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Executing a Project

Updated: May 22


The Execution Phase of Project Management

No matter its size or complexity, every project reaches a point where planning transitions into action. Sometimes, a little too quickly.


Welcome to the Execution Phase of the project lifecycle, where we start building and delivering on things.



Here, project managers and their teams take the strategic blueprints developed during earlier phases and work to breathe life into them.


Despite meticulous planning and detailed forecasts of the prior phases, this phase is often unpredictable. It is the real test of a project's planning and preparation phases, and that is why I stressed the importance of getting the charter and other artefacts right before we started in earnest.


The Execution phase is typically characterised by a dynamic environment where adjustments are frequent, and flexibility is critical. You'll need to be on your toes, ready to tackle unforeseen issues while ensuring the project remains aligned with its defined scope and objectives.


Things go wrong. That's life.

The problem is rarely the real problem.

The response becomes the problem.

You must accept that some things are beyond your control as a project manager. People will let you down, tools will fail, and circumstances will manifest disasters.

You cannot plan for everything. What you can do is make sure you meet issues head-on. Here's my key advice;

  • Don't put your head in the sand; meet the issue head-on calmly.

  • Don't deal with it alone. Bring in others and form a team around the issue. They'll help ground you, sense-check things and take ownership of actions.

  • Ensure you get a clear definition of your problem, which everyone agrees on. Often, people misunderstand the issue at hand.

 

While the activities of the earlier project phases are primarily sequential, the following activities are cyclical throughout the phase and likely run in parallel.


Therefore, the tasks aren't laid out as steps but as groups of activities under a shared banner.


The Main Activities of Project Execution

Key Steps

Activities

Outputs

Direct the Management of Work

  • Actively engage with tasks to ensure alignment with timelines and objectives.

  • Organise work into workstreams or work packages.

  • Progress reports

  • Task completion updates

Define Workstreams

  • Allocate related tasks to teams (e.g., 'infrastructure', 'security').

  • Facilitate parallel processing and specialised management of project aspects.

  • Reporting hierarchy

  • Specialised task progress

Create Work Packages

  • Outline objectives and needed outputs without dictating execution methods.

  • Define accountabilities, expectations, and dependencies.

  • Clear deliverable definitions

  • Resource identification

Implementation Planning

  • Coordinate activities, resources, and timelines. Develop schedules, allocate resources, and manage risks.

  • Detailed timeline

  • Resource allocation plans

  • Risk register

Integration of Systems and Processes

  • Ensure seamless integration of new software/hardware and processes with existing systems.

  • Provide training and documentation.

  • Integrated systems

  • Training materials

  • Documentation

Stakeholder Communication

  • Keep stakeholders informed and involved.

  • Outline communication plans for updates and feedback.

  • Communication plan

  • Stakeholder feedback

Setting Milestones and Checkpoints

  • Define critical achievements within the project timeline.

  • Use milestones to review progress and make adjustments.

  • Milestone definitions

  • Progress review points

Team Management

  • Empower the team and delegate tasks.

  • Set clear expectations and communicate consistently.

  • Recognise achievements and maintain morale.

  • Delegation records

  • Clear expectations

  • Achievement recognition

Plan the Project Closure Gate

  • Review project objectives and completion status.

  • Prepare for ongoing support and maintenance.

  • Ensure documentation is complete.

  • Obtain stakeholder approval.

  • Completion status report

  • Support and maintenance plan

  • Organised documentation

  • Stakeholder approval


Direct The Management of Work

The execution phase starts with a flurry of activities, where the direct management of work takes the forefront. This involves actively engaging with the tasks and ensuring they align with timelines and objectives.


But how can we organise the work effectively? There are many ways, but I frequently fall back on two predominant ones: workstreams and work packages.


Define Workstreams


Workstreams are themes of related tasks that are allocated to a team. 


For example, in a project, you might have an 'infrastructure' workstream responsible for spinning up the servers and technical infrastructure for a project. You might have another workstream for 'Security'.


Workstreams facilitate parallel processing, where multiple teams can progress independently on different fronts yet towards the same objective. This approach not only speeds up execution but also allows for specialised management of diverse project aspects, from technology implementation to customer outreach.


The benefit of workstreams is that they allow you to put in place a reporting hierarchy and delegate work to those workstreams, and then you only have the workstream lead reporting progress to the project team. Ideally, this is how I like to organise my projects, but it's entirely down to the size and nature of the project. Sometimes, you have an orchestra and are the conductor; at other times, you can find yourself doing everything.


Create Work Packages

Work Packages are something I gravitate to a lot in projects. They are a formal way of outlining precisely what you want from a team member or workstream regarding deliverables.


So, a work package will outline the objective and what is needed as an output but won't tell the person it's assigned to exactly how to go about it; that's their business. But, work packages should be developed with the owner, not simply dictated to them.


For example, if you need servers delivered from the IT Infrastructure Team, you might write a work package that says what you need, like a shopping list, when you need it, and how much your budget is. Just outline it clearly like a mini-project charter so someone can run with it.


Work packages have several benefits, including;

  • Defines accountabilities for objectives

  • Removes ambiguity and assumptions about the deliverables

  • Sets clear expectations on timelines and milestones

  • Allows the project to define tolerances within which the work should be delivered, such as budget

  • Helps identify resources and where additional support might be required.

  • Identifies dependencies on other workstreams within the project

  • Clarifies reporting expectations



 

Implementation Planning

After establishing clear project acceptance criteria, the next crucial part of the Execution phase is implementation planning. This group of tasks sets the concrete steps necessary to transition from strategic planning to operational execution, ensuring the project's deliverables are achieved efficiently and effectively.


Coordinating Activities and Resources

Implementation planning involves a detailed coordination of activities, resources, and timelines.


The aim is to ensure that every project element is aligned and synchronised to achieve the desired outcomes.


Key components include:


Scheduling

Develop a detailed timeline that specifies when and in what sequence project tasks should be completed. Effective scheduling helps prevent resource conflicts and ensures that milestones are met.


Resource Allocation

Assigning the right resources, whether human, financial, or technical, to specific tasks. Proper resource allocation is critical for maintaining project momentum and ensuring team members are not overburdened or underutilised.


Risk Management

Anticipating potential issues and planning mitigations. This process includes updating the risk register and preparing contingency plans for likely challenges.


Integration of Systems and Processes

In projects that involve complex systems or multiple departments, integration is a pivotal focus of implementation planning. It ensures that different systems and processes seamlessly support the project objectives.


This might involve:


  • Technology Integration: Ensuring that new software or hardware integrates smoothly with existing systems, which may require beta testing or phased rollouts.


  • Process Integration: Aligning new processes with current organisational practices. This often requires training sessions and detailed documentation to ensure staff understand new workflows.


Stakeholder Communication and Involvement

Keeping stakeholders informed and involved throughout the implementation planning phase is vital for maintaining alignment and managing expectations. Communication plans should outline how updates are given and how feedback is gathered and used to refine the implementation process.


Setting Milestones and Checkpoints

Milestones are critical achievements within the project timeline that act as checkpoints to review progress and make adjustments. The implementation plan should clearly define these, providing the project team and stakeholders with a roadmap of success at various project stages.


Effective implementation planning not only prepares the project for the practical aspects of execution but also sets the stage for the final steps towards completion. It bridges the theoretical planning and the tangible, operational activities that will bring the project to life.

 

Team Management

This is perhaps the most challenging part of a project; the people.


Some will be great, some will be awful, and most will deviate from what they think the project should be doing rather than the agreed plan if left to their own devices.


So, rather than dive into this subject too deeply, I'm going to make just a couple of points here;


  • Empower the team. Delegate where you can, depending on the size of your project. Empowerment boosts the sense of ownership within the team.

  • Set clear expectations. Use some techniques, such as work packages, to clearly outline expectations and ensure everything you need is captured: deliverables, timeframes, budget, reporting, etc.

  • Communicate! Ensure communication throughout the project is consistent in pace and messaging gets to everyone.

  • Recognise achievements. Ensure achievements are recognised to keep morale high and the feeling of progress underpinned.

  • Have a coffee chat. Talk to people and ask them how they feel about their role and the project. I was once told by a team manager everything was on track and A-OK. I spoke to a team member while having a coffee and found out everything was far from okay. These side conversations are crucial for really getting a sense of how things are going.

  

Plan The Project Closure Gate

The Project Closure Gate serves as a checkpoint towards the project lifecycle, determining whether the project is ready to advance from the execution phase to the formal closing phase and start wrapping things up.


It needs consideration during the execution phase to know if proceeding to the closure phase is okay.


We must ensure that all deliverables meet the predefined project acceptance criteria and that the project is on track to achieve its goals.

 

Think of it as the airport security check before you go to the departure lounge. Our project shouldn't start to shut down before we've assessed whether it is ready to do so.


1.  Review project objectives & completion status.

Before we can claim we are ready to close down a project, we need to prove that we have met the original objectives.


Remember when I said the objectives should be unambiguous and measurable? This is why we need to measure the project's output against the objectives.


Only when you have met the objectives or the sponsor has agreed to the deviations can you consider moving through to Project Closure.


2.  Prepare for Ongoing Support & Maintenance

We'll explore this more in the project closure phase, but we must ensure we are clear on what is needed for the project to become business as usual. For example, what training, processes, support structures, etc., need to be implemented so the project can enter an orderly shutdown?


There are lots of questions here to ask, including;

  • Who owns the supplier relationships going forward?

  • What budget is assigned for ongoing support and maintenance?

  • Who will fix things if they go wrong in the future?

  • Are there any known defects or workarounds that need to be accepted?


3. Ensure documentation is complete and organised.

As the project winds down, handing over all the documentation to those needing to reference it is essential. This can include project logs like risk logs, decision logs, etc. so that they can find the reasoning if they need to look back and understand why something was done the way it was. It also includes the technical documentation, support documentation, end-user documentation, etc., that is needed.


4. Obtain Stakeholder Approval

Like all gates and approvals, I like to talk to people first and make sure that when it comes to it, I know if they will or won't approve something. You don't want to be in a meeting and suddenly have the seat kicked from beneath you because you didn't check with a key stakeholder that they were happy to proceed and have everything they need to be confident in the decision.


This may or may not result in an actual project gate closure meeting.


Once we know we have approval to move out of the execution phase and into the project closure, we should be on a high, but there is still more yet to be done!

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