* This month’s Feature Article: Discovering and Maintaining Your Project’s Heartbeat, Part 1
Feature Article: Discovering and Maintaining Your Project’s Heartbeat
Some projects zoom along, making progress regularly. Others feel as if they slog along, with barely any progress from week to week, or worse, month to month.
Why? The zooming projects have a heartbeat, a strong rhythm for the work. The slogging projects don’t have that rhythm. As a project manager or participant, you have several approaches to creating a project’s rhythm and maintaining it.
1. Make sure all tasks are small, no longer than 1 or 2 days.
One of the causes of slogging projects is big tasks. In a recent project management workshop, one of the participants said, “If you estimate in days, you’ll be late by days. If you estimate in weeks, you”ll be late by weeks.” I added, “If you estimate in months, you’ll be late by months.” Long tasks deny your project the chance to develop a heartbeat. And that leads to slower, slogging projects.
Inch-pebbles, those 1- or 2-day tasks, help people focus their work in a couple of ways. First, the smallness of the task means people actually finish something–usually several somethings–in a given week. Finishing work encourages all of us to keep working at a steady pace on *this* project, to finish more work. (This helps people avoid context switching on their own.) Second, people estimate large tasks because they don’t know exactly which small tasks comprise the large task. Asking people to take the time to decompose the big tasks into smaller tasks will help them see what they need to do first, second, and third.
Some people will tell you they can’t decompose their tasks. That’s when I ask, “What’s the first thing you need to do?” and “When will you know you’ll be done with that part?” If people still can’t tell me what their little tasks are, I ask them how to show me progress on their tasks. Even if they can’t articulate the pieces, they can show progress.
Don’t put the inch-pebbles in a project scheduling tool. Inch-pebbles are for the people working on tasks, not for the project manager. Also, don’t worry about determining 1-2 day tasks for work more than a month in the future. I’ll cover that in point # 2.
2. Use rolling wave scheduling to plan and manage the project’s schedule.
You might be accustomed to laying out an entire project at the beginning, assessing the project, and making schedule changes as necessary. But I find that the whole schedule feels burdensome to lots of technical people working on the project. Sure, they want to know the next major milestone, but we all know that the details of how you get to that milestone will change as you proceed. (I like saying “the schedule is the one way the project won’t work.”)
Instead of trying to schedule everything in detail (ick), or only scheduling the major milestones and hoping the project will meet those milestones, try rolling wave scheduling. A rolling wave schedule is a continuous detailed schedule that’s only a few weeks long. As you complete one week of detailed schedule, you add another week to the end of the schedule. With a four- week rolling wave schedule, I never have less than four weeks of detailed schedule, and I never have more than four weeks of detailed schedule.
If you’ve never tried rolling wave scheduling, here’s how to start. Gather the project staff. Explain your first milestone, making sure that the first milestone is no more than a month away. Ask everyone, “What tasks do you need to do to reach this milestone?” Then ask the project staff to write down their tasks and interdependencies on stickies, one task to a sticky. Post the stickies on a wall, noting assumptions, risks, and outside-the-room dependencies.
If you have a major milestone that’s more than a month away, define something that’s closer. Just as people need inch-pebbles, projects need close milestones.
Repeat the sticky planning for each milestone. As you proceed, you’ll find that the schedule is easier to maintain and that you spend less time with the schedule, enabling you to spend more time with the project team.
3. Plan to iterate everything.
One of the causes of slogging projects is waiting for other people to finish their work–or having other people wait for you to finish yours. One way to avoid some of the waits is to do a little work at a time. If you’re a developer, that means developing, integrating and testing your code a little bit at a time. If you’re a tester, it means testing a little bit at a time. If you’re a project manager, that means you plan a little and use the feedback about the project’s progress to replan as you proceed.
I’ll have more tips for you in the next Pragmatic Manager.
Esther Derby, Jerry Weinberg, and I will be teaching another PSL (Problem Solving Leadership) March 16-21 in Albuquerque, NM. PSL is experiential training for learning and practicing a leader’s most valuable asset: the ability to think and act creatively. PSL is the gold standard for leadership training, and I’m thrilled to be teaching again with Esther and Jerry. See the syllabus for more details. If you’re interested, please send me email, jr at jrothman dot com. We’d love to have you.
Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management is in its second printing! Read some excerpts at the publisher’s page.
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Thanks for reading, and please do send me your comments.
© 2007 Johanna Rothman
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Tags: inch-pebble, project management