A Simple Example of Project Management

People have sometimes asked me for a simple definition of project management.

The PMI (Project Management Institute) definition pretty much requires you to be a project manager before you can understand it. That’s fine; PMI caters to actual and aspiring project managers.

In the real world, project management covers a broad range of ideas and actions. Almost any series of actions that add up to a body of work with at least a sense of a start and an end is a project. Note that in the real world many projects don’t have a clear start or end. Even in building construction, what’s the start: when the developer first forms the idea of putting up a building, or when the architect comes aboard, or when the general contractor is hired, or when they start clearing the land, or…? In the law, especially at a firm, matters have begun usually long before you first see them, and their ends may drag on — Exxon Valdez is still in the courts 22 years later (the anniversary, in fact, is a week from today). You can sometimes define the start and end of your work on the project, but a project manager cannot be the star in her own play; the world is larger that any one of us.

Oops, see, I’m getting as overcomplicated as the PMI, and I’m just talking about when a project begins and ends.

The real world is messy. And good project managers live within and deal with the real world, not a sterile isolate of it.

So let me try it another way, by offering an example.

I live part time on a small island about 70 miles north of Seattle. It’s not necessarily small in size, per se, since it’s 1.5 times the size of Manhattan, but it’s small in feel — 2000 full-time residents, everyone waves to one another, a village where you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes, no traffic lights, stores all closed at 6PM in the winter, etc. (At left is a late winter sunset shot from my deck, one of the reasons I love spending time up there.)

However, getting there is a bit of a hassle. I need to take a ferry, which runs infrequently and leaves from a terminal 91 miles from my home in Seattle. So I have to drive to the ferry terminal over roads that are often jammed with traffic, get there early enough to make sure I get a spot on the ferry, and so on. There can be a long wait for the ferry during the summer and on spring and fall weekends. So it’s a real project to get to the island.

Of course, I can just get in my car at any time, and wait at the terminal until I can get on a ferry. But the terminal is unexciting to say the least, and I’m not fond of waiting more than necessary. (And if I go too late in the day, I might not get on a ferry until the next day; the last ferry leaves around 9PM during the winter.)

So I project-manage the trip.

In my head, of course! I don’t write up a project plan, build a risk matrix, or even consciously think “project management.” But project management is what I do.

Let’s look at some of the elements of project management.

Business Problem: I want to minimize frustration time — time spent waiting for the ferry — while maximizing my time spent on the island. (At left, one of the ferries near the island ferry landing. It’s about 380 feet long, with two car decks, two passenger decks, and a pilothouse deck above it all. That’s a serious boat!)

Constraints: Ferry schedule, business schedule (I don’t want to take client calls in the car, for example), schedules of family members who might be making the trip with me. Traffic and ferry lines are also constraints of a sort, but they get factored into the schedule rather than setting absolute limits.

Schedule: I know it takes exactly 89 minutes from my door to the toll booth at the ferry terminal when there’s no traffic. I need to be on line ten minutes before the scheduled departure. Thus I need to leave home at least 1 hour 40 minutes before the scheduled “sailing” time, as it’s termed. I’ll factor in a ten-minute safety factor for normal risks like getting behind a slow truck on the road to the ferry terminal, a bit of a lineup at the toll booth, minor traffic slowdowns at a couple of predictable points on the highway, etc. So I know I need to leave about two hours ahead of the sailing in normal times — e.g., very early in the morning, midday on weekdays (except Fridays), and so on.

To that, I add factors for highway traffic and ferry lines. On summer Fridays after about 1PM, for example, I know that my hour on the Interstate will be at least three hours! And there’ll be a long line at the ferry landing. So I either don’t go Friday afternoons in the summer or steel myself for a long, frustrating, and unpredictable journey. I’ve been going up there now for about ten years, though, so I have a pretty good sense of traffic and lines. I will look at the schedule and calculate when I need to leave to have a high likelihood of getting on the target sailing.

And I know I need to turn the heat on remotely, about an hour ahead for every seven degrees I want to raise the temperature in the house. Thus if it’s 40 degrees outside tomorrow and I head up there, I’ll kick up the heat in the house about four hours before I leave. I’ve forgotten to do that only once, and it wasn’t a lot of fun trying to get some work done in a house that was 40 degrees, even after dragging a table over to the fireplace. So that event — a milestone, in effect — has to go on the mental schedule too.

Contingency Plans and Risk Mitigation: I rarely aim for the last ferry of the day, and if I do, I allow considerable extra time. I have books or my computer for wait times. I may do some food shopping in Anacortes, the city with the ferry terminal, if I encounter less traffic on the highway than expected. If there’s a second ferry with 90 minutes of the one I’m aiming for, I don’t sweat things too much; if there’s a five-hour gap as there is midday tomorrow, I’ll add some extra time to the schedule to make it almost certain, absent a flat tire or a wreck that closes the highway, that I make the ferry I’m targeting.

Budget: Not all budgets are money. There’s a fixed cost for each trip — the ferry fare, wear and tear on the car, etc. — that’s simply built into the whole process; we wouldn’t have bought the place if those costs were real factors.

However, not all budgets are measured in money. There’s a serious time budget. How much time can I afford out of my day? If I’m busy, it behooves me to get up extra early, before highway traffic or ferry lines. (I’m an early riser, so making a 6AM ferry isn’t a big deal; I make 6AM flights out of SeaTac all the time.) On the other hand, getting my kids up that early isn’t fun, and so I have to budget more time — because midday trips generally take longer — if I’m traveling with kids. Likewise, if I need to leave four or five hours ahead of time to get a Friday ferry, I need to consider the costs and benefits of “losing” those five hours. I don’t mind driving, but I hate traffic and dislike the unproductive time in the car and on the ferry line. On the other hand, it can be rich time spent talking with my wife and/or kids. It all hits the time budget — not only what I will spend, but what I’m willing to spend.

Project Value: In the end, I have to ask two questions. First, is the project worth doing? The peace and relaxation (see the picture at left, taken after 9PM one summer evening) is worth a lot, but it’s not always worth a six hour trip. (The base trip is a bit under three hours door to door, before traffic or lines.) Second, how can I schedule it to maximize my overall benefits and minimize my overall hassle? Given that more time on the island is usually more benefit, simply avoiding traffic by, say, never going on a summer Friday also cuts into the benefits I gain.

Bottom Line: I do run these calculations mentally each time I go. Because I have decades of project management experience, I run them consciously — and very quickly, often in a second or two.

I could go without doing the project work; many island visitors do. I’ll still get there. However, I won’t get there as efficiently, or with as little time spent, or with minimized frustration and hassle.

That’s project management.

Projects will happen, managed consciously or not. And many will succeed, managed consciously or not. But they’ll invariably have better outcomes if you learn to manage them consciously — adherence to budget, maximized value, minimized waste and scrambling.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a trip project to plan!


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