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- Project management tools
Project management tools
You will probably find it helpful to use some project management tools to manage your project. The need for these will be all the greater if you are managing a portfolio of projects (sometimes referred to as a programme). This section offers some suggestions, in ascending order of complexity.
First, though, a comment about the dangers of the more complex tools. Critical dependency is always dangerous; this applies to people and also to tools. If you are using complex tools to help you manage your project, make sure that more than one person can use the tool.
Generally, simplicity is best. So a straightforward table that lays out what is to be done, by whom and by when, is enormously valuable - if it is shared across the members of the team. Important milestones should be highlighted. The addition of a column that indicates the status of the task adds more power to this simple tool. Some teams like to use a traffic lights approach. Green for on schedule, amber for concerns and red for behind schedule. This allows you (or anybody else) to tell at a glance how things are going.
When running multiple projects, listing tasks against time can help you to identify peak load problems. If your ‘to-do' list of tasks becomes too long you may find it more efficient to use a specific organisational tool such as Microsoft OneNote. This is an extremely useful tool that integrates well with the rest of the Microsoft Office suite. There are of course other products available but if you have Microsoft Office then you probably already have OneNote on your computer.
Managing the finances
The same simple approach can help with the financial management of projects. Most people find that their institutional system doesn't give them the information they need and so are driven, with some reluctance, to running their own ‘shadow' systems. But it doesn't have to be elaborate - a simple spreadsheet that shows the budget line and columns for: originally planned expenditure, current commitments, planned spend, and balance uncommitted will meet most people's needs.
The key aspect to the management of the financial side is making sure that your team understand and follow your rules on who can spend how much on what. However, remember, what shows in the finance system is definitive so you will need to cross reference your data with the finance data periodically to make sure that things are at least approximately in line. For example it is quite possible that something may have been charged to your project account in error - the sooner to address issues like this the easier they are to resolve. For more detailed information on managing project finances, visit the post-award page.
Something that all project managers should do is a risk analysis. It is helpful to split risk into two aspects: probability and consequence. Probability is the likelihood of something happening, consequence is how serious things are if it does happen. An important reason for separating them is that you manage them in different ways. If the risk is the loss of a key member of staff then you manage the probability by trying to make their job secure and make them feel valued. You manage the consequence by ensuring that their work is properly documented and that other people are trained up in the key areas of their work.
Gantt charts and Microsoft Project
A common and useful project management tool is the Gantt chart (Gantt is not an acronym, it's named after Henry L Gantt who introduced the technique in 1903). This has tasks down the vertical axis and time across the horizontal. The timing of a task is shown by the length of a horizontal bar.
Gantt charts can be easily produced in a Word table or an Excel spreadsheet but they are more powerful if they are generated with software such as Microsoft Project. Many higher education institutions will have a licence for Project or other similar software. The advantage of something like Microsoft Project is that is enables you to link tasks, for example task ‘y' cannot start until task ‘x' is complete. This process of listing all the tasks and defining the links between them is a really useful discipline. Chaining your tasks together like this usually tells you, on your first attempt, by how much your project will overrun. But Project also allows you to play with different possibilities and, during the planning stage in particular, this can be very useful. It also generates a visual presentation of the project that helps at the bidding stage.
One thing that a software-generated Gantt chart can identify for you is your time-critical tasks. These are the tasks on the ‘critical path' whose late completion will mean that the whole project will finish late. It is helpful to identify these at the outset because these are the tasks that you will need to manage especially carefully.
In general people view this approach as most useful at the planning and bidding stages, and for periodic major updates. It can take a lot of effort to update Project on a day-to-day basis and most people don't find this worthwhile.
There are other techniques such as PERT (Programme Evaluation and Review Technique), which is also available within Microsoft Project, but these are even more laborious and so are not recommended for small projects.
The final tool is in fact a methodology: PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments). This provides a very rigorous framework for project management, though not the people side, and is probably overkill. There are, though, more and more PRINCE2-qualified people around and it can be useful to get one of them to look over your project plan to identify any major concerns.
For a more detailed introduction to various project management tools and techniques see Wikipedia. You may also find the following documents and websites useful:
- Project Smart's simple and short step by step guide to project management
- JISC infoNet project management infokit
- Research Project Management: Key Concepts from MyConsultants [PDF]
In all probability you will just need to use simple IT tools to make sure that you can:
- persuade potential funders that you will be able to manage the project
- actually manage the project by making sure that you keep on top of everything.
Remembering that in terms of explaining to people your project management structure and project plan you should not underestimate the power of a diagram or two.
- In project management, as in most areas of life, communication is the key - don't assume that people read their emails. Or that if they do that they have understood what you meant. Or if they do that they actually intend to do it. Or if they do that they will remember to do it. Or if they do that they will do it well.
- Always keep on top of the project finances - befriend the person (probably in a central service) who looks after your project finances from an institutional perspective.
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