This may sound blasphemous to a professional project manager, but it is possible to over-plan. I have seen it happen countless times. It begins with a project manager with moderate analytical tendencies (e.g., an engineer) who has access to that ubiquitous project scheduling program, Microsoft Project. Actually, it does not have to be Microsoft Project–any program with similar capabilities will yield the same results.
At the beginning of the project, the hard-working project manager captures a high-level work breakdown structure and enters the data into his scheduling tool in order to create a simple high-level Gantt chart or waterfall diagram to share with the team and management. Wouldn’t it be nice if this were the extent of the usage, but NOOOO! As the project progresses, slowly but surely, the number of line items grows, as does the amount of time the project manager spends managing the details of the data. Depending on the length and complexity of the project, you will eventually find the unfortunate project manager spending most of his time buried in the details of “task 354 must start before task 781”, or “task 442 depends on the completion of task 393”, all the while he is neglecting the most critical of his project management duties: talking with his team and removing roadblocks.
One good example of this phenomenon comes to mind. I once managed a section that included several project managers, one of whom was tasked with leading a very large project involving many diverse disciplines, including mechanical and electrical engineering, chemistry, software, and physics. It was a multi-year project to design a highly complex hardware and software system. The project manager, let’s call him Joe, was a very experienced, and actually quite exceptional, mechanical engineer in his own right. He had run many projects the old-fashioned way: with his instincts and simple paper and pencil charts and graphs. Once he got ahold of Microsoft Project, it was all over. All those detailed plans he really wanted to make for his previous projects he could now create easily. I watched with increasing concern as the number of tasks he was tracking grew from a few dozen to over 800. Just printing the schedule out so it was visible to everyone required multiple E-size pages and took 30 minutes on a relatively fast plotter. I cautioned him that this was taking too much time and that he should consider the critical elements that his experience told him were a problem. He said he agreed and that he had been thinking he should perhaps delegate the management of the various subsections of the product to his team leaders. This sounded reasonable to me at the time, as I was secretly hoping that his team leaders would have more insight and not get sucked into the software tool. Boy was I wrong! Joe passed along his schedule in pieces to his team leaders, each of whom proceeded to grow their parts to the size of the project manager’s original masterpiece.
Needless to say, the project was late and overbudget. I don’t know if I can fully blame the amount of time everyone spent managing the details through the software tool, but it sure did not help.
For this reason, I always caution new project managers to try to manage by walking around, keeping the big picture in everybody’s mind, and allow the individual contributors to manage their tasks to meet the significant milestones. By wandering around and talking to individuals about the critical milestones and what their roadblocks are to achieving them, far more insight is gained and major roadblocks removed before it’s too late. This is especially true for projects where you are creating new products from cutting-edge technologies and research. Many of the things we worked on had never been done before. This is quite common in Silicon Valley.
Where programs like Microsoft Project really become useful with their ability to handle excruciating detail is with complex, but familiar, projects such as building a road or a home. These projects often involve well-known activities using technologies that are well characterized. It is fairly easy to schedule a certain amount of time to paint the exterior of a new home as it is easy for the contractor to know how long this typically takes given the square-feet involved in the subcontractor used on the last job. Such predictability is a rarity in the typical high-tech industry project. Therefore, if you are leading such projects, it is best to exercise restraint when using programs such as Microsoft Project. Focus your time on what matters to get the job done. As Albert Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Sometimes, a simple work breakdown list on a spreadsheet spreadsheet is the best tool for leading a project.
Loyal has more than 25 years of engineering and management experience in high-tech R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked as a design engineer, project manager, section manager and manufacturing engineering manager, and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology research teams chartered with improving the effectiveness of virtual workers. He is currently building a virtual work support site at http://commutezero.com/. Feel free to visit and contribute to the effort. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.