Plan to Adjust: Hybrid Project Management for Professionals

9-Apr 2014
Geoff McQueen

(This post originally appeared on ProjectsAtWork.com)

In managing thousands of professional services projects, Geoff McQueen was frustrated by the “structured fantasy” of Gantt charts and rigid planning. But many clients were uncomfortable in agile environments and felt like they were writing blank checks. McQueen favored a hybrid approach and created a collaborative online platform to support it.

Geoff McQueen has managed thousands of professional services projects, for clients ranging from a small business across town to a Prime Minister across the world. His frustrations with the limits of top-down project management and disillusionment with the promise of bottom-up agile approaches led him to develop a "hybrid" way of managing and delivering professional service projects, which he and his team have now turned into a fast-growing online platform called Accelo.

Here, McQueen shares his thoughts on the state of project management, including why so many clients don’t like agile-run projects, the benefits of a hybrid approach and the role of technology in empowering teams.

What is wrong with project management planning approaches?

The most traditional approach to project management is the “top-down” strategy. With this strategy, managers put together a strict plan and timeline for how they see the project being completed. This usually includes specific milestones and tasks with their own timelines, budgets and resource assignments. At the planning stage, detailed Gantt charts like these are a thing of beauty. But, unfortunately, this theoretical work of art soon becomes a broken and grubby reminder that no plan survives contact with the real world. And while we all know that things change, tight plans like these cause either more stress when things don’t go to plan, or even worse they cause project teams to ignore the plans as irrelevant because they’re out of date — only the most disciplined project manager manually keeps the plan up to date every day. So, you end up with a structured, well planned fantasy that disappears like a dream in the morning.

What about agile methods?

Yes, on the opposite end of the spectrum is the “bottom-up” approach, which tries to help people get things done in reality and eschews much planning or forecasting. One of the best examples of this is the agile approach, where the people at the coalface are continually planning out how they’d like to accomplish their tasks each day and week. Unfortunately, this makes it almost impossible to set deadlines, estimate the financial cost of a project or any of the other things clients and project managers need.

More common than agile is no real project management at all — individuals create and keep their own task lists, and weekly or monthly reporting from timesheets or financials informs whether a project is over budget or not. But this is often too late for your poor project manager to do anything about it other than a kind of “air crash investigation” to see why it all went so wrong.

So teams like agile, but clients don’t?

Pretty much. If you’re the one paying the bills, you want to keep an eye on the costs and the progress, but with everything being estimated and re-estimated all the time without fitting inside envelopes of deadlines and budgets, you’re basically writing a blank check. And if your end-goal is to deliver a project for a client or other stakeholder paying the bills, agile alone isn’t going to cut it.

Is there a better approach?

The best strategy is a combination of the two, what we call the “hybrid approach.” This approach takes the best of both the bottom-up agile and the top-down Gantt strategies and combines them. Project managers use the Gantt model they’re used to and set higher level “envelopes” of milestones, which consist of general accomplishments with internal due dates for major milestones only, but below that, it’s up to the team members down the line to determine how they will work together to complete them. They take a milestone, carve out tasks with estimated time to complete, and all the while the project manager can keep track of deadlines and budget but without having to predict all the minutia and detail up front. Like the top-down approach, there is an overall goal to accomplish and several deadlines to meet along the way, but like the bottom-up approach, team members have flexibility with how they go about reaching those goals.

How does technology come into play?

Juggling dozens of projects, hundreds of milestones and teams spread across them is impossible with memory and difficult with spreadsheets and whiteboards, so obviously quality project management software can help a lot. Unfortunately, most of them only support one of the two approaches. They either fail to give the people doing the work the power to adjust project plans and tasks, or fail to give project managers the structure they need to plan and manage projects properly.

I was so frustrated by this situation a few years ago, so I started a business to solve this problem. With Accelo Projects, managers can create broad milestones (and even specific tasks they know about in advance), and then team members are empowered to create tasks, estimate (and re-estimate) time remaining and everyone can track their progress towards the overall goal. Of course we also built in templates and business automation to make it easy to manage projects you do frequently. Additionally, there is a client-portal access to boost transparency and collaboration. But, the main takeaway is really this unique approach to delivering projects, which, after all, are how most professional businesses make their revenue.

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