Project Management – A Practical Guide

Richard H. Ryder, 2018

There may come a time in your Masonic career where you will be responsible for a project.  It may not be called a project, but that’s what it will be.  Maybe you volunteer for organizing an open house or someone assigns you the task of planning and running the lodge family barbecue. Maybe you are planning your installation as Master of your lodge.  Make no mistake about it, at some point you may take on the role of project manager and you need to be prepared.

So, where do you begin?  You can start by remembering some fundamental concepts.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Some people wait till the last minute and then, in a flurry of activity, pull it all together and make things happen.  That’s not me. Everyone is different, and I get that, but if you are not inclined to be a last-minute wonder you need a plan.  Plans come in all shapes and sizes, from the back of a napkin to a massive project plan like that used for the Big Dig Project in Boston. The more detail you have the greater the chance things won’t fall through the cracks.  When I managed projects professionally I used Microsoft Project, but in my personal life I use a simple Excel spreadsheet.  Whatever tool you use, make sure to keep it simple with just the right amount of detail.

Project Plan Phases

Try using the following four phases to organize your work: Planning, Staging, Implementation, Post-Implementation.

Planning:

This is the longest phase and will consume most of your time, depending on the length of the implementation phase. The more quality time you spend here, the smoother the implementation phase.  I once planned a two-site Masonic open house that lasted six hours; I spent almost 180 hours planning it. If you plan well, and build in contingencies, you reduce risk during the implementation phase.

When in the planning phase consider the following:

Key Question – My first question is always: who do I need to make happy?  Is it my manager, my manager’s manager, my customers?  Knowing who to make happy helps you decide on priorities when conflicting demands cross your desk.  In Masonry, you need to know who you ultimately need to please.  Depending on the project it might be your lodge membership, your lodge Master, the District Deputy Grand Master, or someone at Grand Lodge.

Macro Ideas – Next, begin creating macro ideas for how the project will look.  For example: What is the completion date or event date?  Once known, and once you determine the scope of the effort, you will work your way back toward the present to determine a start date.  How many team members do you need, what is your talent pool, and what are their roles? What are the estimated costs and what is your budget?  What logistical challenges will you face?  What steps are dependent on each other?  What is the critical path, that is, what are the critical steps that, if not accomplished, will derail your project?

Resources – Time, manpower, and money are three different types of resources, and form a three-legged stool.  A compromise in one impacts the stability of the stool.  The reality is that most projects are lacking in one or more of these resources.  Maybe you have enough time, but low finances restrict scope.  Maybe money is not a problem, but there aren’t enough people to get the work done in the compressed timeframe you’ve been given.  Your challenge is always trying to find a way to balance ideal resource requirements with the limited resources you have at your disposal.  You may need to reduce the scope of your project, ask people to work more hours, or seek lower costs to get the job done.

TIME: Use time wisely and assume things will always take longer than you think.  Some tasks require you to take an iterative approach.  For example, if you are planning something you have never done before you will need to learn as you go, requiring you to start early, begin slowly, and then build up your experience. Some tasks require you to take a sequential approach.  For example, if you are planning to purchase material for use during an event, you may need to conduct initial research, then contact potential vendors, then purchase the material, and then setup the items prior to the event.  These steps need to be time sequenced, starting with the end date and working your way back to a start date depending on lead time and people’s schedules.  Always build in some buffer time since Murphy’s Law is ever present.

CRITIAL PATH: Knowing and understanding your critical path and what is in that path will reap rich rewards and make better use of available time. It also helps to mitigate potential problems. For example, during my open house planning I had to get financial commitments from the seven district lodges, matching funds commitment from Grand Lodge, plenty of volunteers, and vinyl banners at three locations.  These milestones all fell on my critical path, with dependent paths associated with each.  A failure to accomplish any of the critical path milestones at the proper time would have a significant and negative impact on my success.  Of the 180 hours I spent planning the open house, I spent a majority of my time on critical path milestones.  I planned these milestones with buffer time built in and contingencies in case something failed. Non-critical path milestones are important but tend to have less impact on the project should something go wrong.  However, don’t take these less critical milestones for granted.  I have seen instances where taking one’s eye off these steps caused problems. It distracted the project manager from staying focused on critical path accomplishments; so, be careful.

MANPOWER: When it comes to satisfying manpower requirements in a non-profit environment, relationship building is important.  Remember, volunteers need to know that their time is respected and valued.  Your job is to ensure this.  We all have demands on our time, so make their volunteer hours well spent.  You can do this by treating potential volunteers as important, respecting their time, getting to know them, providing genuine opportunities for them to perform worthwhile tasks, letting them know why their work is important in meeting the values of the organization. You also need, as best you can, to match the right people with the right task.  For example, if you need someone to greet the public, seek and assign someone who is well spoken and personable. If someone is constantly late, shy away from having them open the building and getting the event set-up; they may be better suited to a task that is not time dependent.

Remember two key points as you try to satisfy manpower needs in a non-profit organization: first, people like to be asked; don’t assume they will help just because you want them to.  Secondly, ask them directly, in person if possible, and get verbal commitments.  Intentions don’t get the job done; commitments do. Just asking for a show of hands for who can help doesn’t always get you the response you need. Once the hands are raised, hand them a pen and piece of paper for their name, email address, and phone number. This step forms a commitment that most people will honor.

MONEY: In most projects there never seems to be enough money.  Understanding this will help you make wise decisions regarding project scope.  Maybe you are planning a recognition dinner, but after adding up the cost you may decide to go with a nice, lower cost luncheon instead.  Although you would like to hold that fancy installation dinner at a nice local restaurant, you may need to opt for a catered meal at the lodge building with fewer guests.  The main thing is to include the creation of a budget early in the process.  Although early estimates may be a bit off, you hopefully will get some sense of what is possible and what can be afforded.  Keep comparing your plans with your available or potential budget and don’t wait too long to make an adjustment, even though it may come with disappointment.  Better to learn early that you can’t afford something than to find out after commitments have been made.

Staging (A.K.A. pre-implementation):

This is the phase just prior to implementation or execution of the plan. It can be as short as a few hours or a few days. It represents all the activities required to physically get the venue set for the event.  For example:  food delivery and preparation, hall or location preparation, documentation replication and distribution, signage, trial runs, last minute activities, pre-implementation meeting, travel considerations, etc.  If you spent enough quality time in the planning stage, the staging phase can be somewhat of a formality.  The types of staging tasks you require will depend on the type and scope of project for which you are responsible.

Implementation

Once again, with proper planning the implementation phase should proceed with few problems – notice I said ‘few’, for there will always be problems you don’t expect. But if you “expect” the unexpected, you will mitigate the impact.  The focus now changes from hypotheticals to reality.  Here your leadership and interpersonal skills come into play as activities happen real time.  Try to keep track of what is working and what is not, especially if you or someone else will run the same type of project in the future. Do you need to put a contingency plan in place to handle a problem that you thought could happen but hoped would not?  Maybe the weather did not cooperate?  Maybe some key volunteers did not arrive on time. Maybe guest turnout is not as high as expected and volunteers are tripping over each other.  On the other hand, maybe everything is happening like clockwork and success is imminent – but, then again, you knew that would happen.

Post-Implementation (A.K.A post-mortem or lessons learned)

Once the event is over, the volunteers have returned home, the signs are down, and the lights have been turned off, it’s easy to just pat yourself on the back and put things behind you.  But that would be a mistake.  Every project needs an evaluation of what went right and what did not.  Sit down with key volunteers and assess what worked and what you would do differently.  Even if you or someone else does not plan a project exactly like the one you just completed, there may be some similarities with future projects.  Meeting soon after project completion will allow attendees to critique the project while memories are still fresh.  Take careful notes and who made the comment.  Share this information with future project leaders – why invent the wheel.

In conclusion – The next time you are responsible for a project, no matter how small, consider the four project phases of planning, staging, implementation, and post-implementation. Put you plan “on paper”, physically or electronically.  Keep it simple but with sufficient detail.  Build in time buffers, plan contingencies, and perform a post-implementation review. To help you do all this, reference this sample project plan.

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