When Rules of Thumb Can Be as Effective

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There’s a lot of art, not just science, in most projects. When planning and overseeing project tasks, project managers often respond by applying heuristics or "rules of thumb." I promised to say a few words about them in my responce to Ibrahim's question on my post about critical path. As with many complex decision-making environments, heuristics can provide valuable assistance when addressing difficult project decisions. For example, when you plan your project and see a resource constraint, don’t level the schedule randomly. Think about which tasks are more important or more risky and put them at the beginning. This will help to mitigate risks on your project.

Another valuable heuristic is to analyze the scope of the work and come up with the minimal project scope that’s most important. Then try to schedule this “must have” scope before some other work that your stakeholders could live without. Let’s say you’re planning to paint the walls in your living room and whitewash the ceiling in the kitchen by the time your spouse comes back home from a business trip. So if you promised your spouse only to refresh the living room, then it would be important for you to finish painting the walls there first. Only then, if you have time, you’ll get down to whitewashing the ceiling in the kitchen to please your spouse even more.

Another heuristic method would be helpful when you have some tasks with unclear and risky estimates. In many cases, due to underestimation, such tasks might not even be on the original critical path, but if a task takes much longer than you planned, it will become part of your critical path when it’s too late. To mitigate this risk, you might want to put such tasks with unreliable estimates sooner, rather than later, in your schedule, or at least allocate sometime early in the project schedule to elaborate on blurry estimates (prototype, research, detail). This will help you to adjust your estimates for the project and proactively manage the risks.

Heuristics or rules of thumb are models based on experience and applied in situations when you have a choice. When you use heuristic methods, it's important to remember that these models have their limitations and often involve trade-offs. It’s important for you, as a project manager, to constantly evaluate the decisions you make and adjust your practices and processes based on what works and what doesn’t. This might seem obvious, but as it turns out, many people miss great learning opportunities along the way. Each iteration is a chance to learn. Each problem is a chance to do a “5 whys” analysis and improve the process. As you grow in your career, you’ll be able to build your own “project management intuition,” a body of experience that includes tools, practices and processes, and an understanding of when they work best and when they don’t.

What rules of thumb do you find helpful when managing your projects? Please share your experience in the comments below.

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