Don’t Gantt. Strip!

The Gantt chart is one of the most popular tools that project management professionals use today, but would a strip board be better?   Gantt charts have been a robust method of graphically representing a project schedule and the relationships with other tasks in that schedule for a century.  The problem I have found though is they can be difficult to understand.  Unless the person observing it has prior experience with Gantt charts and knows what to look for, the first expression one gets is usually a blank stare, then a look at the beginning and end dates on the left that appears like a spreadsheet and then a question about what tasks are specific to them even if the resources have been entered and appear on the bar in the graph.  So what tool can a project manager use to better communicate a schedule?

One effective alternative to a Gantt chart for a graphical representation of a schedule is the strip board.  Also known as a production board and made popular by the film industry, it shows the sequential order of a film on strips of paper that can then be moved around by the director to make up the scenes in a movie.  For a project management application, instead of a director and scenes, you have a project manager and tasks.  The project strip board can be constructed with the name of each resource across the top and the time sequence along the left column.  Fergus O’Connell provides a brief description and example in his book ‘The Competitive Advantage of Common Sense‘ in chapter 4 on page 65.  By constructing a project strip board, the number of resources, the tasks and the duration of each task need to be identified for the board to be meaningful.  In addition, the board can be distributed to each team member where they can see what they need to do, when and how it relates to other people on the team.  Some other advantages are:

– Can add a column for cost and sum up to give you total.

– Drives the PM to put names to tasks from the beginning.

– Works well with portrait style paper.

As an experiment, I re-created the exercise that we did in class Saturday, ‘A Project Management Decision-Making Game’ using the project strip board method.  Though anything is better than pencil, paper, and losing about half of an eraser, I found the strip board method very easy to construct in Excel and easy to manipulate when changes were made.  The only disadvantage I found was the ease of tracking the relationships between tasks unless it was done by the same resource.  With some additional experimentation though, using different color backgrounds or some of the graphic arrows available in Excel may help.

Has anyone utilized a project strip board on a project?  Do you think it might be a tool that can be used for showing activities during the events that project teams are hosting?

Project Success Through Gaining & Maintaining Authority

A primary challenge in project management is not only having the right resources in the right numbers working on the right actions at the right time, it is also having the authority to hold team members accountable for the responsibilities delegated in the project plan.  Normally the project manager’s role and authority are established at the beginning of a project and for dedicated teams, the management structure is well defined.  For matrix-structured organizations however, conflicts and politics can interfere very quickly with project success.  In the article ‘Gain and maintain authority to ensure project success’ found here, Jason Charvat discusses how the three key elements authority, accountability and responsibility are required for project success.  What I find interesting is how the last two, accountability and responsibility, are immediately applicable to the project manager for the project, but can only be delegated to the remainder of the team once authority is established.  In a worse case scenario, a project manager could attempt to launch a project, but the entire team would be directed by their functional managers to consider it their lowest priority.  What can a project manager do to avoid a situation like this from happening?

When beginning a new project, one of the key concerns a project manager should have is how much authority I will have.  In most cases, organizations know who will be on the project team, when they want the project complete, and sometimes what level of purchasing approval a project manager will have.  Rarely, however, does an organization give much thought about how much authority a project manager has to hold team members accountable.  For a project manager with extensive experience in the same organization, the project’s importance to the organization, team members and primary stakeholders are mostly known.  For project managers new to an organization though, additional effort will be necessary to assess what level of authority one has.

To determine what level of authority one has as the project manager when not defined, develop the project documentation including the project definition, schedule, and select core team members with input from the project sponsor and functional managers.  Once you have buy-in from the functional managers on the resources, continue to copy them on project scope and especially the roles and responsibilities of all team members.  This will give each manager insight as to the amount of work that is required and provide an estimate how much their department representative can dedicate their time to other tasks outside of the project.  Another advantage of involving managers from the beginning and providing continual updates is you have a direct communication path with someone that can influence a team member’s performance.  If a team member is not fulfilling their role and you don’t have the authority, “you can arrange a meeting with stakeholders who do have the authority to ‘make things happen.’ “

In my experience, I’ve also found that, as the article states, “The most successful project managers are those that are also willing to work with executives in order to get this authority.”