Planning a Project: How Much Project Process is Enough?

When you set out to define or improve your process for planning and managing projects, one of the questions you should be asking is how much process is enough.  While you could assume that designing a good project process requires that you follow all the best practices of comprehensive, mature project management, you might not get the return on investment you hoped for when you compare the level of effort to project results.

When planning a project, why wouldn’t you start with the best, most comprehensive project management process you could design?

Not everyone is ready for a detailed project management process.

If you have teams and project managers who are new to project management, too much process can lead to an increase in unproductive time simply managing the process versus doing the project work.

Gradually ramping up a new project management process improves learning and compliance.

If it is reasonable to implement a new process in phases, the phased approach allows people to learn, adapt and get the process right more quickly than roll out for a more complex process with many components.  As people get good at one component, you can gradually add complexity and detail.

You will need to adjust the process as you learn what works best for your group.

No process design will be 100% perfect when put into use.  Know that some things will need to be adjusted after testing and use.

Not all types of projects require a detailed process to plan, track and manage.

While some departments or functional groups may work the same type of project day in and day out, most groups have a variety of project types.  Certainly at the company level, project types will vary based on the type of work different groups perform, and the type of process that is best suited to each project type may vary as well.

The answers to the following questions can help you to determine what to prioritize when implementing a project management process:

What PM skills, resources and experience does your group already possess? What tools do you have access to for automating your process?

If you have project managers with extensive experience implementing and maintaining various project management processes, you might be able to start with a more comprehensive process assuming the project managers can provide the team member training required to get up to speed.  If experienced project managers aren’t available and/or the project team is not familiar with project management best practices, the phased rollout approach will yield a quicker return on time spent as people are better able to learn and adopt the lighter process more quickly.

The tools, data and software you can afford may also play a role.  Some processes provide excellent data and results if you can automate them, but trying to carry out the same process manually may be too time-consuming to make it worth the effort.  Budgeting for future purchase of automation tools can be part of the phased rollout approach.

What parts of your process might change based on experience and how do you avoid over-investing upfront?

As you work on designing a process that works for your group, some parts of the process will be fairly clear and easy to design.  You will know where you have your biggest problems today, and for some of those you will know what the process should be and how to implement it.  Other parts of the potential process will be less clear – either in terms of resulting benefits or method to implement.  For the uncertain parts of the process that are likely to change after they are put into practice, staying light and high level makes sense.

What types of projects do you work? How important is quality, and how constrained are your projects based on time, cost and/or scope?

Even if your people are experienced, you have all the tools you need, and all parts of the potential process have a clear path to implementation, you may not need the same level of process for all of your project types.  Do all of your projects have time constraints?  Do all of your projects require the same level of quality in delivery?  Are some of your project types repetitive (e.g., estimates for one could be applied to another), while others are one-off efforts?

Managing a project with time and scope constraints may require more rigor than managing a project with flexible scope and delivery dates.  When a project must deliver a defined set of requirements within a rigid timeframe (e.g., contractual delivery date), estimates and planning at the task and resource level become very important for managing to a successful delivery.  Breaking down the work to a level that provides meaningful estimates, while applying those estimates against resource capacity and velocity, becomes very important for project success.

In another example, you might have a project that is not time sensitive and does not have a well-defined set of requirements.  This could be an internal effort that simply needs to stay within a fixed budget.  For this type of project, historical work estimates and resource availability are not so important.  Work can be planned and tracked at a higher level, and resources can work the project when available.

The priorities for any given project, based on the triangle of project quality (time, cost and/or scope), will determine what project management processes are appropriate for each project type.  Some project types may never need all the components of a detailed process.  For projects with more rigid constraints, you can build up to the process that maximizes your ability to deliver successful projects.

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