Last reviewed 20 January 2016

How many projects did you manage last year? Probably more than you at first thought. A project may be something enormous, such as laying on the Olympics or creating a high-speed railway, passing through more modest operations, such as relocating your office or launching a new product, right down to producing a presentation for a client or reorganising the data retrieval system. Each of these, large or small, is a project that requires skilful management if it is to be achieved satisfactorily says Bob Patchett.

A project requires the bringing together of people, finance and technical resources with a clear purpose of creating or improving something that accords with the overall aim of the organisation or that will enhance it in some way. You must be able to answer clearly and convincingly the question “Why are we doing this?” — and the response must satisfy these criteria. The success of the project should also be measurable in terms of being on time and within budget and, of course, effectiveness.

As a project manager you will need to bring together a group of people who have skills and knowledge appropriate for the tasks, are competent, committed and available. Their commitment may be gained by your explanation of the importance of the project and by your obvious enthusiasm, but their availability could be a problem. There should be little difficulty if the team is to work on the project full time, but if they have to fit it in with their normal duties, you may find that these duties are considered to be more pressing by the people or their manager. This may require you to persuade or negotiate with their manager or, if all else fails, to put the problem to the executive who has commissioned you to handle the project. If this is a potential problem, be sure to factor it into your time framework.

You may be given a budget or be required to construct one for approval. If the latter, see if you can engage the services of a competent management accountant who could offer realistic estimates based on historic data or his or her experience, and who may spot costs that you have missed. Involvement of a management accountant adds credibility to any budget proposal you make. Nevertheless, budget proposals are often rejected as excessive so you may have to work hard to balance available funds with your needs, and make adjustments accordingly.

If the project has a client other than yourself, for example, if you are introducing a new computer system into another manager’s section or are relocating someone’s department, then it is vital to keep them on side. Regular communication with them is of paramount importance. Ideally, they need to be convinced that what you are doing is of benefit to them but, even if they feel otherwise, you should try to have them accept that you will do all you can to minimise any adverse impact. Engage them as much as you can in the planning and execution of the project, keep them as fully informed as you are able, and take their comments seriously throughout. Aim to make them feel that they are co-owners of the project.

So far, we have looked at the groundwork that you must do; the next important phase is the detailed planning of the project. You must, at this point, have a crystal clear aim and a set of success criteria, and you must know exactly what budgetary, personnel and other resources you have at your disposal. To plan successfully, you need to start at the end, at the culmination of the project, and work backwards. Begin, not by moving from A to B, but rather, start at Z, the end of the project, and ask what is the action that will finally get you there. If it is Y, then what will get you to Y? It is X ... and so on. You need to break the project down into individual activities and, by relating each to the others, determine what each relies upon. You cannot, for example, move the furniture until the new premises are ready to receive it. So, for each activity, identify relationships in order to determine the chronological order.

There are several highly effective and well-respected techniques for planning a project, such as Programme Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), Gantt charts, and Critical Path Analysis (CPA), that can be used manually or, certainly for complex projects, handled by computer. However, for a simple project, you may choose to adopt a simple technique using large sheets of squared paper. On one large sheet, mark each column with the date of a week, ending with the week in which the project must be completed. Then consider each exercise that forms part of the project, decide how long it will take to complete, cut a strip of paper, one square wide but as long as the number of weeks for completion. Mark it with the name of the exercise. Having done that, take the strip for the final exercise, for example, transport the new product to wholesalers, and place it on the top line of your master sheet right up to the project completion date. Then consider the last activity that must be completed before you can begin the despatch exercise, cut a strip representing the length of time that it will take and place it on the second line, but ending at the beginning of the upper strip. Continue to do this with every exercise — how long, by when, and what exercise does it rely upon. If many such exercises are involved, it is most unlikely that the project will be a single, linear progression, as several elements may be carried out at the same time, but you really do need to identify the dependencies and get them right. Some of these will be critical — this is a simple CPA — so use a different coloured paper for their strips. When you have created this master chart you are likely to find everything bunched towards the end date, whereas you need to get started now. Therefore, take account of the resources available to you and spread the work, shuffle the strips more evenly across the time frame, moving start dates to as early a time as is realistic. Next, allow for problems and setbacks in two ways. First, bring forward appropriate start dates, and second, for critical exercises, have a plan B ready.

Engage the whole team in determining who is responsible for each element of the plan and clarify exactly what that responsibility is. Set review dates when the team will look at the whole plan and when you will review the progress of individual members’ responsibilities. Learn from these reviews and, as appropriate, make adjustments to the plan. Do this regularly, so that adjustments are likely to be light touches rather than major actions.

You may not recognise some projects as such because you carry them out largely instinctively. However, regardless of size or complexity, any project requires careful thought, sound planning, effective action and close control. Your ability to do this is a clear indication of your management skill.