Conquer the 5 Phases of the PM Life Cycle

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In order to be successful in their practice, both beginning project managers and those who have been in the trenches for years need to become proficient across all stages of a project’s life cycle. There are a few different schools of thought regarding the phases of project management, but the classification developed by the PMI is largely considered to be the authority and the most complete approach.

To help new project managers understand this cycle, we will take a high level look at the 5 main project management life cycle stages as defined by the PMI.

Initiation

A solid initiation will set a project up for success and lay the foundation for all the other stages in its life cycle. During this phase, PMs first measure the feasibility and value of a project in order to determine whether or not it is worth pursuing.

Once a project is given the green light, team members will be briefed on the project’s objective and assigned goals during the Initiation Phase. PMs should be working closely with their clients and execs to properly prepare for the upcoming planning process. It is also during this phase that PMs should be rallying the team together and building support for the project. One way to do this is to pull the team tighter and to present the project significance and value to them. It will be important to have everyone on board.

Warning: A common problem that can seriously affect subsequent project stages is the insufficient alignment of interests between all parties involved. The failure to properly identify competing interests and concerns during the initiation phase or the failure to be transparent can doom the project right from the start. Experienced PMs handle this early by creating a set of ground rules regarding transparency in communication.

Planning

The planning stage focuses on building a blueprint for achieving the project’s goals, on time and on budget. This roadmap will be used to guide the team through the execution of the project. It is in this phase that the scope is defined and a solid project management plan will be developed. The plan involves identifying costs, available resources, potential financing options, and risks, as well as setting a realistic timeframe. Moreover, it should also include performance measures or baselines to measure progress and determine if the project is on track.

During the planning stage, project managers clearly define roles, responsibilities and tasks, so that all team members are aware of what they’re accountable for. Here are a few of the essential documents PMs typically create to ensure that everyone knows what needs to be done and that the project progresses properly:

  • Scope statement – a document that clearly describes the project’s benefits, objectives, key milestones and deliverables.
  • Work breakdown structure – a diagram that breaks down the project’s scope into manageable sections
  • Gantt chart – a project management visual used to illustrate the project timeline and to plan out the tasks identified in the work breakdown diagram.
  • Risk management plan – a document that identifies all foreseeable risks and possible strategies to mitigate them.
  • Communication plan – an essential plan if the project involves outside stakeholders. It should include communication objectives, frequency and methods, as well key content to share with the parties involved in the project. When planning project communications, the best PMs ensure their message will get across by adapting their approach to fit each particular audience. For instance, using simple, familiar PowerPoint visuals when reporting to stakeholders who may not understand PM jargon can be an effective way to share key data.

Execution

Execution is the stage that is most commonly associated with actual project management. PMs should expect intensive activity during this time, from allocating resources and building deliverables, to creating development updates, status reviews and performance reports. Project Managers should arrange a kick-off meeting to officially mark the onset of the execution phase, get the team started on the right track, and ensure everything is properly prepared for team members to begin executing their assignments.

The execution phase is active and PMs will be required to leverage their management skills and their soft skills to keep the project team motivated, performing and on track. PMs may need to:

  • eliminate all unnecessary distractions or activities
  • get underperformers back on track
  • manage morale to prevent burnout
  • find needed resources to overcome stalls
  • solve conflicts that may occur

Monitoring and Control

Although it is sequenced as the 4th stage in the project management life cycle, the monitoring phase is actually most often implemented during the execution stage, not afterwards. While the team executes the project plan, PMs begin monitoring and controlling it to ensure progression is on track with the schedule. To achieve this, PMs will be:

  • monitoring the tasks that are on the critical path
  • verifying and controlling scope creep and taking measures to counter it
  • updating stakeholder with status reviews according to the pre-established communication plan
  • comparing planned costs versus actual costs
  • seeking ways to optimize performance

Closure

The final stage of the project management life cycle is the closure phase, which requires a series of essential tasks and activities, such as delivering the finished project to the client, communicating its completion to stakeholders, releasing resources, and terminating contractors hired specifically for the project. During the closure stage, PMs also hold a post-mortem meeting to evaluate what went wrong, highlight successes, and learn what improvements can be made for future projects. Using this meeting to recognize and appreciate valuable team members is a best practice that can help build a PM’s credibility and brand.

Managing a project, regardless of its magnitude or complexity, can become overwhelming at times. Breaking it down into these 5 phases and mastering each stage can help PMs and their teams handle even the most complex projects successfully.


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How to Avoid Project Communication Breakdowns

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Avoiding the Communication Breakdown Project Nightmare

Have you ever been there – when a breakdown in communication happens, causing painful timeline, delivery and budget issues in your otherwise fairly successful project? And worse, it may not be apparent that it is a communication issue that is crippling the project... No, that realization can take days or weeks, while more and more issues arise.

What do you do? Well, fixing it is fodder for another article - maybe next time. Avoiding it altogether is what I would like to cover here. That is always going to be your cheapest route and the route that will cause you and the client the least amount of pain and suffering over the remainder of the project.

Develop a communication plan

I am of the opinion that every project should have some sort of communication plan in place from the beginning. It doesn't have to be a formal, paid-for deliverable. If you're running a small project, it can just be an ongoing, revisable chart that identifies what meetings happen, when, and who the primary contacts are, including all their key contact information. If it's a bigger project and you want to make it a planning document deliverable (paid for or not), then you can put together a more formal document.

Conduct good meetings and follow-up

Meetings are a key information sharing point. Information sharing and getting decisions made quickly are really the only reason to have meetings. So, conducting good, effective, and efficient meetings is critical to project and communication success. But, beyond that, the information must be accurate and understood by all. So always follow up each meeting with notes to those who attended and to those who should have attended – asking for revisions within 24 hours. Once you have feedback, make any necessary revisions of the meeting notes and resend. The end goal is to ensure that all parties ended the meeting with the same understandings and everyone is on the same page until next time.

Involve the team at every angle

Your team plays a major role in the successful delivery of a project, so a strong focus on communication among the project team is vital. Keeping them informed and ensuring they understand any tasks they are assigned are critical techniques to drive a successful project. Do this through weekly team meetings, daily project status communication emails or quick standup meetings, and close each discussion by summarizing to ensure there is common understanding of expectations for the next brief window of time.

Keep the customer engaged.

One way to keep decision-making happening and information flowing efficiently between delivery team and customer is to keep that customer well-engaged throughout the project. When you lose that client for extended periods of time to his other work, that's when you can get stuck interpreting requirements without having all information at your disposal. This can lead to making under-informed decisions on the project; decisions that the customer could otherwise have assisted you and the team through. Keep the customer engaged with assigned tasks and pre-defined expectations set. And always be pinging them for participation in weekly project status and review meetings. Be strong and stubborn with the customer... you won't regret it.

Review, revise, re-distribute

Finally, the three R's. Review, revise and re-distribute. This mainly refers to the project schedule and status reporting. Keeping everyone informed through the project schedule and status updates is a key responsibility that will just automatically increase the likelihood of avoiding those communication missteps and breakdowns that can lead to misinterpreted requirements, re-work, and missed deadlines.

Summary

A communication breakdown can result in all sorts of problems: unclear project requirements, re-work, gold-plating of project work, poorly reviewed deliverables being handed off to the client, budget overruns, and missed timeframes, among others. Avoiding these breakdowns needs to be a high priority, and following these steps will help you get there.

Readers – what are your thoughts? What do you do to avoid communication shortcomings on the projects you manage?


Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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Make Litigation Timelines in PowerPoint

Half my family are attorneys, so how I became a software developer is a bit of an oddity. Regardless, since my focus is on presentation software, it didn’t take long for me to think about trial software and their presentation needs for litigation, mediation or defense.

I have been told that timelines are the preferred visual for attorneys and legal teams who need to chronologically demonstrate the facts and events of their case, as a means of supporting their oral arguments. I have also been told that it is critical that these timeline visuals are easy-to-understand, because complex timelines risk diminishing the juror’s retention rate. This seems to be a consistent theme across all types of cases from business litigation to personal injury litigation, and also across the various legal forums from the mediator’s office to the courtroom.

I started to wonder about software that could help make their legal presentations, particularly their opening and closing statements, much easier for jurors and mediators to understand, and therefore more persuasive and more memorable.

hours and minutes litigation timeline

Although I don’t know much about legal presentation strategies, I do understand how people process information and how important it would be for litigators to properly present the timing of events and facts which form the foundation of a case. I also understand that litigators and legal teams sometimes struggle to build a simple, presentable timeline of case events that will support their oral arguments. They tell me simple timeline visuals, rather than complex legal charts, are more helpful in getting judges, juries and mediators to understand their case evidence better, but also to remember it better.

When it comes to courtroom visuals, professional-looking litigation timelines have been difficult to create in house because attorneys and legal teams struggle with many of the same issues that my enterprise customers struggle with. They do not have simple and familiar software tools to make this work easy. There are some stand-alone case timeline applications available, however they are complicated, expensive and do not work well with Microsoft PowerPoint. Without natively leveraging a presentation platform like PowerPoint, they tend to produce unappealing graphics that are difficult for judges and juries to understand, and consequently many attorneys outsource this work to trial support companies.

As it is in the corporate world and on campus, PowerPoint seems also to be ubiquitous in the legal world. It is optimized for delivering effective presentations and so using it to create litigation timelines makes a lot of sense. The challenge for many litigators is that PowerPoint is a blank slate and there is no simple way to create litigation timelines. Office Timeline may solve the problem.

It is a timeline maker that is embedded into PowerPoint, so using it to create, manage and present compelling litigation timelines is familiar and quick. It starts with a simple wizard for entering your case events or importing those events directly from Excel. Then you click a button and your case information is turned into a PowerPoint timeline slide. Once created, it is easy to control and format the litigation timeline with colors, shapes, fonts and other styling preferences to best emphasize key events. It frees litigators from having to do tedious timeline construction and from having to outsource this work.

Office Timeline make legal timeline

Since my exposure to the legal world has been limited, I wanted to validate some of this thinking with an expert in the field. I contacted Sherry Wirth, President of The Exhibit Company, a Texas litigation design and trial support specialist firm. They have been doing this kind of thing for a long time and she told me that judge and juror retention will be significantly increased when visuals are used in conjunction with oral argument. Sherry said that her firm has created over 800 litigation timelines over the past 18 years. She said they are really effective because they are a road map for the jury, a path they can clearly follow which reinforces the key facts, evidence and testimony.

I asked about the tools her firm uses and she said they “have tried just about every timeline program out there and always defaulted to PowerPoint because it gives us ultimate flexibility and it is a platform that most of our clients are familiar with.” She also said that it is a painstaking process even for experienced PowerPoint designers to create timeline slides in PowerPoint. I asked her team to try Office Timeline to see if it would be valuable in the litigation industry. Here’s what she said. “It is a game changer, its simple and elegant interface lets you literally copy and paste your information from Excel and, with the push of a button, create a beautiful timeline.

hours and minutes litigation timeline

This validated my assumptions and our team is focusing on solving more challenges in the legal presentation space.

Download and try the free version of Office Timeline for PowerPoint.


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Showing Appreciation for Project Team Effort

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I just read an email from a highly regarded project management software vendor about showing Valentine's Day appreciation to project team members with Valentine's Day cards. You've got to be kidding. This is not the 2nd grade, where we all make our Valentine's Day mailboxes for our desks out of shoe boxes decorated in red, pink and white. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It probably came from the same person who dreamed up giving participation ribbons or trophies to everyone.

Rewards are good, however, I've been a manager or project manager leading teams for 23 years and prizing has never been my strong point - nor has it ever been a big deal to me. But I do feel strongly about letting the word get out about a job, deliverable or milestone well-done by an individual or team effort on one of my projects. If you do like to give out special prizes or gift cards or Valentine's Day cards to your team... more power to you. It's just not for me. This is why I'd like to discuss alternative types of recognition options as they seem to be lacking in the project management community.

I'm not big on making any reward too personal in nature. People today are too litigious. I'm not saying your team or anyone on it is going to sue you, but people can do unexpected odd things to remain completely above reproach. Therefore, it is more cautious to never get personal. Consider these four staff recognition ideas to show your appreciation for individual or team efforts:

Send out a company wide email

If your team put forth a great effort and met a critical deadline or milestone or just completed a very successful project, don't wait for or expect reward or notice to come from the top of the organization. Send out your own congratulatory email to the entire company or at least to key individuals and call out everyone by name. If possible, give a brief mention of everyone's role in the project and how they contributed to its success.

Take the team out to dinner

It never hurts to take the team out for pizza or a nice dinner once you hit that critical milestone or final project roll-out. You can all breathe a sigh of relief and get together when it isn't about another project meeting or some sort of crisis to deal with in a war room setting. Today's projects, with geographically dispersed teams, make something like this difficult or even impossible, so you likely won't get to use this option often. If you all gather at the client's site for a major deliverable handoff, lessons learned meeting, quarterly review meeting or project roll-out, use that time to get away one evening to do this. I've done that many times and it works great.

Gift cards for extraordinary individual efforts

When it was more of an individual effort, like powering through a project issue crisis or key deliverable, you can still do the company-wide email distribution. But this may also be a situation where a nice gift card would be in order.

Days off

Finally, you can always fall back on the option to give a couple of days off to a project team member for extraordinary effort – if you have the authority or you can work it out with the team member's direct manager... and if you can spare the time off in the project schedule for the individual. No one will mind a day or two off of work, so this option almost always will be well received.

Summary / call for input

I think most project team pros would appreciate recognition similar to what I've listed here more than a Valentine's Day card. At any rate, these have worked well for me on my teams and direct reports. But I do realize everyone is different. Readers – what is your take on my list? What have you tried that has worked well... or hasn't gone over so well? Please share and discuss.


Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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How to Prevent and Solve Project Communication Issues

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Proper, effective and efficient communication may be the single most important ingredient to project success. I feel strongly that project communication is the most important part of a PM's daily responsibilities and overall good communication is the responsibility of every stakeholder. Drop the ball on communication, and you might be looking at rework, a missed deadline, expenses pushing the project over budget and customer concerns or misunderstandings that can drive a project into the ground – faster than you can ever imagine.

There is no magic wand to wave that will ensure a project won't suffer issues. Even a project that starts out with a formal communication plan in hand and a PM dedicated to staying on top of all communication channels at all times may still suffer from communication breakdowns.

Review status regularly as a team

Since a tightly knit, cohesive team is usually tantamount to success, it would make sense that a team that communicates well, accurately, and frequently is also more likely to experience success and be more productive. Therefore, scheduling team meetings, communication, and task and status reviews regularly is always going to be a good idea. Keep in mind, it doesn't always have to be a meeting. Daily updates via email can be enough to make your team feel like they know everything about the project at any given minute. One of my business analysts on a project – who was also working on three other projects with three other project managers – told me that he received more emails from me than the other Project Managers. He said he always felt like he knew my project status much better because of this, and he knew what tasks he should be working on at any given time.

Keep meetings regular

Regular meetings = a stable stakeholder environment = communications that are comfortable and open. If you are conducting – as you should be – regular project status reviews with the customer or weekly project team meetings to keep the crew focused and up to date, keep those meetings no matter what. Even if there isn't much to say at any given meeting, still conduct it... even if it ends up being a 5 minute talk about what everyone is doing this weekend. You never know when some piece of key project information may slip through the cracks when a meeting is canceled that should have otherwise been held. Plus, when you start to cancel meetings, people who would normally be in attendance may feel that your meetings aren't as critical as others they could be attending and your attendance and participation levels may drop. You've then lost key participants and decision makers, which can be disastrous for the project, and it's often very difficult to rein those individuals back in.

Follow up on key communications

Always, always, always follow up. Making sure everyone is on the same page after meetings, brainstorming synchs, troubleshooting sessions or after any customer communications is critical to moving forward in the right direction. Follow up with notes and ask for a 24-hour turnaround response with any feedback or changes from those involved in the discussions. If something has changed, redistribute your communication with updates and everyone will be back on the same page again.

Summary / call for input

Communication is Job One for the project manager, in my opinion. Keep communication in order, and you've taken huge steps to ensuring project success and top team performance for your customer. If you are experiencing any communication issues on your project, try to identify any communication gaps that may be clouding the team’s comprehension of scope and requirements or, where people aren't aligned after the meetings you're conducting, try the tips above as a way to get things back on track. A strong line of communication with the project client is also a very good way to keep customer satisfaction high and hopefully secure repeat business from your stakeholders.

Readers – what are your thoughts on project communication issues? What do you commonly see as communication problems on the projects and how do you best avoid or mitigate them?


brad egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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