Saturday, August 12, 2006

Project management - best practices

Following are not entirely new or original project management practices. I just started using them recently and found them quite effective. You may want to try as well.

In high RPM companies, things change quite a bit and quite fast. It does not make much sense and not possible either to develop and maintain volumes of documentation. This is not discount the importance of having things in written so that we can refer to it when needed. But, when things are changing so much (during very initial stages of new product development), it make sense to let engineers focus on developing POC and free them from documenting every nitty gritty of their day-to-day work which anyway changes. However, the whole project team needs to be able to make use of the information being generated in several meetings, design discussion, JAD (Joint Application Development) sessions with the customer etc. Of course, as a project manager, you are responsible for tracking and compiling the information that you can use to report.

First thing to recognize is that there is a lot of information generated and it is just that it probably is not there in some form that can be readily used. All design idea, architectures, design discussions, UML diagrams are all probably there on white boards (till they are erased), flip charts. One practical way to capture these is to take pictures using a high resolution digital camera. This gives a lot of flexibility later for engineers to annotate them, insert comments etc. At a minimum, as a project manager, you can organize them into appropriate folders on some common repository for people to refer to. This is actually a documented and recommended Extreme programming best practice.

Second technique is to record meeting discussions. In rapidly changing environments, it is not possible to organize and schedule meetings that can stick to a strict agenda. You can provide a framework but discussions will move towards what is important at that time. In certain companies, a person is appointed to take meeting minutes so that as a project manager you can focus on  focusing others on the topic at hand. Unless such a practice already exists, it is not very easy or practical for the project manager to institute such a practice. As such engineers just hate all such what they call administrative trivia. They are right. It makes sense to let people do what they do best. In the interest of the project, you as the project manager, is better off recognizing that and taking care of most of the administrative trivia yourself. If you work as part of a PMO (Project Management Office), then you may in luck for some project coordinators (junior project managers) who can assist with you such administrative trivia. But, most of the time, it is up to you - how do you capture meeting minutes and notes from many meetings that happen. Here recording meetings with  good recorder helps a lot. You can use modern digital recorders which record in WMA or mp3 formats which you can download many times directly (using USB) to computer. There are many tools available to edit, bookmark and segment such audio files. This goes a long way in capturing, retaining and distributing a lot of good information generated in meetings. Just because meetings tends to be less organized does not mean that information generated in them are less important. If you do not capture them and distribute them, you are going to lose out and waste quite bit of time and resources. As a project manager, you may not be able to report effectively and that may affect your performance. Recorded discussions can be edited as needed, labeled and filed for general access.

However, please do pay attention to prevalent laws related to recording. One good starting place is In general, it should be possible to record as long as you have let other parties know. Always assure that recording is for reference only. People understand most of the times. It does become little tricky to make everyone understand on conference calls. Since not everyone joins at the same time, you have to let everyone know as they join conference call that you are recording the call. There may be some questions about your recording and so on. So, make it clear that you intend to record as part of the meeting invite. For people who are attending in person, you can state it once in the beginning and then the sight of recorder in very open is considered sufficient many times.

As a project manager, you are not merely responsible for collecting data. You are expected to generate information that can help management to manage project well. So, always go back to your recordings, digital pictures etc. and extract relevant project management information related to risks, costs, schedules, customer impact etc.

You can take this electronic data collection methodology to one more step and instead recording, you may choose to video record. Video recording for meeting becomes little too cumbersome and does not generate returns to justify the effort. However, it does have a great value in certain occasions. You have to get your engineers or experts do info sessions to help explain concepts to tech writers, technical support, professional services etc. When concepts are being explained, video recording goes a long way in help educating people. Make sure that such things are recorded. When a new person joins, you can have him/her watch all relevant recordings and they learn much faster than going thru voluminous docs even if they are available.

Bottom line is - as a project manager without formal PMO support it is very natural that you get overloaded with data. Not being able to collect all that data flying left and right is not going to help reduce your stress. So, anything and everything you can do to collect as much data regarding the project goes long way to help reduce nightmare. Project managers have many of them :)

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