Most of us realize that knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it are two separate things. Exercise and a good diet will help us lose weight, but we never manage to get around to it and the weight stays put. In that case, having the right plan is not enough - you need to know how to execute it.


The following is a true story that involved someone I know very well. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.


Red Alert


A major government agency had a multimillion-dollar consulting project that was in trouble. The consulting firm was asked to explain what was going on and get the project back on track. In a panic, they called in their biggest gun.


Mr. Big Gun walked in and said, "Let me see the project plan." They showed him a beautiful Microsoft Project Gantt chart with all kinds of tasks and dependencies. He pointed to a task that was scheduled to begin the next day and was assigned to "Software Engineer 5." "Who is Software Engineer 5?" he asked. No one knew.


Mr. Big Gun moved on. "I see that Alice Wood is assigned to this other task; in fact, she’s working on it right now. Does she agree with the estimate for that task's timeline?" Again, no one knew the answer to his question.


"And how much effort has Alice put toward completing that task?" he asked. You guessed it - no one could answer that one either.


"Strike three!” said Mr. Big Gun. “Now, was that so hard?"


The CIO of the client said, "Get this man on the contract right now."


Three Simple Questions


The big gun was able to nail where the project went wrong in three simple questions. Let's look at them one at a time.

  1. Who is assigned to each task? Software Engineer 5 never accomplished anything because it was not an actual person. It is reasonable to use placeholders in large project plans that span multiple years, knowing that you will hire those people down the line. Once you get within a month of the start date, however, you need to know who's going to do the work. Not only that, but the name should be in the project plan so everyone else knows, too. Think about it: what would happen if your chosen resource hasn’t told his boss what he’s working on? He could get transferred or assigned to another project – in other words, unavailable to you.


    For smaller projects with shorter timelines, you need to just assign tasks to real people.

  2. How long will each task really take? The only way to truly know how long it is going to take to complete a task is to let somebody sit down and start working on it. The more experienced you are, the better your estimate is likely to be. I've written millions of lines of software code, so I'm pretty good at estimating how long it will take me to do it. Just don’t ask me how long it will take me to replace a spark plug, because I would be clueless until I actually start trying.


    If you have a real person working on a task on your project, and he or she has been working on it for a few hours, ask his/her opinion on how long it will take to complete it. Use that estimate to update your project file, and repeat this often on every task so that you are aware of any problems long before Mr. Big Gun gets called in.

  3. Is anyone actually working on these tasks? Not only that, but how is the person doing? Is his/her task only 30 percent complete when 75 percent of the budget has been spent? You have to track per-task effort to answer these questions and avoid any nasty surprises. Using timesheets to do so is beneficial in more ways than one. For example, you can later use that time data for improving your project estimation techniques.

On Your Way


Executing your projects is not as hard as it seems. Knowing exactly who you have assigned to tasks, how long it should take them and how much work they are doing will put you well on your way toward making your company successful and your customers happy.

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