Good Old Project Management

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.010 October 2005

Americans saw the television images of people in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina waiting for food, water, and transportation. Help came, but much later than most people wanted as something went amiss with the relief project. Some good old project management might have helped. Come to think of it, some good old project management might help most IT projects and project managers.

Years ago, I learned a formula that helps me focus on project management basics:

Management = Plan + Status + Action

First is a plan. The plan expresses the work that needs to be done per the calendar. ("If it's the third week of November, we should be starting system testing.") Status is the information that tells me where we are in the work. ("Sure it's November, but what are we really doing this week?")

The action piece has several components. First, I compare the plan to the status. Are we ahead of, on, or behind schedule? ("What do you mean we don't have anything to test yet?") Next, I do something. I might shift resources, gather more resources, or change the plan entirely to reflect what I have learned.

When all three parts (plan, status, and action) are present, I have a good chance to control the project, and I emphasize the word "control." Many current papers on project management disdain that word. Control may not be possible where the requirements are changing rapidly. Nevertheless, I believe there are still many cases when requirements volatility is not the major issue. Failures in project management basics - failures by project managers like you and me - is the issue.

Think again about the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Maybe FEMA had a plan for hurricane relief, but it wasn't sufficient for what happened. Maybe the FEMA director was receiving status from someone somewhere, but it wasn't helpful. Maybe FEMA was taking action to change their plans hour by hour, but the result was still poor. I could go through the same list of management failures for the Govener of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans. In light of Hurricane Katrina, maintaining control of a project doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

FEMA, the State of Louisiana, the City of New Orleans - these are public organizations attempting public projects. Taxpayers pay for these attempts, and the news media shines a spotlight on them when the projects flounder.

Public projects need to work. Do private projects in private companies have lower expectations? Can stockholder and venture capital funds be wasted with fewer consequences?

I think more of us project managers need to go back to good old principles. This holds true whether the project is disaster recovery for a region or three people working three months on a web site update.

Plan: a plan is useful when implementing a use case in five days or evacuating a million people in 72 hours.

Gather status: do this in a 15-minute daily scrum meeting, a monthly status review, or an hourly update in a regional crisis.

Act: the current situation rarely agrees with the plan. Gather your wits, remember what you are trying to accomplish, and do something to move in that direction.

I'm from Louisiana. I have many relatives and friends who suffered losses from Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricane Rita. I cannot express the stress of knowing loved ones were in danger and not being able to contact them. People at many levels in many places forgot to apply proven principles during the crisis. I encourage project managers in all situations ranging from public to private and small to national to pause, catch their breath, and employ some good old project management.