Management of a Project - Realizing an Idea - The Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

The Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

Part II. Realizing an Idea

Chapter 6. Management of a Project

Many of us have a secret idea which we would like to make real. Many makers have the dream of seeing their idea turn from simple entertainment or hobby into something more serious, which could initially be a small source of income and then, maybe, a fulltime job. There are various reasons why you might make this decision: out of necessity, personal choice, because one can’t find a rewarding job, to live in a more sustainable way, or to have more time to spend with family and friends. We’ll call these kind of big, transformative endeavours Life Projects.

It is true that a combination of strength, resolution and intelligence can take us closer to our Life Project goal, yet these alone are almost never sufficient to take us all the way. Knowing and using well-established time and project management techniques can help avoid common pitfalls that await us on our Life Project journey. However, it is extremely important to apply these techniques to the right plan, because following a useless plan strictly won’t get you anywhere.

How shall you get organized to make your Life Project real?

Completing a Life Project is like running a marathon. While there will always be moments of improvisation and quick decision making, you need to have a path marked out to take you from here to there, otherwise you won’t reach the finish line (or, even worse, you might get injured).

Making the idea become real is a matter of planning and organizing the activity. There is plenty of literature on how to do these things, but you can work out most of the information needed using logic and common sense.

What is a Project?

We carry out projects every day, even though we may not look at it that way. Organizing parties, buying a car, writing a book for makers, whipping up lunch with the leftovers we have in the fridge; these are all activities with some common points that classify them as projects:

§ projects have a limited time duration: all projects have a limit, a deadline, or finishing time, from the organization of dinner, which requires about twenty minutes or so, to the building of the Milan Cathedral, which took six centuries;

§ projects anticipate an outcome: an artifact, a product or something non-material like a service;

§ projects require the use of resources such as money and labor;

§ certain projects won’t be repeated.

Even New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, under construction since 1892 and still not finished, will probably not be completed until the year 2200.

The necessary activities to set up, say, a car factory with all the equipment and the assembly lines, constitute a project. The car production itself, on the contrary, is an activity that will be repeated over time and constitutes a process.

The resources available to carry out any project are limited. There are three key limitations: time, resources, and the scope of the project. These three aspects are strictly linked to each other and it is not possible to modify one without affecting the other two: for instance, if we drastically reduce the number of resources available to a project, such as people or materials, and if we don’t intend to compromise on any of the requirements, the time to completion will necessarily increase. Conversely, if we decrease the time available to complete the project, or if we drastically expand the scope of the project, the number of resources we’ll need will also change.

Since the late 1800s (and probably even earlier), project managers have been guided in their decision making by what was called The Iron Triangle, also known in recent years as the “Good-Fast-Cheap” triangle, shown in Figure 6-1. The three limitations of a project affect each other in a triangle of forces or influences. If you arrange the words “Good”, “Fast”, and “Cheap” in a triangle, you’ll see that to make a project good, it will be far from cheap and far from fast. To make it fast, it will be far from good and far from cheap. And if you want it cheap, it won’t be good and it won’t be fast.

Alt Text

Figure 6-1. The triangle of the project ties.

The Project Manager

This all sounds complicated, right? That’s why there are people who specialize in managing projects, called, unsurprisingly, project managers. Some project managers specialize in certain fields (aerospace, software, military, civil engineering, etc), but some believe that a “real” project manager can successfully carry out any project in any field. In the software field, the Standish Group reported, in its 1998 CHAOS report based on studies of 23,000 projects, that a good project manager can account for 15% of the reason a project is successful.

Normally, the job of a project manager is not particularly creative: it requires the preparation and writing of a series of documents (among them the definition of the project scope), plans and forecasts. It also calls for a constant overview of the work, in order to guarantee the necessary rigor and control that will lead to the final outcome.

At this point, a caveat is obligatory: in some contexts, such as the building of the Fallingwater house, “being in control” is an illusion. What would happen if, half way through a project, you realized that you are going down a completely wrong path? Would it make sense to go on and “successfully” carry out a totally faulty and useless plan? In some projects, the only constant element is change and our most effective weapon is our ability to adjust. Even the thirty-fourth President of the United States, Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, used to say that plans are useless, but planning is everything.

Management of a Project

The lifecycle of a project can be divided into four stages:

1. Beginning of activities: this is the initial step, in which you clarify and define the scope of the project, prepare an analysis, evaluate the work, and research the necessary resources;

2. Organization: get ready to carry out the job, define a precise plan with costs, timing, and outcomes. It’s here that you acquire the resources and identify the risks;

3. Carrying out and monitoring of the work: the working teams are set up and they carry on the predicted activities. The project manager makes sure everything follows the plan. This is the most substantial step;

4. Shutting down the activities when the project is done: the teams are dissolved, the product (or service) is delivered, all commercial relations are ended. The best project managers carry out a retrospective evaluation of the whole process, the so-called post mortem, to sort out what they learned in the field and to consolidate their own experience.

Alt Text

Figure 6-2. Different activities in different moments.

While different schools of thought have different ways of managing a project, most agree that it is always necessary to perform an initial estimate and evaluation of the work. How can you do that, considering all the variables? You can use the ancient Roman strategy of divide et impera, divide and conquer. This breaks down the final product into many smaller units that are easier to understand. You’ll remember that we did the same thing during the design process. We really seem to have found a pattern!

The List of Activities

As with design, the act of dividing and subdividing the activities is iterative. We proceed by levels, going into more and more detail at each level. It is better to not specify clearly how the activities are going to be accomplished, but to restrict ourselves to merely listing the expected results. In this way, whoever is going to carry out the individual tasks will have more freedom, feel more involved, be personally and professionally rewarded and, most of all, be able to reach unexpected results thanks to their creativity and innovation skills.

The hierarchic structure you obtain at the end of the division is called WBS (Work Breakdown Structure).

If you wanted to define a WBS to create the prototype of a radio-alarm clock, start with the first level:

§ case;

§ electronic board;

§ firmware;

§ electric certification

Then, go into details for each single point:

§ case:

§ case design;

§ case printing;

§ assembly;

§ finishing and painting.

§ electronic board:

§ design;

§ board printing;

§ assembly;

§ testing.

§ firmware:

§ design;

§ writing;

§ certification

§ if needed: submission to the standardization bodies

§ testing.

Keep going until you reach micro-blocks:

§ electronic board:

§ design;

§ electronic calculations;

§ scheme design;

§ printed board design.

§ board printing:

§ contact print;

§ board washing.

§ assembly:

§ bending of components;

§ welding.

§ testing.

The one problem with divide and conquer is that it’s so easy to overdo. (If you’re not careful, you may find yourself getting so detailed that you’re specifying the number of screws you need for a particular task. That’s going too far.) The entire purpose of this exercise is to make it easier to estimate the amount of effort the entire project needs, by estimating how much effort each activity needs. What is important is to follow the “100% rule”: make sure to include all the activities that go into the project, both the ones you will do yourself, and the ones you will ask someone else to do. It is important to always include the testing activities for the product or service.

WBS is just a starting point. You have to withstand the temptation of considering it a plan, because its elements have neither chronological order nor dependancy ties. To aid in further planning, you need some more tools.

The Gantt Chart

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American engineer Henry Laurence Gantt created a chart to support the management of his projects. He placed the time axis across the bottom, and the activity axis vertically on the left. Each activity was given its own row, and stretched horizontally from start time to end time. A project worked on by only one person looks like the steps of a staircase; the person completes activity A and moves down one row to being activity B. When activity B is complete, they move down one more row to activity C, and so on. In this way, all activities will follow in chronological order, as shown in Figure 6-3.

Alt Text

Figure 6-3. A simple Gantt chart.

If multiple people are working on the project, the chart becomes more complex. Certain activities can be worked on simultaneously, which should save time, but the project manager has devote more care to planning. If activity C needs input from activity A, they probably can’t be done simultaneously, and the person assigned to C is idle until A is finished. Chapter 6 shows the activities assigned to different persons in different colors.

While assigning more people to a project usually means the project will be completed in less time, having more people means the project is going to be more expensive. What is the best choice? There is no universal answer, because each choice is a compromise: in some cases, time is a critical factor so every expense is justified (think of the actions aimed to bring people to safety after a natural disaster); other times, you can just wait. Moreover, you could give priority to some activities and you might want to carry them out before others, even if there is no link between them.

Alt Text

Figure 6-4. A more complex Gantt chart.

The sum of all the days needed to complete the project is called effort. Theoretically, if you get more people involved, the effort doesn’t change (as a matter of fact, you need more coordination activities), but you can finish earlier: the time from the beginning to the end of the project is calledelapsed.

The project manager checks on how the project goes on and updates her schedule accordingly, highlighting diversions, if any, or delays and adjusting the plan to face any issues that arise. The current date is shown on the Gantt chart as a red line.

Normally, there are several persons that are interested in the project, with different degrees of involvement: they can be associates, partners, financiers, clients. We commonly define these people by the general term of stakeholders.

It is a good rule to periodically inform the stakeholders on how the project is developing, whether good or bad, so that they’ll be able to make informed choices. These meetings are usually referred to as PRMs (Project Review Meetings).

Throughout a project, you usually set some check points called milestones, which, as their name suggests, mark especially-important moments: the presentation of a prototype to the client or the reaching of a mid-way goal.

According to Murphy’s law, “if anything can go wrong, it will”, it is important to consider unforeseen events. There are a thousand of reasons why the plan you set might change. A wise project manager identifies possible risks and mishaps which may occur and thinks ahead to the possible solutions.

This was extremely difficult to do back in Gantt’s time, when everything was done by hand. We’re fortunate that today you have a few software choices that can help. One standard is Microsoft Project, though there are many good alternatives, less powerful yet more than sufficient in the majority of cases. For example, GanttProject (desktop app) and Gantter (available for free as a web application), are both able to manage projects created with Microsoft Project. You should also look at the open source Redmine (web-based) and Planner (GTK-based).

The best management software won’t help to forsee everything that can go wrong. Thinking of the potential issues the project may face will make you ready if they actually arise. This kind of preparedness, the bible of which is the book Waltzing with Bears by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, is called risk management. Demarco and Lister define this as “project management for grown ups”, because it goes beyond the naive vision of a simple monitoring of a series of activities.

One great aspect about being a maker is that we’re always trying things we’ve never done before. Which means that when we begin a project, we might not have any idea how long any of the subordinate activities will take, or what resources they will need. That’s all right; the start of a project is an acceptable time not to know anything.

Alt Text

Figure 6-5. The uncertainty cone of a project (Romina Paula Chamorro).

As you move on with the project, you learn new things and find answers to your questions, so the level of uncertainty related to the project decreases. The more advanced the status of the project is, the more certain you become of its deadlines and costs. And that makes any change more expensive, in both money and time. This all can be summarized in a chart called uncertainty cone (Figure 6-5).

How do you want to carry out your plan?