Top Features of MS Project 2010

I recently have installed MS Project 2010 on my computer and have begun to use it instead of the previous version of Project. It did take a little bit of time to get used to, but I think this version is definitely their best yet. I have listed the features I think are the best below and how they can help you be a better project manager.

Interface

  • Ribbon


    If you have MS Office 2007+ installed, you are used to the ribbon interface which replaces the menu bar. This interface is more efficient and lets you perform common tasks quicker. MS Project 2010 has incorporated the ribbon and I have found that they selected the right button/features to highlight. You can now create/update your schedule quicker without having to jump into sub-menus. And as we all know, the less time you can spend updating your schedule, the more time you can use to actually manage the project.

  • Data Entry/Manipulation Improvements
    Microsoft has also added numerous enhancements which allow you to focus on creating/editing the schedule and not worry about how to format the document/plan.
    • Auto-completion of field values allows you to select from previously entered information when filling out a field. This is especially useful when entering the resource for tasks.
    • Enhanced filtering of fields which allows you to analyze the data without having to export to Excel. 

    • Enhanced formatting options which include color/format as well as automatic wrapping of text within fields.
      turns into

Functions

  • Timeline – quick view of project overview
    • Reach your audience with new impact by quickly copying the timeline into an email, presentation, or any other document with formatting retained. 

  • Manual vs Automatic scheduling 

    • Allows you to decide whether you want project to automatically figure dates for tasks or if you want to manually decide/enter them
  • Team Planner 

    • Simply drag-and-drop to effectively plan tasks and optimize resources for your entire team and project.
      • Quickly identify unassigned or unscheduled tasks to proactively solve problems.
      • Simply hover over tasks to instantly view task-level details to plan with ease.
      • Be visually alerted to potential problems, choose to manually level resources as you work.
  • Save as PDF
    • Many PMs have been waiting a long time for the ability to save MS Project files as .pdf files. Well, the wait is finally over.

Compatibility

  • SharePoint 2010 Integration


    The ability to publish your project schedule to sync with a SharePoint Task List is important because it allows everyone on your team to have access to the schedule/task list without having to install MS Project on their computer.

    You can also have your team update their tasks online and then pull those updates back into your project file.

I am sure there are many other features to MS Project 2010 that you use on a regular basis. I would love to hear which features you think are most useful in your day-to-day life as a PM.

Prototyping Tools

One of the best tools in the requirements gathering/clarification process is the system prototype. System prototypes allow you to get feedback from end-users to ensure that you are developing a system that meets their needs. Technology has made the creation of prototypes much more feasible and cost-effective. As such, you should ensure that every system you create has a prototype created for it. Below are the three main categories of prototypes and some of the most popular tools for each.

Low-fidelity – a low-fidelity prototype is a rough graphical representation of the system. It does not contain functionality, but rather aims to get feedback on the general design/look and feel.

  • Pen and Paper – has the benefits of being cheap and having a very low learning curve. Hard to version drafts without manually creating new papers.
  • Balsamiq Mockups – software tool that allows you to create mock-ups/prototypes very easily. Can export output to image files for distribution.

Medium-Fidelity – a medium-fidelity prototype is used to refine the look and feel of the system or define high-level interactions.

  • Photoshop – using Photoshop allows you to clearly define the final layout and look of the system. Users will get to see exactly how the system will look and can verify it matches their needs
  • Flairbuilder – allows you to create interactive prototypes that can convey high-level workflow/capability.

High-Fidelity – a high-fidelity prototype is used to gather feedback on the usability/workflow of a tool. These prototypes take longer to create, but can be used with end-users to ensure that the product works as needed.

  • Dreamweaver (or other HTML editors) – creating a HTML-based prototype allows you to build a prototype that looks and acts in a similar manner to the final product. Back-end code is not included, but the interface/experience should match.

Putting people in a position to succeed

The main goal of any project manager is to put people in a position to succeed. This sounds simple enough, but it requires a great deal of energy/commitment to make it happen.

Project Team

Your project team relies on you to put them in a position to succeed. If you do not do your job, then they will not be able to perform their job at a satisfactory level. How can you put your team in a position to succeed?

  • Assemble the right team – having people play out of position will hurt the efforts of all involved. Do your team during project initiation to assemble a team that has the right skills/motivations. This will allow people to focus on the tasks that they are most likely to succeed on.
  • Ensure adequate training/ramp-up – similar to finding the right people, you need to make sure that people on the project are oriented/trained on any relevant project specifics. This will help them to hit the ground running.
  • Fight for adequate timelines – we all know that this is easier said than done, but fighting for adequate time will allow your team to create a solid product without having to cut corners or sacrifice quality. It will also help to maintain a work-life balance which makes the team happier and ultimately more productive.
  • Fight rampant scope creep – all projects have scope creep and we need to get used to this. As a project progresses, the true requirements often become clearer and allows us to build something that the stakeholders truly need. However, wildly changing requirements require that teams perform constant re-work and this can lead to quality suffering. Do your best to work with the team and stakeholders to allow some requirements modifications throughout the process while trying to maintain some semblance of baseline.
  • Be a buffer – your team needs to be focused on moving the project forward. As such, they will not have time to attend meeting after meeting or deal with every stakeholder inquiry/complaint. It is your job to manage communication with external stakeholders and shield your team from distractions.
  • Be a cheerleader – brag about your team whenever possible. Your team is working hard for you and in many organizations their line manager may not be aware of their contributions. Brag about their hard work and successes in both informal and formal ways. It will boost morale and will help your team succeed within the company.

Stakeholders

  • Define their expectations for the project – what does success look like? If you can work with the stakeholders to answer this simple question, then you can work with the team to achieve this goal. Many projects are begun without a clear understanding of the problem to be solved or the opportunity to be seized. Knowing the high-level picture allows you and the team to focus your energy on the points of highest ROI.
  • Define your expectations for them – Stakeholders are not passive observers on successful projects. As such, you need to let them know what you need of them. Let them know that they are responsible for being available for requirements clarification, product reviews, and to answer any questions you or the team may have.
  • Communicate often – Your stakeholders are often personally responsible/accountable for the project and they need to know how it is going. This is vitally important when they are queried on the project by their bosses or stakeholder. You need to make sure that your stakeholders are keenly aware of the project status. This involves both the good news and bad news. Provide them with regular status updates and be sure to alert them of any major events/issues. Do whatever it takes to make sure your stakeholders aren’t blindsided by any aspects of your project.

By following the above tips, you help your project be a success…and when your project is a success, you succeed!

These are just a few of the ways in which you can help your team succeed. How do you go about putting your team in a position to succeed?

What is an iteration?

One of the basic components of scrum is the use of iterations to plan work.

What is an iteration?

An iteration is a defined time period that is spent delivering a working product.

How long does an iteration last?

Most scrum iterations last from 2 to 4 weeks although some teams use shorter iterations. The goal is to define a time period that allows you to complete enough work to have working code ready for stakeholder review.

What happens during an iteration?

During each iteration, all the tasks of the software team occur. Requirements are being defined, code is being written, and testing is being performed.

What inputs are needed for an iteration?

In order to have a successful iteration, you need to have your team and product backlog fully flushed out. This will allow the team to hit the ground running.

What are the outputs of an iteration?

The outputs are fully-written and fully-tested code. The team will often demonstrate the working product at the end of each iteration and needs to be ready in case the stakeholders decide to ship/deploy the product.

Operations versus projects

I was having a debate with a friend of mine who is a project manager at a manufacturing plant.

I began the debate by declaring that his title is inappropriate and that he isn’t a project manager based on what he does every day.

He countered that had a project team and was required to submit weekly project status updates to his management team.

I asked what his status updates contained and his reply was that they highlight the output of the team and any issues the team encountered. Sounds like a project update to me, but when I pried deeper he revealed that the output was simply a count of the products the line produced that week.

I then calmly explained to him that projects are unique and designed to bring about change. They are not about:

  • Maintaining the status quo is not a project
  • Repeating the same thing over and over again is not a project

Projects are endeavors that by their nature are not repeatable, while you want your operational conduct to be very repeatable. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with conducting operations, but too often people in the world confuse operations and projects.

Let me know if you have ever ran across management who confuses the two a well.

Three ways to get your project back on schedule

As many of you can attest, projects can fall behind schedule. This is not a situation that is pleasant for any project manager. Thankfully, there are things that you can do to bring your project back from the brink. The three main ways to handle this problem are:

  1. Fast-tracking
  2. Reducing scope
  3. Crashing

Fast-tracking

We have discussed fast-tracking in more detail in a previous post “What is fast-tracking?“. Basically this trying to perform tasks that normally occur sequentially in a parallel manner. This can be successful, but it brings increased risk to your project.

Reducing Scope

Reducing scope is just that. In order to reduce the remaining time you need to complete the project, you can reduce the scope of what is required from the project. This requires buy-in from the project sponsor, but this is sometimes the best solution because it does not increase the risk of the project.

Crashing

Crashing is the practice of applying additional resources to a task to reduce its duration. This can be applied effectively when the tasks in question support divided effort. However, many tasks do not support this. As we have all heard, you can’t have a baby in one month by involving nine women! Also, throwing additional resources at the task often winds up being inefficient and costly. We will dive more into the process of crashing in a later post.

Basically, there are ways to reduce the time needed to complete your project but they all come with tradeoffs. Following sound project management processes will help you to keep the project on schedule and hopefully prevent you from having to try any of these strategies.

Top 5 Android Apps for the Project Manager

Telling a client that you didn’t have access to your computer is not always an option. Technology has allowed PMs to have access to more information more often. One of the most significant technology advances is the smart phone. I personally have an Android smart phone and it has made a big difference in how up-to-speed I am when I am out of the office. To help you take advantage of your Android, I have compiled a list of the top 5 Android apps for project managers.
  1. Touchdown – application that allows your phone to connect to your company’s Exchange email server. Instantly have access to your email, calendar, and contacts from where ever you are located. Some versions of Android support this natively, but this app is the best email app out there.
  2. Documents to Go – Microsoft Office documents are ubiquitous in the lives of project managers. Having the ability to view/edit a MS Office document on your phone comes in very handy when you need to update a status report prior to boarding a plane.
  3. Evernote – Evernote is an application that allows you to record audio notes, take pictures, upload files, and write text notes and then access them later. The best part of the application is that you can sync your PC with your phone so that you have important information no matter where you are located.
  4. Remember the Milk – I mentioned this service in a previous post “How to keep track of action items“. This app allows you to sync your phone to the web-based service and update items, add items, and receive alerts when changes were made to items.
  5. Scan2PDF – even as we move into a paperless society, there are still situations where you are handed hardcopy documents. This application allows you to use your phone’s camera to take pictures of the document and covert it automatically to PDF.
Bonus Apps – the apps below also made it onto my phone and I thoroughly enjoy them
  1. Google voice – auto transcription of my voicemail is my favorite feature
  2. Audible – leading audio book service is now available on the Android
  3. Twitter – official app that allows me to access Twitter (no explanation needed) from my phone
  4. WordPress – allows me to review comments and write blog posts on the fly
  5. NewsRob – great RSS reader that keeps me in the loop

Let me know if you have other apps that you would recommend to your fellow project managers.

What is the critical path?

You have probably heard the expression “This is on the critical path”.

Sounds scary doesn’t it. The term critical conjures up a bad image in most people’s minds. They immediately think of the emergency room and critical condition patients.

Thankfully the critical path is actually a good thing for project managers. It helps us to manage our projects more effectively by focusing our energy in the right places.

What is the critical path?

The critical path is the set of tasks that determine the duration of the project. This occurs when these tasks combine durations and dependencies in such a manner that if any of these tasks slip, the entire project slips.

Why do I care about the critical path?

The critical path is important for two main reasons.

  1. As a PM, you need to make sure that the tasks on this path are completed within their planned time frames. This will put your project in good position to finish on time.
  2. The critical path is the list of tasks where you can make up for lost ground on your project (when things go wrong). You can use fast-tracking or crashing of the tasks on the critical path to reduce the duration of the path and improve your timelines.

What to do next

Look at the project schedule for your current project.  Have you focused on these tasks to make sure they are completed on time? Have you thought of ways you could compress the critical path if something goes wrong with the project?

Five Best Project Management Books

In order to increase our knowledge of project management (and earn PDUs),  project managers often spend their spare time reading books about project management. Below are the top 5 project management books I have read. They all address the issue of becoming a better project manager from a slightly different angle, but they all should be in your library of PM books.

Results without Authority and Making Things Happen are the two books in the list that do not focus on IT/software project management. The authors of these books focus on how you can be a project manager by focusing on communication and the stakeholders. This sounds pretty basic, but it never hurts to be told (and told, and told) that as PMs we need to focus the majority of our energy on communicating.

The remaining three books come from an IT-background, but the ideas of them can be applied to projects in every arena. Many of you have read the book The Mythical Man-Month. This book was one of the first to raise that throwing resources at a problem won’t fix it because the complexity and communication needs for the project skyrocket and can actually slow down you project. This is just one of the insights in the book.

Reading these books will not make you a better PM…only practice and application of what you learn can do that. However. I am confident that reading these books will provide you with more information and ideas on how to be a better project manager.

Please let me know your thoughts on these books and let me know if there are other books that are essential on your bookcase.

How to have an effective kick-off meeting

What is a kick-off meeting?

The kick-off meeting is the generally the first meeting that the project team and the client/stakeholders have on a meeting. For client projects (those for which a client is paying your company), the kick-off meeting will probabaly be the first time the project team has talked to the stakeholders at all.

What do you want to accomplish during the kick-off meeting?

The main goals of the kick-off meeting should be as follows:

  • Team introductions
  • Discussion of project assumptions
  • Discussion of project managment methodology

How to prepare for the meeting

Prior to the kick-off meeting, the project manager should:

  • Read the project charter/contract/statement of work
  • Assemble the preliminary project team and brief them on the project
  • Prepare a list of preliminary project assumptions
    • High-level scope
    • High-level timeline
  • Create and distribute the meeting agenda

What to do during the meeting

During the meeting, the project manager should be focused on two main things:

  1. gathering information from the stakeholders in terms of the key players, expectations, and success criteria
  2. increasing stakeholder confidence by confidently presenting the project team and project methodology that will be followed

What not to do during the meeting

Too many times I have seen project managers try to have the kick-off meeting serve as the requirements workshop and timeline setting meetings so that the team can jump right into delivering deliverables. Don’t do this! It may seem that reducing a few additional hours/days of meetings is a great idea, but it will only hurt your project if you rush the analysis/planning phases of your project.

The kick-off meeting is not intender to replace other meetings. Rather, it is designed to start the project on the right foot. This means making your stakeholders confident that your team can successfully deliver the project and to make sure you know what success looks like to the client.

Follow-up activities for the meeting

The kick-off meeting follow-up is the first opportunity for you to follow your project methodology after you presented it to the client. As such, you need to do the following:

  • Document and distribute meeting minutes
  • Document and distribute any action items
  • Complete all possible action items
  • Schedule the follow-up meetings