When thinking about a large project it is easy get overwhelmed by the thought of trying to coordinate the people and tasks and all that. Many people manage smaller projects in a social style. This is sometimes called informal project management. The skills and methods that you've learned to succeed at smaller projects can serve you well in larger projects if you keep in mind that at the end of the day you're still working with people. That is, the project is still social.
Social project management is the idea that getting projects successfully to completion is more than tracking to-do lists and asking employees and/or contractors, "How's it going?" Social project management acknowledges that project team communication and cooperation is critical for the project to succeed.
The promise of social project management comes from acknowledging that projects (particularly large projects) are a social activity. People doing work with people, for other people, with commitments to yet other people. The more people (i.e. larger projects), the more interpersonal interactions, the more social effects inside of the project.
In other words, the larger the project, the more important that you acknowledge and embrace the social interactions. Perhaps, dare I say it, even facilitate social interaction.
Software, particularly project management software, has tremendous potential for facilitating social interaction within a project. But if you ask most users they will tell you that their project management software does more to get in the way of successful social interaction than to facilitate it.
In Thornley’s post Social Project Management: Everything is Small Again he has two lists of the “hallmarks of social project management (2.0)” vs “project 1.0 focused on large projects with large budgets and enormous teams”. Just contrasting those two in that way sets the discussion up to head towards a foregone conclusion; Smaller is easier to manage. Yet many projects are large projects and do require large budgets and teams.
A better question is, “How can we facilitate strong and healthy social interaction on all projects regardless of size/budget/staff?”
First let’s get some commonalities out of the way…
Whether you have a small or a large project the following are things you need to consider:
- Smart, motivated people with multi-disciplinary skills.
Yes, all projects should have these. Whether you are hiring a contractor to refit your commercial kitchen or coordinating a complete redesign of your web site, your project team members must be motivated and have the skills required.
- Feedback is good.
Again, good for any project not just small ones.
- Feedback: End user feedback is sought to refine the product. For the kitchen example have the staff put post-its with their ideas/comments on a copy of the plans that you've posted in the hallway or breakroom.
- Rapid Iterations: Get the idea and project plan out to the people impacted early and often. If you're redsigning your commercial kitchen have the staff take a look at the designs as they are drafted.
- Responsiveness: Speed and close contact with users leads to quick reaction to feedback. Make sure that you show that the feedback is taken seriously, that it has an impact on the project.
- Minimal scope: Less is more. Build less.
Nice buzz-phrase, but really more is more. However there is wisdom here. A series of small projects (less) can deliver more when repeated many times. Perhaps this should be “Build less at any one time.” The second step in this is to take a look at the end of each separate part of the project and see if it is really what is needed.
- Limit planning. Eliminate non-essential documentation and highly detailed specification where possible.
It is possible to over plan any size of project. When confronted with a large project the temptation is often to make detailed plans. However, if the first change to the plans changes everything then much of that planning was wasted. Your time is valuable and you must focus on walking the tightrope of planning just enough and just in time if you're not be derailed by every unexpected change.
- Avoid expected failure.
In projects of any size you can end up with expected failure when the schedule is unrealistic for the scope and resources. This is certainly a morale killer. But it is not limited to large projects. Make sure that everyone involved is comfortable with and committed to the project plan.
Now let’s look at some of the meaty problems with social project management in large projects.
Let's Get Small(er)
Breaking large projects down into smaller projects is an excellent way to cope. In fact, Reichelt makes a point of this in her presentation (though it does not appear in the derivative posts as other than a footnote). The issue, once you break the large project down, becomes tracking and coordinating all of those sub-projects that make up the whole.
This amounts to coordinating the efforts and communication and interaction of many people. This is a social activity and there are many tools (some of them free) out there to help with this. Google "social project management tools" and take a look at the offerings.
Planning and Scheduling
Schedule with a large project really does matter. You must set expectations with customers (either internal or external) on when your project will be completed. Business strategy often hinges upon your ability to accurately and reliably predict project schedules. Communicating those schedules and expectations is a social activity. It is why traditional project management tools that treat the schedule as somehow outside of the project itself, with no integration with discussion and notes and design is so… well… anti-social.
Long-term strategic planning requires something like horizon & beyond timelines. Planning a project now that will be useful and realistic in 18 months does not work at all if the project plan does not get updated anytime in between. Plans change, people change, organizations change, and the project plan must change with them or the schedule is surely junk.
However you make your schedule, it must be able to adjust effortlessly to fast pace and constant change. Gantt charts, for example, are simply a representation of the schedule that when mixed with single point estimates become poison. The optimism of these schedules (noted by Reichelt) and their lack of resemblance to reality spring directly from the way that the estimates for the individual tasks are collected, processed, and updated (or not updated as the case may be).
In order to get good, reliable schedule updates, there must be something in it for the person performing the update. They must be comfortable making the updates in real-time as they get improved information about their tasks on the project. It must deliver value to them independent of getting the boss/client off of their back. Otherwise all you get is grudging compliance and garbage data in the system.
Which brings up…
One of the key difficulties in managing large projects is that top down organization leads to an extensive hierarchy. Information trickles down but getting the information back up is difficult. Really this should be thought of as a pure communication problem (hmm… communication between people, social?).
If everyone on the project can instantly see how changes (like adding a sink) and trade-offs (like cutting out the extra wine rack) affect the schedule then the problem where the project grows and grows from new "good ideas" becomes easier (not easy, but easier) to manage.
The Wrap Up
There is little difference between the “social-ness” of small projects versus large projects. Much of what you do to succeed with your smaller projects will serve you well in your large projects. Social project management in large projects is not significantly harder than in small projects if you have tools that scale well and facilitate:
- breaking up large projects into smaller sub-projects
- coordination of those smaller projects, and the collecting of status and schedules for those smaller projects back into a large project view
- flexible schedules supporting ranges of outcomes that encompass an uncertain future, for realistic planning and scheduling
- active participation by delivering added value for each participant in the project from the client all the way up to the front-line worker doing the day-to-day tasks
- open communication and complete transparency with instant or near instant updates and communication of changes to all team members and stakeholders
Don't fear the large project. You can do it step by step.
This was inspired by a couple of posts and comment streams about Social Project Management. The first was Joseph Thornley’s post Social Project Management: Everything is Small Again which was excerpted by the ZDNet ProjectFailures blog. All of this was kicked off by Leisa Reichelt’s presentation Social Project Management: Everything Small is Big Again at the Enterprise 2.0 conference. Reading Thornley’s post is worthwhile as it distills Reichelt’s slides into a list.