SBR: Project management requires discipline, flexibility, monitoring

by Ted Carter, tcarter@kasb.org

Not-so-common sense

Along with being a researcher and statistician, I am also a certified Project Manager. There aren’t a lot of project managers in the public school system, but districts do projects all the time, so I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on things from the world of project management that we all think of as common sense but that we frequently fail to actually use or do in the midst of our daily work.

According to Wikipedia, “Project managers have the responsibility of the planning, procurement and execution of a project, in any undertaking that has a defined scope, defined start and a defined finish; regardless of industry.” This definition leads me to the first set of lessons from Project Management: defining the project.

Defining the project

When undertaking a project, it is important to define it. Like I said, these things sound like common sense, but how often have you been involved in a project where the participants seem to have different views of what it is you are trying to accomplish, when it’s supposed to happen, etcetera?

When starting a project, it is important to ask questions like:

  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • When do we need to have it accomplished?
  • How will we know we’ve accomplished it?

Often we assume everyone is “on the same page” when this is rarely the case unless questions like the ones above are asked of the entire group and agreement is reached on the answers.

Managing scope creep

The Wikipedia definition quoted above mentions Scope, which is a word used frequently in project management circles because one of the hardest things about a project is to make sure that the efforts stay focused on what the project is supposed to do, and don’t go towards things that aren’t directly tied to reaching the project’s stated goals. “Scope Creep” refers to the tendency for people involved in a project to want to expand what the project is supposed to do as they go along and see other things that could be accomplished. It is a project killer because it takes time and resources away from the original tasks the project was designed to do.

Writing it all down

Project managers spend a lot of time documenting things. From project requirements to meeting agendas and minutes to status updates, there is a lot of focus on getting everything “on paper.” This is usually the first set of tasks that are skipped when a project gets behind schedule or the scope changes, with the assertion that “we’ll go back and document later.” Often we think about documentation as a necessary evil instead of as a tool. Meeting agendas can be tedious to produce and get consensus on, but if you have one and you work to keep everyone at the table on the agenda, you can ensure that the meeting accomplishes what it was supposed to, and you can ensure that the group stays on topic because the things to be discussed at the meeting are in print for all participants to see. Similarly, documenting the project requirements and status updates, you can ensure that all members of the group are literally “working off the same page.”

Looking ‘em in the eye

It is often tempting to try and accomplish our tasks from the comfort and safety of our computer screens. And sometimes this is the best way to make sure something is done, and again that conversations are documented and can be reviewed and shared as appropriate. But it is important to never underestimate the importance of meeting face-to-face on a regular basis. There are some things that people will not say in an email that you may be able to get them to talk about in person. People build from one another’s comments and ideas in meetings in a way they cannot electronically. And sometimes you just really need to look each other in the eye to remember that you are all people working towards a common goal.

Measuring, recording, analyzing

It is no coincidence that after years as a researcher and statistician I decided to add project manager to my repertoire. Project managers love to measure things. And when doing projects, it is important to figure out what measures will help you make sure you are on the right path and ultimately whether the project is successful or not. This includes thinking about what questions to ask, how to ask them, who to ask and what you will do with the answers when you gather them. There are all kinds of different data that can be used to measure a project, so you should make sure you are picking the right sources for the kinds of answers you need.

Measuring a project is not much different than measuring student performance. You need multiple measures, pretest and posttests, quantitative and qualitative measures and multiple people looking at the results and working to interpret them.

Further, it is important to make sure the complexity and depth of the measurement is appropriate for the intended use. Simple surveys are sometimes the best tools for the job.

Following the rules … then changing the rules

One criticism of the project management framework is inflexibility. Some claim that project managers are too focused on what is on paper and are unwilling to change things once the project is started. As we all know, planning is great, but when something happens the plan doesn’t cover, then the plan has to change.

It is important to think of the project plan as a baseline. You decide the who, what, when, where, why and how of the project early on and everyone agrees on these things, but then you may need to periodically revisit these questions just to make sure that everyone still agrees and that nothing has come up that would make changing the answers to some of these questions the right way to go.

Etcetera

These are just a few things that come to mind when thinking about projects in the context of the work KASB members do. If you are interested in hearing more about project management or have questions, please contact Ted Carter at the KASB office.

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