Indentify stakeholders mission
  4. Determine Strengths and weaknesses (FUNNY: SWAT Analysis description from Silicon Valley)
  5. Predict Stakeholder Behaviour
  6. Implement Stakeholder Management Strategy

Stakeholder interest / Power Grid:

Source: Slideshare Stakeholder Analysis (Freeman, 1983)


Project Life Cycle

  • Establish organisation
  • Project charter and definition
  • Identify scope
  • Identify tasks dependency and schedule
  • Plan resources
  • Clarify trade offs and decision making principles
  • Develop a risk management plan
  • Monitor
  • Communicate and report
  • Correct and control
  • Sign off
  • Conduct a formal postmortem

Why Plan?

An (action) plan is:
  • Statement of intentions  ≠  a commitment (is not)
  • Not a straightjacket
  • Should be revised often
  • Should anticipate the need to be flexible
  • Beacons the basis for executive time management
Work breakdown structure tips:
  • Use stick notes, blackboard
  • Team development
  • Use automated tools – MS Project / WBS Pro
  • Detail down to no less than 5-10% of the total duration of a single resource


  1. As soon as possible – cost more, benefits time
  2. As late as possible – delays commitment of costs & resources until we must use them, costs in the future are cheaper.

Network Diagrams

Utilise Network Diagrams to assist in the visualisation of task lengths and to visually see the critical path. Adding in earliest and latest start / finish times can help see the critical path.

slackSource: stackexchange

The longest path in the project / network
  • The project duration defined by the length of the critical path, also known as the makespan
  • A delay in any activity along the critical path will cause a delay in the project
  • The method was developed by engineers at DuPont corporation in the 1950’s


Estimating time 

Potential problems:
Parkinson’s Law – says that if we give someone a task duration, they will take that long.
Students Syndrome – people will wait until the last moment to start the project
Overconfidence – Often underestimate
– Anchoring  (adapt to time estimated by someone else)
– Confirmation (agree with time stated)


Plan Checklist:

WBS (Work Breakdown Structure)
  • Available, Complete? Communicated Agreed-Upon?
Network Diagram
  • One start and one finish
  • All activities with predecessors or successors?
  • One start milestone and one project competition milestone
  • Intermediate milestones each one has a critical path?
  • No missing dependencies between activities in correct sequence
  • No summary task links
  • Task’s with excessive durations?
  • Check dependancies (overlaps, time lags)
  • Check critical path: from project start to finish?
Planning wrap up:
  • Project planning is a crucial for project success
  • A project plan is a guide, not a schedule of what will exactly happen
  • Follow the project planning cycle
  • Make sure the goal of the project is clear to you
  • Ensure the project scope is complete (most crucial part of planning)
  • Estimate the activity durations
  • Decide who owns each activity
  • Know which are the critical activities (critical ≠ important) not equal
  • Prevent conflicts between activities
  • Project can be accelerated by crashing and / or fast-tracking

Project Crashing

  • Project duration can be reduced only by shortening critical activities
  • Might be worth spending money to reduce the length of the project
    • Select least expensive to crash
  • New critical paths may emerge
Critical path
  • Short
  • May Change
  • More activities become critical
  • Higher Risk
Reducing Scope – Eliminate activities
  • Unnecessary
  • Reduce functionality
  • Cut corners
  • Outsource
Common Planning Mistakes:
  • No work breakdown structure
  • No task durations set or inaccurate
  • No network diagram
  • Tasks without predecessors / successors
  • Fixed start dates to mimic dependancies
  • No dependancies defined between activities in correct sequence
  • Additional dependancies added that are not required


Cost Risk Analysis / Planning for Ambiguity

  • Cost estimates are subject to variations
  • Foreseeable risks can cause the actual project to differ from planned
  • Establish some contingency budget
  • Budget contingency should be allocated to a project not task level (provides more flexibility for the project manager)

Use a ‘Crystal Ball‘  to analyse & track timing / budget



Schedule Scenarios:
  • Elicit ranges or three point duration estimates
  • Consider historical data
  • Ask multiple options
  • Start thinking of the overall project duration as a range not a single number.
Utilise a Tornado Diagram to see potential issues in timelines and where blow outs can occur.
Criticality Index
  • Probability that an activity is critical
  • Critical index can prioritise our tasks to ensure our project is completed in the range that it needs to be completed on.


Sources of Uncertainty

  • Foressable Uncertainties
    • Variability
    • Alternative Paths
  • Complexity
    • Project Tasks
    • Stakeholders
  • Unforeseen Uncertainties
    • Novel Technology
    • Novel Markets

(Loch, DeMeyer, Pich 2006)

Risk Management: 
  • Brainstorming checklists, previous projects, experts
  • Risk Register
  • Impact
  • Likelihood
  • Prioritised Risks
Responce Planning:
  • Identify response strategy to each risk
  • Assign responsibilities
Monitoring and Control:
  • Update risk probabilities
  • Execute planned strategy if events occur


Source: Ruleworks

Why are projects still late / over budget?

  • Technical factors
    • Internal complexity (in the firm)
    • External complexity  (regulations, weather, competitors)
  • Human Factors:
    • Multi-tasking
    • Parkinson’s Law
    • Student Syndrome

Agile, Scrum and Kanban

Why Agile?
  • Software development firms
  • Release pace was declining
  • quality was suffering
  • Engineer moral
  • Padding and no accountability
Agile Manifesto:
  • Individual and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
Agile Principles:
  1. Priority to customer satisfaction
  2. Welcoming change
  3. Delivery frequently
  4. Business people & developers work together
  5. Build project around individuals
  6. Effect and effective communication
Agile (Scrum) Team
  • Cross-functional (programs, test, design)
  • Members should be committed full time
  • Self organising team


Continuous flow model with no iterations. Suited for short-cycle deliverables, limiting work in progress.

Benefits to Agile:
  • Empowered the development team
    • independence, autonomous, focused team
    • developers want to deliver a project to the client
  • Creates join incentive and transparency with the client
  • Helps firm build the right then the right time and build it right.
Contentions around Agile
  • A “living in the moment culture”
  • Less documents
  • #noestimates movement
  • Hard to master – requires the right mindset
  • Can be challenging with distributed teams


Project Execution:

  • Physical or virtual
  • Frequency
  • Project management office
  • What information will be monitored
Report / Collect:
  • Frequency?
  • By Who?
  • To Who?
Correct / Control:
  • What decisions will be made
  • What actions will be taken
  • Who is in charge of the execution
  • How will the outcomes be communicated?


Earned value Analysis:

  • Creative 25% complete, actual cost $500
    • Scheduled work = 40% (2w/5w)
    • Actual Work = 25%  (1.25 / 5w)
    • Budgeted cost = $1,000
    • Planned value = 40% x 1000 = $400
    • Earned value = 25% x 1,000 = $250   ($150 variance from above) 
    • Actual cost = $500 ($250 variance from above) 
  • Scheduled performance Index (SPI) = Earned value ($250) / planned ($400)  = 63%
  • Cost performance (CPI) = Earned value ($250) / Actual ($500) = 50%


Thank you for reading. If you interested in taking the course please go to the Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management course page on Coursera


Author: Stewart Barrett

Stewart Barrett is an agile, results oriented data driven digital strategist & business focused online marketer with over 10 years’ experience. Passionate about businesses that challenge and disrupt markets, who is inspired and fascinated by the ever-changing world of digital.

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