Lightweight Project Planning for Consulting

For anything you do, there’s a tradeoff between staying organized (keeps you on track but takes time away from the actual work) and just focusing on the work itself (you make progress, but you might end up less sure of the schedule or whether you’re even working on the right thing).  This dilemma is especially true of most consulting projects, where you’re strapped for time from the get-go and you potentially have a lot of different balls in the air.

In general, I find that management consulting projects benefit from a moderate amount of project management overhead.  The same is not true of many information technology projects, where teams and scope are often much larger and the end deliverable may be much more complex.

What do I mean by a moderate level of overhead?  There are really only three main guidelines that I use for managing project effectively:

Decompose the tricky parts

Any complex task should be broken down into smaller steps so you have more visibility into what really needs to get done.  Even something straightforward like conducting customer interviews involves deciding on a list of contacts, getting introductions, scheduling calls, and summarizing results afterwards.  While that’s an obvious example, it’s far too easy for even basic tasks to slip between the cracks if no one has thought about them explicitly.

Track dependencies

While breaking things down, also think about dependencies.  A certain task could require management or client sign-off, access to certain data or people, or other tasks to be completed first.  During one of my pricing projects for a paper company, one of the big delays was getting IT to run pricing reports before we could even start with most of the work.  Getting data in general can be a big unexpected component of the schedule.  Don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable about the schedule until you’ve identified all of the important dependencies because short tasks that need to be done in a certain sequence can quickly become bottlenecks and wreck the schedule.

Maintain accountability

Assign all tasks to people explicitly, and make sure that you’re communicating with them clearly.  Otherwise, you run the risk that everyone will assume it was someone else’s job, which increases the risk of problems.  Each team member should be fully aware of their assignments, the timing for them, and all of the relevant dependencies.

In general, you should have a plan of attack for the entire project and know how far along you should be at a given time.  If you end up flying too much by the seat of the pants, symptoms include last-minute crunches, more stress for the team, and a higher risk that the project will fail.

On the other hand, if you feel like you spend a day every week updating the project plan, you may have too much overhead.  If your project planning spreadsheet has hundreds of lines, you either have an extremely complex project, or perhaps you’re being too detail-oriented and need think about some tasks at a higher level of abstraction.  Constantly adjusting the start and end times for different tasks and updating information that will have little effect on how work is accomplished can be a big time sink.  It can also be very frustrating for everyone on the team because of the inefficiency involved.

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