Ideas, suggestions and general thoughts about project management for development.

Project Management for Development

Project Management and the Project Lifecycle

All projects have certain characteristics in common that makes them unique from other type of work:

  • They all have a beginning and an end.
  • All projects are unique. They may be similar to prior projects, but they are unique in terms of timeframes, resources, business environment, etc.
  • Projects result in the creation of one or more deliverables.
  • Projects also have assigned resources - either full-time, part-time, or both.

Project management defines the overall management and control processes for the project.  Just as there are common project management processes to manage most projects, there are also common models that can provide guidance on how to define the project lifecycle. These common models are valuable since they save project teams the time associated with creating the project work plan from scratch each time.

Project management is the planning, implementing, and monitoring of project activities to meet project objectives, achieved by effectively controlling and balancing the constraint of scope, schedule, and budget, in producing quality deliverables that meet or exceed the expectations of the project stakeholders.

All development organizations do most of their work through projects. Projects can be managed using a common set of project management processes. In fact, a similar set of project management processes can be utilized regardless of the type of project. For instance, all projects should be defined and planned, and all projects should have processes to manage scope, risk, quality, budget, etc.

A project lifecycle provides a basic outline that can be used by any project; in other words, the detailed work to deliver the outcomes is referred to as the "project lifecycle". It basically starts with the understanding of a need, then with the design of a solution, the proposal to a donor, approval of funding, the implementation and monitoring of all work, and the evaluation and closing of the project. Each of these major areas of focus is called a phase (design phase, planning phase, monitoring phase, etc.) Even a small project still goes through these basic phases.

A project lifecycle also refers to a logical sequence of activities to accomplish the project’s goals or objectives, as such is an approach that takes the project in distinct phases from its initiation until its completion. Different organizations have different phases and even different names for the phases. Each phase is also an opportunity for the project to stop and evaluate its progress before moving to the next phase in the cycle. This allows for opportunities to improve and reevaluate the assumptions the project made during the design phase.

Most organizations follow one type or another of a project cycle. Even donor organizations have well-defined models for the project cycle, but with a heavy emphasis in the funding phases to ensure the funds will be allocated to the most viable solution. The important point is that a common, scalable project management process can be used effectively on all projects.


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Why you need an adaptive approach for managing projects?

One of the main reasons why you need an adaptive approach is because development projects are carried out in complex, non-linear, and unpredictable environments, and that the goal of the project is not simply completion but rather the satisfaction of various and diverse stakeholders. If there is a change in the environment, if new information arises, if the assumptions behind the project are proven false, then the project must be able to adapt to the new environment. Otherwise, the project cannot finish on time and on budget, and  will be a total failure. A key distinction is that in traditional (or predictive) project management, the manager checks for deviations from the plan and corrects to stay on the plan, but in adaptive project management the manager checks for changes in the general context of the project and changes the plan to fit accordingly.

The project manager can design a series of sub-cycles to help reduce risks and manage the complexity of a changing environment. These sub-cycles can occur at specific milestones or intervals in the projects. The graph shows how these sub-cycles occur during the life of the project. Each sub-cycle is a process of planning, doing, checking, and adapting the project for the next cycle.

Using a cyclical approach is a structured and systematic process for continually improving the project based on the learnings from the outcomes of actions previously taken. It looks at each cycle as a learning cycle to understand what went wrong, what went right, and the changes that are needed to make in order to improve the next cycle. The information obtained from each cycle of the project can be used in subsequent iterations. This way, risks and uncertainties associated with each cycle, can be significantly reduced. It is important to remember the following concepts:

  • Projects are not linear
  • Initial assumptions are never accurate
  • Every project is a learning environment
  • Change happens

Do all projects need this approach? If you are simply delivering products or services, the environment is simple and static, and the project doesn’t have major risks or critical assumptions, then an adaptive project management approach may not be so necessary. In these type of projects, the project managers’ responsibility is simply to finish the planned scope on time and under budget.

If you want to learn more, join the next session of the online course: Adaptive Project Management for Development Organizations and NGOs.

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