Make Your Projects Manageable

Project management as a discipline traces its roots to the Cold War, when the Department of Defense needed an efficient way to manage the complex and fastpaced race to space. Today, project management standards, processes, and tools are used across a range of industries, including education, to organize large projects and guarantee their success. Consider this: According to the Gartner research firm, in the next three years three out of four successful projects will be planned and tracked using project management techniques. Three out of four failed projects will not.

PM is not inexpensive, but it can help guarantee effectiveness, efficiency, and economy on any project. For school districts, it can make complex technology implementations manageable. Hiring an outside consultant is one option, but schools should also consider hiring project management-certified staff or supporting existing staff in pursuing certifications (see the “Resources” sidebar).

How does project management work in practice? Several organizations, such as the Project Management Institute, have developed sets of procedures for project managers to follow. They commonly include the following: initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing.


Initiation includes the process of aligning projects to organizational goals. This is done by documenting the project’s relation to core business objectives and then determining the potential impact. A district whose goal is to provide teachers with ubiquitous access to a student information system, for example, would give more favorable consideration to a “computer in every classroom” project than a “lab in every school” project.


The planning stage involves identifying a project’s scope, time, and cost—often called a “triple constraint” because if one of these components changes, it can throw off the other two.

Scope. Scope planning ensures that all work needed to complete a project successfully is defined and there are no surprises. All shareholders affected by the project—such as school board members, staff, students, and families— should be involved in developing and approving the scope. Scope is the basis for a work breakdown structure (WBS), a system for organizing the project into manageable groups that are then broken into even smaller pieces. For example, on a curriculum project, one WBS group might be called “Software,” which would be divided into three subtasks: package selection, installation, and deployment.

Time. Detailed schedule planning is critical to keeping a project on time. There are several approaches to predicting the duration of each activity. A simple method is to take the number of work hours required to complete a task and divide this by the number of staff available multiplied by the number of hours they work per day. Example: If curriculum development is an 80-hour task and two eight-hour-perday curriculum developers are available, the duration of the project equals five days. Another way to plan time on task is to use historical data from similar projects.

Cost. Two major factors determine cost: the number of hours it takes to get the job done and goods and services that must be purchased to execute the project. The actual budgeting process involves planned value, which is the estimated cost of work that is to be performed and materials that are to be used over time. A simplified view of a $100,000 project scheduled over a four-month period would be a planned value of $25,000 at the end of the first month, $50,000 at the end of the second month, and so forth.


Execution is simple: Institute what was planned—and only what was planned— using the WBS to manage each task through to completion. During execution, project managers monitor the quality of the process, work on team development, watch for any changes, and manage information and communications with all shareholders. Keeping all parties abreast of progress via e-mail updates and regular face-to-face meetings helps cultivate buy-in throughout the process.


This is the phase where you monitor your plan and, more specifically, control any variance from the original plan. Several mathematical formulas determine project health. Two of the simplest formulas are schedule variance and cost variance (see the table, “Controlling Costs” at bottom). The target—to be on schedule and on budget— produces a value of zero in the following formulas. Negative values mean the project is behind schedule and over budget. Positive values are obviously better than negative, but they might indicate problems with the original plan. Remember, the plan is the basis for project success, and any variation can indicate that planning was not as accurate as it should have been.


In this final phase, project managers document all aspects of the project, budgets are finalized, resources are released, and contracts are closed. Most important of all, the customer gives his or her formal sign off on a job well done.

Jane E. Bloomquist is the technical lead with the Enterprise Project Management Office for Chicago Public Schools.


Consult these sources to learn more about project management.