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Thursday
Nov192009

Why IT is Failing

I just returned from the Interop New York show. Let’s declare we are interoperable, and still failing.

The Interop show seemed small and rather dull overall. To highlight interoperability, there was a “Network Operations Center” (NOC) containing 8 racks of vendor equipment used to run the show tucked away in a back area. The NOC also has a NASA-Houston-like area for onsite support from all the vendors (who looked typically bored). It’s an interoperability show, so all the vendors were playing nice-nice with each other.

The only vendor I saw even comparing products in a display was Xirrus comparing their Wireless Access Point (one large Frisbee-looking device) to an Aruba array of devices. Neither product set will win aesthetic awards from picky office designers, but I digress.

The only vendor having a visible “issue” on the floor when I was there was Microsoft; their “Surface” table appeared “down”. Things break, Microsoft’s biggest failure was not anticipating an outage and running a canned “video” on the large display screen in the “Surface” demonstration area. If you ever do a trade show, have contingency plans for the technology!

So why are we failing? The issues in IT today are the same as 20 years ago…we haven’t figured out how to effectively integrate systems.

Today’s media darlings Cloud Computing and/or Software as a Service have their roots in approaches dating back to timesharing in the 70s. There are lots of firms being engaged to integrated disparate systems, whether in the cloud or in the enterprise.

Let’s take a simple example. IT comes out with “Business Intelligence” systems, which are really little more than expensive attempts at report writing. They often fail because the mere mortal still needs to understand the (meta) data. So these expensive systems end up being used by a few “super users” who probably would have done just as well learning how to use a less costly report writer.

XML was a noble attempt to address this by embedding meaning with the data….but our USERS (or clients) are not seeing the benefit.

Take the garylkelley.com blog. We’re using all industry leading freeware with plugins and widgets to make it work…and yet we still need to do some “coding” to make it hang together so your experience (and ours) is useful.

My sense is Apple comes closest to having a seamless experience. They’ve worked hard at it, and it shows. As an IT-type, let’s architect so systems integrate seamlessly and let us provide breakthrough business process improvements. As a user, please stop inflicting painful upgrades on me… my recent Windows 7 upgrade took Dell (paid) support 7 hours to troubleshoot audio issues after a 2 hour upgrade. Argh.

We’ve largely figured out interoperability. When are we going to address the integration conundrum?

Thursday
Nov122009

Information Technology Crisis Management

“I don’t believe in Disaster Recovery.”

What a pretty bold statement in an initial interview. The interviewer/hiring manager was a former executive of a major “hot site” company, who played a pivotal role for many clients during the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. He had a fiery reputation, and visibly stiffened at the comment.

My second sentence put him at ease, reinforced our value set, made us friends for life, and most importantly got me the job!

“Preparing for the ‘big one’ solely can leave you ill prepared for the myriad of daily events nipping at us every day. Prepare for the daily events, and use the same process for initiating processes for the ‘big’ events.”

While firms spend millions on high availability, redundancies, balancing, geographic diversity, N+1, etc., inevitably “perfect storms” lead to user impacting outages. How IT staffs respond in a crisis can differentiate companies and impact the bottom line.

The key is having everyone understand their goals, roles and responsibilities in a crisis. And during a crisis, there may be a change in an individual’s role as needs warrant.

For example, once an issue escalates to a crisis it’s useful to have at minimum two communications outlets. There needs to be management discussions focusing on impacts, alternatives, communication (to users, clients, regulators) while the technicians focus on eliminating impacts and understanding root cause.

Who is involved in each grouping is best determined in the calmness of an outage free period.

Management groupings will often include the CIO, Human Resources, Security, Public Relations, Business Continuity and the impacted business area. Technical groupings will include representatives of all the major functions, with one area tracking all the activity and logging for subsequent analysis. Frequently, the techies establish their own information communications using instant messaging or Twitter (used in a publish-subscribe manner.)

When a crisis is apparent, the notification and escalation processes have to be well honed. We often see organizations operating on predetermined voice “bridges”, with notification via text, email, phone call (in many organizations this is via an automated notification system).

There needs to be a protocol for entering the bridge, doing roll call, and general etiquette around bridge participation.

These processes are best developed in advance of need and rehearsed with staff in table top exercises.

When Information Technology leads the way in developing low overhead crisis response, and orchestrates rehearsals reducing the processes to practice, preparedness for managing the “big one” is well underway.

 

Tuesday
Nov102009

Doing the Right Thing

The new phone and voice mail systems were just being deployed. Everyone was thrilled…there were even posters up “Free Yourself from Telephone Tyranny” with a tie in to the July 4th implementation.
Everything was going smoothly until someone asked why the message waiting lights on the general purpose phones were not coming on.

When asked, the telecom manager replied, “We didn’t buy the circuit packs to light the (message waiting) lights except for the executive phones. On all other phones, you’ll have to listen for a stutter dial tone. We did this to save money.”

Quickly, the inconvenience for a couple thousand people was dollarized, and the message sent to those same people by the blissfully unaware hundred or so Executives (whose voice mail was rarely used as the administrative assistants answered all calls) was hypothesized. While saving capital dollars is always desirable, impacting many people daily over such a minute cost was shortsighted.

Within a week, the message waiting lamps were lit, with negligible project cost impact. When they wrote the history of the company, the message waiting light faux pax wasn’t even a footnote.

In this case, a willing vendor made the correction relatively simple albeit at a modest cost. Not all suppliers are as willing, and the costs could become relatively unreasonable.

Doing the right thing means sometimes sucking it up, acknowledging the issue, and correcting it. Be up front about it; don’t try to hide the error or omission.

It would be simpler to know about the tradeoffs before the orders are placed. How do you do that when some vendors’ orders are actually parts lists in some unintelligible logistics language? While suppliers may argue they have unbundled pricing allowing unique responses, often we find the pricing models are intended to obfuscate the actual costs and this can lead to functionality/pricing surprises later.

Insist on a line by line review with the supplier. It may be painful, and it is up to the vendor to make it intelligible. Like buying a car, sometimes options packages create opportunities (i.e. the wood grain steering wheel you like is included in the luxury package.)

You’ve received references from the vendor. Meet with the references and review your order (without sharing pricing.) Of course, vendors won’t give unhappy referrals. At the same time, these companies may have learned the hard way options to get or avoid.

Require a lab set up where you can use the systems in practice. In the example from this article, “testers” needed to understand the requirements and assure the solutions meet the needs (not simply that the system works…it needs to meet the need. Therefore, testers need to be willing to say something works and doesn’t meet the need.)

Ask your staff and the supplier what tradeoffs were made, and are there any glaring omissions. In every case, these articulations can be used to determine whether something ‘critical’ has gone missing.

Oftentimes technicians will try to “hit a budget number” rather than taking a step back and laying out the wisdom of expenditure. Budgets are put together months before the actual numbers for a project come in. And if suppliers gave you a “budgetary number,” rest assured there’s room to negotiate on scope as well as price! Doing the right thing means providing the right functionality at the lowest possible overall costs…even if that produces a budgetary impact.

It often comes back to having clarity around the assumptions and requirements. External firms can be brought to bear to help review requirements and identify shortcomings. This is often money well spent on major projects and initiatives.

George H. W. Bush put forward an idea in 1988, based on the phrase “a thousand points of light,” encouraging individual contribution to society. Lighting a thousand message waiting lamps may pale by comparison unless you are one of those impacted. Be bold and always do the right thing.

Saturday
Nov072009

Lessons from the Dogs

My business partner and I both love dogs. In fact, we both have beagles right now. My family dog Sam is pretty experienced, and Matt’s beagle is a puppy.

We recently had the opportunity to get the pets together, and remarked the similarities of the two beagles meeting to people in business.

Milo came to visit Sam in his yard. Sam has the run of the yard. Sam has a Dog Watch invisible fence, so the yard appears wide open. Milo was on a nice long lead. Sam was immediately interested in the new being in his yard. Both dogs walked around each other warily, checking each other out.

All of a sudden Sam’s fur popped up, and he let out a mighty bark, as much as to say, “this is my place, watch yourself.”

Milo wasn’t deterred. He marched over to Sam with an incredulous look, “what’s with you?” Sam took a step towards Milo, and let out another substantial bark, “I’m the boss.” Milo immediately rolled over onto his back.

They did this a couple times, with Sam declaring his superiority and Milo being submissive. Eventually Milo decided this was a silly game, and started to explore other parts of the yard. Sam kept giving out singular barks, and Milo simply ignored him.

Eventually Sam decided to stop barking, and began exploring what Milo was exploring. While Sam could have gone anywhere in the yard, he stayed close to the leashed Milo. The dogs continued sniffing around each other quietly, with Milo occasionally nipping on Sam’s tail.

Sam eventually went about his thing, leaving Milo. With that, Milo let out a mighty puppy bark. Sam largely kept politely ignoring Milo, who let out another bark. Sam then came back over, and the two dogs played with each other.

We then went inside, and Sam took Milo under his guidance. It was lunch time, and Sam holds a Masters in begging. Milo was quickly learning.

After lunch, Sam enjoyed a good nap, while Milo explored the house.

In the workplace, it’s not uncommon for the more experienced team member to be a little wary of the new team member. Even when they are the same “breed”, there’s a getting to know each other period.

It took Sam and Milo about 30 minutes to figure things out and get comfortable with each other. In the workplace, onboarding new team members successfully should be a focal point for any IT group.

Friday
Nov062009

Operating Globally

“Global Experience Needed.” What does that mean?


Having had the opportunity to lead projects in Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, London and Cleveland (I can say that, I was raised there!), working globally isn’t really all that hard. Some basics will help you navigate.


  • People are people – around the world, people want to do a good job. They need to know what you need to help you be successful.

  • Global Companies are not Global – Global companies are made up of various legal entities and while they may share the same logo, local practices often differ from country to country. Be specific. Don’t assume one company acts one way.

  •  Global Companies often outsource – Large multinational companies have a web of local suppliers to deliver services. Find out who is specifically doing the work, and how they are going to be managed. Be clear on whom to hold accountable. This is particular true of communications companies…where the “last mile” is often a “local” provider (often impervious to SLAs established in faraway places.)

    Of particular concern is measuring deliverables. The adage, “Trust and Verify” fits. In some areas of the world, it is unacceptable to discuss project delays. So the status will be positive right up until the missed delivery. As you might expect, people missing status updates is often a red flag for issues.


  • Be specific on specifications – don’t assume anything. Paper sizes are different, power attributes are different, codes are different (“Exit” signs in Beijing must be near the floor. When you think about it, that’s a sensible location especially in a fire!), and “standards” are different. Take the time to make sure everyone is talking the same thing.

  • Look for nuances in language – Make sure there is tacit agreement. While English is often the language of business around the world, be respectful to the party you are speaking with. They may not understand colloquialisms or humor. It’s not (always) a lack of a sense of humor, they may need to translate the English to their language and the translation may not be 100%. So when asking parties to agree on something, it’s often useful to ask the other party in the conversation to “summarize the point.”

    Direct confrontation is avoided in some cultures. Care should be used when the discussion could lead to embarrassment. If you sense this is happening, offer to follow up separately.


    The same rules around email apply here as well. When an email exchange begins around a topic, and a “point-counterpoint” ensues (especially with a lengthy periodic cycle), a quick conversation is indicated.


  • Meeting times must be flexible – Depending on your worldly needs, someone is going to be inconvenienced. Most projects will start out “bouncing” meeting times so everyone is inconvenienced from time to time. The complexities of this shifting rapidly lead everyone to the same conclusion, pick a time and stick to it. This means US based staff team members may need to participate in the evening, and vice versa. Keeping good meeting minutes is very important since some people may be tired and not always at their best.

  • Learn some of the local cultural attributes – This shouldn’t be a massive educational undertaking, more of an internet research exercise. Start with the CIA’s reference https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/

    What you are trying to do is learn about the local culture. You don’t want to unknowingly create a faux pax (For example, asking someone from India to attend a steak dinner. The cow is sacred in Hinduism. Need a quick meal in Hong Kong? KFC is the largest restaurant chain there.)


  • You can work 24 hours a day – assuming different timezones, at minimum you can day extend work on a project. Having handoffs between teams on a “follow the sun” model is important. Keeping documents “in order” is imperative (SharePoint, DocuShare, Google Docs and the like are great tools to help.) Knowing who has the baton at any point in time helps prevent overlap or wasted work.

  • There are great Communications tools – Cisco and Polycom offer high end videoconferencing. Not everyone will have this gear at home! There are other low end solutions (Skype, ooVoo and others) will allow team members to conference in. Video is great for meetings under an hour, and over video becomes mind numbing.

    VoIP allows low cost calling virtually wherever there’s a network. Some companies have VoIP phone systems; others can use Skype, Vonage or Google Talk.

Operating globally is a mix of common sense, heightened manners, and sensitivity. Projects are accomplished every day. Success is achieved by those taking the time to understand the differences and making goals, roles and responsibilities clear.

Thursday
Nov052009

The Impact of Simplification





At the CIO’s first department meeting he shared the story of the Pig and Chicken.




“While having bacon and eggs for breakfast you realize there were two parties involved in that transaction, the pig and the chicken. While the chicken was involved (laid the eggs), the pig was committed. I want all of you to be pigs.”

While the CIO was outstanding at motivating an audience, what I remember most about this experience was how one simple story could inspire so many people.. For many years, everyone in the Information Technologies department took great pride in calling themselves “pigs.” Vendors who sold hardware and software to us and did not take a personal interest in the sale were known as “chickens” (they had no idea of what we were talking about). We purchased pig and chicken pictures and statues and gave them as objects of recognition. We were sold.


It seems like the art of simplicity has been lost. Everything we do, today, must be complex and require a sophisticated explanation. We used to say “If it is in a report, it has to be real, and if a spreadsheet is embedded in the report, then it must be accurate.”


The same CIO (someone for whom I have the utmost admiration) stressed the importance of being “pithy and succinct.” I could produce a 10-page memo (correctly formatted and grammatically correct) in less than 30 minutes. It would typically be a “brain dump” and was not well organized. By spending another 30 minutes I was typically able to reduce the size of the document to a page or two and do a better job of making my point. Simplicity, combined with brevity, became my obsession and made me a better communicator.


How can IT professionals simplify communications? Here are some pointers:



  • Craft one paragraph or slide outlining the point you wish to make. This will be your executive summary or thesis.

  • Create a simple outline of the points absolutely necessary to convince the reader or listener of your thesis.

  • Limit your document to 1 or 2 pages and presentations to 4 or 5 slides.

  • Never use acronyms or technical terms.

  • Insure a logical flow from start to finish. When person has read or listened to your presentation will you have proved your point?

  • Have someone, preferably non-technical, proofread your document (this CIO and I would always proofread each other’s materials).


Simplify your message and notice how business users and executives of the firm respond. Communicating in terms they understand cause them to treat the IT organization as equals and increase the respect they have for technology professionals.


Wednesday
Nov042009

Delivering Bad News

To:     All Personnel


From:     Information Technologies


Subject:     System Outage

 As Infrastructure & Operations professionals we all delivered these emails or memos to our users. It pains us when we have to communicate this information, but how and what we communicate ultimately defines the respect we receive from our users and senior management.

 I am reminded of an outage that occurred while I was at a seminar in New York City. Our trading system was impacted while data was being replicated to our Disaster Recovery systems. We could not assess the impact of failing over, so we attempted to fix the problem. I was immediately paged and alerted the CIO. It appeared we would not be able to restore the trading system in time for the start of day so I immediately packed and got the 6:30AM flight out of New York. On my way to the airport I informed the team I would speak to the CEO as soon as I landed. I got on the plane (still on the same conference call from 3:00AM), and who do I see 10 rows in front of me, but the CEO. I couldn’t get to him on the flight so I figured I would catch up to him in the airport. Luckily as I was running through the terminal I was informed all systems were operational and business would proceed as usual. I caught the CEO and, relieved from the news I just heard, joked how it was funny we were on the same flight.

Unfortunately, situations do not always end up this way, and you must find ways to communicate bad news to your users. Over the years, the following guidelines served me well:


  • Determine the sender of the message – The sender of the message will also be the person to receive any questions or comments about the incident and status. A message sent from a person, instead of a generic mailbox, will carry more credibility, but will yield more questions.

  • State the problem in the first paragraph – Let people know what happened in the first sentence. Use the second sentence to communicate business impact. Never use any technical terminology and never describe systems by their internal IT name. Always describe systems by the business functions hosted on the system.

  • Identify functional business systems – The first paragraph notifies users as to systems not available. The second paragraph lets them know systems that are available. Users want to know if they can do their job and your communication must not be ambiguous in this context.

  • Give estimated time for recovery or time of next status message – People want to feel informed and in some control. Frequent status updates helps to achieve this goal. If an estimated time of recovery is unavailable, let people know when the next status notification will be issued. Over time, you’ll be able to either have accurate estimates, or will get a “gut-feel” for the length of outages.

  • Designate a point of contact – Users will have questions. Give them contact information. The Help Desk would be our first choice. Questions will also be directed at Desktop Support personnel as they have the most frequent contact with users. Do not forget to notify them before you notify your users.

  • Do not apologize if it was not an internal problem – Sometimes, third-party hardware and software fail. We try and prevent this from happening, but there are times when it is beyond our control. Only apologize when you have something to apologize for.

As problems become more complex and require larger numbers of IT personnel, we recommend using a dedicated Problem Communication Manager for generating both internal IT and external updates. This will simplify the job of the Incident Manager and provide better service to users.

Defining problem communication processes, people, and templates delivers a higher level of service. Users will appreciate the communication and it will be one less task for IT personnel involved with the problem.

Tuesday
Nov032009

Writing Performance Appraisals

I hate writing performance appraisals, or reviews.


In my mind, people sit down twice a year and formally document staff performance. Inexperienced managers often write “nice” reviews, with little constructive feedback. More senior managers often skip writing the performance appraisal altogether, again limiting feedback. Reviews in many ways give an objective appearance to a subjective process.

My personal dislike of reviews has to do with the fact they are generally documenting an extended period. My preference is to have an ongoing daily/weekly dialog, with the review capturing a snapshot of those discussions over an extended period.

When writing a review, I like to start by

having the reviewed submit a self appraisal. Most people are tougher on themselves than you may think, and I find it good to capture what the individual is thinking.

It’s nearly impossible for me to write reviews during the work week. There are simply too many distractions. Reviews are reserved for weekends, in the office, with the music loud.

To pull together the document, I need the:

  • Objectives – objectives are developed at the beginning of the review period. They should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Trackable. Be aware objectives evolve over time, and your review needs to reflect this

  • Personal 1:1 notes – capturing discussions over the review period

  • Self Appraisal – The reviewees self appraisal

  • Prior Reviews – checking for any prior “messaging”

Your company probably has a format for the review. You’ll need to follow the company format. IN general, you’ll want to:

  • Review objectives achievement - thoughtfully review each objective and the commitments. Be cognizant of any evolution in the objectives (hopefully this is captured). I try to be as objective as I can, recognizing it’s easy to make this totally objective while the better result often lies in subjective analysis

  • Comment on the individual’s progress against a series of skills competencies – if your company doesn’t have these, I suggest using a tool (such as http://www.performancereview.com). One benefit of a tool approach is the commentary around each of the competencies. It’s fast to pull together this section of the review on a consistent basis

  • Write a summary – The summary is often the place where the entire review is captured (hence – summary). Personally, I use a structure of:


    • Opening sentence capturing the review

    • Specific examples of good competency achievement

    • Specific examples of where competencies need improvement


    • Thoughts around related objectives/education for the following review period


With the review written, sleep on it. Give the benefit of a day or two to evolve your thinking. Go back, and edit the review with the benefit of time. Make sure your messages are clear; for a particularly challenging review, have your boss and/or HR review the review.

When it comes to presenting the review, hopefully the messages are very direct and not a surprise. You certainly don’t want the review meeting being the first time someone is hearing the content.

Set aside a time and location for the meeting. I like using a conference room or some other neutral place. I give the person their review, and leave the room for ten minutes to give them time to review (unless the messaging might incite someone, such as a extremely rare review ending in termination.)

Upon return, I then go through the entire review top to bottom paraphrasing each section. To me, the discussion is the most important part of the review. Make sure it is a dialog and not a monolog in presentation.

When finished, I always ask:

  • Did I capture the essence of you? What didn’t I capture? – If I missed something in preparing the review, let’s discuss now.

  • How am I doing? What can I do to better support you? – Always keeping the questioning on how to better the reviewed.

This summarizes writing a performance appraisal in a very short form. Multiple day classes are offered detailing the subtleties around reviews. My biggest message to you is to:

  • Give honest feedback on an ongoing basis – NO SURPRISES

  • Take the time to reflect balanced feedback in the review

  • Make sure the discussion is well rounded.

You are there to help lead your staff, and the performance review is one tool as your disposal.

Monday
Nov022009

Morning Operations Meeting

“Nothing productive ever happened in a meeting,” a friend once stated. He is a thoughtful guy, and his comment was not one to be idly dismissed. As you ponder this during the next meeting you attend, consider the value of a daily touch base on operational issues.


DAILY? Surely you jest.

Whether in crisis or not, a daily session is imperative in any well run operations area. And believe it or not, the meeting can be accomplished in under 10 minutes! It’s all about predictability and preparation.


Predictability

When running meetings like this, use a conference bridge with the same ID each day. Attendees shouldn’t have to search around for the contact information. Use an acronym if you can (the Morning Operations Meeting can be referenced as MOM. A conference bridge of CALLMOM (2255666) is easy to remember.

If there’s a critical mass of people at one location, try to use a conference room at that location to run the meeting. Far flung attendees participating by conference bridge is one thing, “locals” can come attend the meeting (rather than sitting at their desks reading emails!)

Pick a time when everyone can attend, based on your business day. Financial services companies will want to have the meeting well before the US stock market opens at 9:30AM (8:00 AM is a good time). If you are a retailer with stores opening at 8:00AM, an earlier time may be more appropriate.

Start the meeting on time each day. Nothing ruins the attendance and contributes to time creep than a meeting where the start time waffles. To do this, a backup chairperson should be in place to start the meeting if the chair is delayed.

The meeting should have the same agenda each day:


  • Roll call

  • Area by area review of any major (customer impacting) issues over the past 24 hours, with an emphasis on any active issues

  • Follow up on prior action items

Minutes should be captured, and emailed to each of the areas.

Preparation

Preparation is another key to this meeting. Since the agenda is the same each day, the “areas” for review can be pre-populated on draft email. Over the 24 hours from the last meeting, Operations and the Help Desk should “contribute” major customer impacting issues to the draft. So when the meeting actually happens, the Chair is following a script of the meeting (literally reviewing a draft of the “minutes”.)

As the meeting is held, the chair can “prompt” speakers if certain issues are glossed over or missed. In this manner, major issues are not missed.

Details are not covered in this status meeting. If the issue is still active, it is placed on “follow up,” and brought back to the meeting. The chair has discretion for cutting off a discussion.

Once the meeting is completed, a brief Summary should be added to the email (suitable for reading on a BlackBerry) and the send key pressed. A wiki can also be used for this.


With predictability and preparation, the meeting will flow smoothly. Plan the meeting will run long the first week or so as people adapt to the meeting style.

Once the minutes start being read, it’s common for people to start wanting the “edit” the minutes after the fact. Some will want immediate retractions issued. My recommendation is to offer to add a “correction” section at the bottom of the minutes and issue as a part of the daily cycle. Do not get into multiple MOM minutes.

Savvy areas will want to review the “script” in advance. Why not? It allows the overall product to be stronger provided the information is factual.

And one last fun suggestion. Play into the MOM (as Mother) theme. “It’s OK to tell MOM anything. MOM is here to help.” It allows a subtle mindset shift.

And remember, you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool MOM.

Monday
Nov022009

Project Planning 101

A number of years ago, my 11 year-old son came to me and asked me to sign his homework. Being an engaged parent, I decided to actually look at his work. To my surprise, he had been asked by his teacher to complete a project plan for his upcoming math project.

I looked at his paper and realized it asked for the following:

  • A list of materials (“resources”)

  • Steps to complete the project (“tasks”)

  • A draft drawing (“milestone”)

  • Due date (“deliverable”)

  • His name (“project manager”)

  • Parent signature (“signoff”)

I immediately asked when he found the time to go to Microsoft Project training

and how he managed to connect to Project Server so he could allocate enterprise resources to his project plan. He turned to me and asked whether I had been “inhaling” (this was when Bill Clinton was running for president) and then proceeded to tell me that he simply wrote down what he needed to complete his math homework. When asked how long it took, he told me 5 or 10 minutes, but that included keeping his lines straight.

While I poke fun, I wanted to share the importance of starting simple. Many technical managers become overwhelmed when asked to do project plan. They don’t understand how to use Microsoft Project and believe it is the key to building a project plan. Understanding your project and articulating what needs to be done (tasks) and the people required (resources) are the building blocks to a robust project plan. These can be documented in a Word document or and Excel spreadsheet. Think about logical sections of your project and you will start to develop phases. Each phase should have at least one deliverable. Document this deliverable and it becomes a milestone. Printing these documents and drawing lines between tasks and phases will create dependencies. Now you have what you need to use a project management tool, such as Microsoft Project.

People believe project management tools are all about building project plans. They force a their project plan into the tool, rather than using the tools to help them predict deliverable dates, resource levels, conflicts, budget issues, and project risks. A well designed and implemented project plan is a living document used to clarify project roles and responsibilities for the project manager, participants, and management. If done correctly, it can save time and provide real-time views of project status.

So, when starting any project, take the time to create a simple plan. Be comfortable and confident in the tools used to create the plan. Remember, the content is much more important than the presentation. If the tool you have selected is not a project management tool, then spend the time insuring your plan is comprehensive and robust before transferring the data to a project management tool. Use the project management tool to help you estimate key project metrics, and you will be successful.