Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to read more and/or improve your project management skills? If your answer is yes, then I have a book to recommend to you: Project Management for Planners: A Practical Guide (2002) by Terry A. Clark. This book is not new and has been around for over ten years, but I only recently discovered it. I find it so helpful that I listed it as one of the items in my article Presents for Plannerds. Essentially, the book offers professional planners the practical tools and advice on how to be successful project managers. In case you are wondering, project management is defined by the book simply as a “method of organizing information and focusing people towards delivering a product.” You may also be thinking: what is the big deal and why would I need to read a book on the topic? After all, don’t all planners naturally know how to manage projects well? Aren’t we all forward-thinking and know intuitively how to complete projects within budget and on time? My answers to both questions are “no” because I have come to realize that even though I have been a planner for more than 13 years, I still have much to learn about how to manage a project or projects well. With this article, I would like to share a few things that Mr. Clark and his book taught me.
Leading the Team
A project manager is the leader of the project team. As such, s/he is responsible for the team’s direction, time management, resources, morale, communication, and protection from outside influences. Personally, I have a hard time doing all of these things and find most of them very challenging, especially since I am an introvert. I am encouraged by Clark’s reminder that leadership is something that can be learned and developed by individuals who are willing to put in the effort. As he explains further, becoming a good leader takes time, hard work and desire, combined with a willingness and ability to take risks.
Need for a Project Charter
This may be obvious to some, but you would be surprised how often the basic requirements and expectations of a project are not outlined in writing. The Project Charter is a single document that makes sure that managers and decision-makers are on the same page regarding the purpose of the project and what will be required from the organization to produce the project deliverables. Clark lists the following as major components of a Project Charter: Project Title; Project Sponsor; Project Management Oversight Team; Project Manager; Project Team; Project Location, Project Description; Justification; Preliminary Methodology; Business Areas Involved; Estimated Costs/Resources; Assumptions; Constraints; and Roles and Responsibilities. The book provides a sample or template which can easily be adapted for different projects.
Importance of Communication
Effective communication is critical to the success of any planning project. The book points out that up to 90% of a project manager’s time may be spent on communication, with the remainder on technical issues. As planners, we need to have good communication skills for both the management of the project and the “sale” of the project to the public. As Clark explains, there are two major elements of a communications plan: Internal Communication and External Communication. Internal communication refers to the distribution of pertinent information to the project team. The information must be accurate, timely, and directed to the right people. The content, timeliness, and the recipients should dictate the form or mode of communication. I typically rely on e-mail to communicate because it allows me to inform multiple people at once and provide a written record. However, I have learned that I should also do more verbal communication (face to face) as it is more personable and allows me to develop or build better relationship with other members of the project team. External communication is what most planners tend to focus on, i.e. how to deal with the public. Clark is right when he says “Involving external parties and the press can make or break a planning project” and “Great care must be taken when developing the external communication method”. For a planning project to be successful, it must be well received by the public, decision-makers, elected officials, and other stakeholders. For a project to be well-received, it must be explained clearly and repeatedly to all.
Structure of Organizations
One of the first things Clark states in his book is that our organizations are usually not arranged to let people most effectively do their jobs. Sadly, I must agree to some extent because most planning organizations are hierarchical in nature while the projects we work on need to be flexible and product-focused. Clark does a great job comparing and contrasting different organizational structures, and explains that the traditional hierarchical organization has a difficult time dealing with projects that require cross-functional teams. In an ideal world, he would employ a “projectized organizational structure” that is organized around projects and project managers. Knowing that this is not always possible, he argues that even if the organization can be temporarily arranged to accommodate the project manager and the team, the chances for a successful project are elevated. I think this is true as I have personally experienced how a cross-functional team is better even if it is only assembled temporarily for a specific project.
Before starting a project, we must do an estimate of the resources, i.e. human and financial capital, needed to complete it. In determining the needed human resources for a project, the author points out that a diverse project team should be assembled. Diversity can be measured in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, profession, and personality. My initial thought was that such diversity would make it difficult for a project team to come together and get work done. However, as I have learned over the years, it is not good to have a team made up of people with the same view(s). Different individuals bring unique and valuable perspectives and strengths to a project team. Also, when determining the general requirements of the team, we must include a description of why that person or group of people is needed. The best way to do so is to relate each project team member to the deliverables. In addition to human resources, money is obviously needed and decision-makes must know project cost estimates for personnel, equipment, materials, and overhead. The book offers a worksheet which can be used to estimate general project costs.
After completing a project, most planners would prefer to take a break from it or not even discuss it for a while. However, Clark reminds project managers to schedule and facilitate a “lessons learned” session with the project team. The session does not need to be long; it can even be fun and informative. This is an opportunity for team members to acknowledge the things that went well, discuss problems, and consider how to improve the next project. The project manager should ensure the meeting is well documented and thank the team for their hard work. I agree with Clark that it is important to host such a session, and regret that this has rarely happened in my career. It seems like we just never have time to debrief or reflect; we just keep going from one project to another. This is especially true for private sector planners in consulting firms which function almost like factories producing planning documents endlessly.
Project Management for Planners is a wonderful resource for all planners to have. There are many books out there on project management, but this one is uniquely written by a planner for planners. It is a good read and offers useful templates or examples of various project management tools. I also like the “Review” section at the end of each chapter which makes it easy to remember the key points. I have only shared the highlights here and I suggest that you read the book in its entirety for more information and explanation. My only criticism of the book is that all of the case studies described in Chapter 8 are from Florida. However, I cannot blame the author for sharing specific examples he is most knowledgeable about; I would have done the same. Not all of us planners are natural project managers, but with the help of books like this one, we can certainly strive to be better at all aspects of our jobs, including the management of projects.
Book cover from Amazon.com