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Project Management's Green Book: The critical system which keeps your project on time and on budget

3 MIN READ

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Last time, we examined the four main challenges which always seem to pop up when planning projects:

  • being over-optimistic about the likelihood that all will go to plan
  • being overconfident about your capacity or speed
  • underestimating the complexity of pulling together the whole project 
  • the inertia of everyday working life: procrastination, procrastination, procrastination...

In this post, after recognising what’s holding you back from realistic and successful project management, discover a simple fix suggested by Stephen Dubner and Bent Flyvbjerg (professor at Oxford University’s Saïd’s Business School) in a recent Freakonomics podcast.

Reference Class Forecasting

Rather than just focusing on the idiosyncrasies of the project you’re planning, consider previous similar tasks. Look back at projects with the same sort of scope, density and complexity, and frame your expectations about the new project based on those earlier ones.

Taking this principle further, Flyvbjerg describes a revolution in accurate budgeting and timeline planning by the UK Treasury, when they began to keep detailed records of every project they financed for the Department of Transport: how long they took, how much they cost—and crucially, how far off the mark the original predictions were.

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These records became the Green Book, and its analysis allowed the Treasury to consistently and accurately predict what they’d need to allow for in terms of time and finance, by using data from past pieces of work to reveal just how much the combination of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation costs their projects.


 Warning: spin might send your planning off track...

Warning: spin might send your planning off track...

Strategic Misrepresentation

We’ve all seen what happens when you let a human make a calculation, rather than a computer. As the Economics Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman says, “If you realistically present to people what can be achieved in solving a problem, they will find that completely uninteresting. You can’t get anywhere without some degree of over-promising.”

A little bit of spin might get your project off the ground, but it could also create some serious headaches further down the line. A canny project manager allows for this creative marketing when they’re planning, by factoring in a reality check on the numbers they’ve been given—and reference class forecasting makes it possible to do more than just guess.


The gap between what old projects should have cost in time and money, and what they actually ended up costing will reveal the magic number by which you should scale up the initial project quotation.

The Green Book Mindset

This all sounds amazing, right? Perfect planning using reference class forecasting can resolve the frustration of the challenges we’ve discussed so far—but there’s a catch.

The mindset has to shift across every member of your team, from “projects always overrun” to “this is a realistic goal, and we expect to meet it”.

When you make the shift to this kind of planning technique, everyone needs to reset their attitude towards projects. Whether it’s a multi-million pound development, or an in-house bid on a report, every member of the team needs to recognise that the usual wriggle room has been eliminated.

If you have multiple partners and the stakes are high, you may need to build in incentives and penalties to ensure your contractors meet their targets.

Projects vary, and you won’t always be able to find a perfect match from your archives, but reference class forecasting coupled with the Green Book Mindset should make a real difference to your scheduling and budgeting processes.

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Plan in extra help

And if your deadline is already set—as is often the case for bids or report submissions—this method of project planning will help you predict how much extra help you’ll need to meet your target.

Using a reliable project planning mechanism gives you the space to consider whether your team has capacity for all of their workload. And if not, using a professional freelancer (such as a writer, editor or proofreader) can all make the difference in completing your task on budget, and on time.

For a free consultation or quotation, please contact me@isandrews.com, or give me a call on 07988 858873 to talk more.


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Next time:

Team Work, Collaboration and How to Get the Best out of Working with Others

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Project Management, Blown Deadlines, and How Freelancers Can Help

5 min read

As a freelance writer, editor and proofreader, much of my work involves supporting a team to produce a final published document—bids, reports, white papers, articles, and so on.

Time and again, I receive emails from the project manager letting me know that the work isn’t ready for my input yet, because other contributors haven’t managed to complete their drafts or finalise their results.

Having worked with many managers on this, I can reassure you: if you’ve ever experienced the frustration of trying to keep a project on target for a deadline and felt as if coordinating the working group is an impossible task—you’re not alone!

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In a recent Freakonomic podcast, Stephen Dubner detailed some common project dynamics, and the reasons why most of your group tasks overrun—in terms of time, budget, or both. In this five minute read, I’ll identify four key issues which affect us in our planning, and how using freelance support can radically help you overcome these challenges.

The Planning Fallacy

You may be an experienced project manager, or perhaps you are new to overseeing a group piece of work—but in either case, you’ve managed your own workload successfully in the past. And yet, Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky would advise us all to be on our guard against the Planning Fallacy: overestimating your capacity, and underestimating the size of the task.

Despite our best intentions and most rigorous organisation, managing a multiple-stakeholder project can be overwhelming, and we can all fall prey to the same inefficiency monsters. So, what are they, and how can we defeat them?

The Optimism Bias

Freelancers are experienced at working on multiple-contributor projects, and have seen a wide range of challenges; they can help you think through possible difficulties and strategise around them

The first factor which messes with our deadline is our instinct to assume things will go more or less according to plan. Your own competence and professionalism can impede your ability to predict the sheer number of obstacles your project may face—we are insufficiently comprehensive in our thinking when anticipating bumps in the road.

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You may be able to imagine a competing piece of work arriving at the same time as this project, for example, or perhaps running into a technical issue that burns a few (dozen) hours of re-work or delay, or even that a crucial colleague may have a day off sick, or get held up on a flight… but can you imagine all of these things happening at once? As well as, maybe, ten other minor disasters you can’t even dream up right now—but that could happen, and have a major impact on your schedule?

Our Optimism Bias—the expectation that things will pan out well, even in the face of negative past experiences—is good for our emotional wellbeing, and it allows mankind to undertake daring and bold endeavours… but if we're trying to plan a realistic project schedule, it can work against us.

That’s when an external perspective can make a significant difference to team productivity: firstly, because freelancers are experienced at working on multiple-contributor projects, and have seen a wide range of challenges; they can help you think through possible difficulties and strategise around them.

Secondly, factors which affect your immediate team will not impact in the same way on freelance support (software / hardware issues, dynamics within the team, competing priorities, etc.), and so they can bring speed and positivity to the project, regardless of what’s going on within your office.

Overconfidence

Planning Fallacy factor two is overconfidence: the well-established feedback loop which tells us that being upbeat about our ability or progress is always a Good Thing.

... and that is a lifetime of feedback we give people, where we’re rewarding them for overconfidence constantly
— Katherine Milkman, Associate Professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
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In a competitive and fast moving world, it's beneficial to make bold claims, super positive self-assessments, and generally present a glass half full message—even if we know that the glass actually has a chip on the edge, a crack down the middle, and the drink inside probably should have been chucked out weeks ago for Health and Safety reasons.

The danger of overconfidence is that we start to believe our own hype, and lose sight of where we truly are on the schedule.

Whilst your freelancer will certainly want to impress you, we know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating—we don’t get hired back if we don’t produce the goods. One member of your team upon whom you can rely for 100 percent honest feedback is the one who—after the dust has settled and the project is complete—will depend on your recommendation for future contracts.

Coordination Neglect

The massive gains which come with a wide range of participants and specialist expertise are at risk of being undermined by the logistical challenges which accompany the ultimate reassembly of all this input into a coherent whole.

 
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Freelancers can provide excellent collaboration in designing a schedule and a system that allows work to be done in the right order, and received by the right people at the right time, minimising re-work and delays

Coordination neglect—underestimating the complexity of putting together the rich data and insight you've received from across your team—can be a major stumbling block in successfully making your deadline.

A freelance support can be invaluable in working around some of the difficulties here. We are well used to the process of coordinating multiple inputs, and can provide excellent collaboration in designing a schedule and a system that allows work to be done in the right order, and received by the right people at the right time, minimising re-work and delays.

Procrastination

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The fourth crunch factor which blows your deadline is that old desk enemy, procrastination.

There’s always something more interesting / urgent / easy to do than slog out the work—it’s human nature to put things off, especially if you’ve hit a tough patch.

This is another way in which utilising freelance support can really speed things up: when you hire someone to work specifically on your project (writing, editing or proofreading your reports, for example) they are completely focused on your work.

There’s nothing competing for our attention or importance, and all of our doodling, social media distraction, and displacement activity gets done on our own time!

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Freelance support for your project can make a crucial positive difference to planning your workflow and managing your timeline and budget—by contributing experience, rigour, an external perspective, and uninterrupted focused energy, moving the project forward on time, on budget.

For a free consultation or quotation, please contact me@isandrews.com, or give me a call on 07988 858873 to talk more.


Next time: Take Project Planning Strategy a Step Further

My next blog post examines a simple but brilliant technique proven to deliver accurate budget and planning predictions, slaying the Planning Fallacy forever!

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Mind The Gap: Expertly Communicating Your Brand in Every Message

In reaching out to customers or partners, it’s tempting to imagine that simply producing more – maximising the amount we say and how often we say it – will effectively demonstrate who we are. But just getting your brand out there, advertising, engaging with social media marketing, or churning out reports or white papers is not enough to ensure you are successfully connecting with your audience.

Pandering for traffic is not brand building. Winning the respect of your audience is.
— Lewis DVorkin "Journalists and Statistics, Paying Attention to the New Media World" Forbes

Reaching your customer base and clearly expressing your relevance, your core values or your unique selling points requires a clear understanding of that audience.

 image credit:  WDNet Studio

image credit: WDNet Studio

  • What matters to them?
  • What information or experience in your field do they already have?
  • How much detail do they need?
  • What are you offering?
  • What is your call to action?

These questions are likely to be familiar to you – we’re all brands now, whether you are a commercial business with products or services to sell, a startup, a consultancy, advocacy organisation or social enterprise.

However, the next step may be tougher...

 image credit:  Greg Plom, pixabay

image credit: Greg Plom, pixabay

Your product or skill base may be the leanest, smartest, most effective on the market; your service may add significant value to your customer; your bid may be the most competitive – but if you can’t express that reality, you’re relying on your customers to make a big jump to close the gap.

 

The Hidden Logic of Success

The really good news is that being brilliant at anything is simply a matter of careful rehearsal. In Bounce, Matthew Syed debunks the talent myth, demonstrating that hours of purposeful practice builds our competence and expertise, until – seemingly effortlessly and innately – we are performing to the highest levels. When we see extraordinary prowess, in any field, "we are witnessing the end-product of a process measured in years… what we do not see is what we might call the hidden logic of success." Syed, Bounce (Fourth Estate 2011)

After years of experience in restructuring, redrafting, and refining, a professional writer instinctively finds the right words, nuance, tone and pace to connect to and convince their audience.

The famous 10,000 hours, coined by influential sports and business commentator Malcolm Gladwell, represents the amount of time we need to invest in a complex task to achieve mastery. Writing fluently and persuasively is such a skill – and given enough practice, anyone can become an expert communicator. After years of experience in restructuring, redrafting, and refining, a professional writer instinctively finds the right words, nuance, tone and pace to connect to and convince their audience, approaching each new project with the ability and speed of a specialist. 

So that’s the good news. But if you’re already pouring your energy and creativity into your core business, where do you find those extra hours to develop your ability to communicate? Right now, you have information you need to get into the marketplace: perhaps a report to put out, web copy to update; an article, a white paper, a summary…

That's when you should consider adding the skills of a freelance copy writer into your team – someone who has already written countless hours of material for a diverse range of services and organisations. Someone who can help you find your voice and reach your audience. Today.

 

 

For more on how I can help you to communicate, influence and explain, get in touch at me@isandrews.com

Q & A: How do you write a great Executive Summary?

 image credit: Andreas Lischka

image credit: Andreas Lischka

“If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter” 

This famous proverb, variously attributed to Mark Twain, Pascal and Churchill, expresses a truth well understood by the summary writer: producing a short piece of text which clearly encapsulates complex or lengthy ideas takes a great deal of expertise and careful planning.

Before you write, begin with a list of questions...

 

How informed are your readers?

How much technical jargon needs explanation?

How much time do they have?

How many other similar reports will they read?

1. Who is your audience?

Think about the length and depth of the report. You may be looking for a one-page preface: some teaser statements, a few bullet points and a couple of tantalizing quotes, pulling in your reader so that they engage with the fuller piece. Another report may require more substance, with clear headings, greater detail, perhaps key figures or statistics.

 

 

Are you selling an idea?

Are you posing a complex theoretical question?

Are there multiple aspects to your argument?

Is there a call to action?

2. What is the tone of your report?

In a strong summary, the reader can easily identify key themes and implications. Aim to match the frequency of the longer piece: energetic or considered, ambitious or reserved. A report delivering a positive finding should have a positive summary; one containing challenges and future action needs a summary that’s enquiring, active and compelling. Don’t add your own synthesis – you’re aiming for perfect representation, not a mini-editorial of the original article.

 image credit: stocktookapic.com

image credit: stocktookapic.com

 

What’s a proportionate level of detail to include?

Are you obscuring the USP by including too much background?

Have you understood the most important aspects of the proposal?

How can you articulate these key points simply?

3. What’s the big idea? 

It’s crucial that you know what you’re writing about – yes, that sounds obvious, but it’s tempting to assume that creating a brief summary only requires a passing grasp of the content. In fact, to clarify and exemplify material requires you to thoroughly understand the big picture, and have a robust, working familiarity with the detail. Representing a report in micro-form means first identifying its proportions and architecture: what collapses if you move this or that supporting structure of the argument.

 

 

How many pages do you have?

What are the style / formatting guidelines?

Can you include key quotes from the report?

Is your structure clear and easy to navigate?

Have you created a good snapshot of the wider image?

4. How do I look?

There are various ways to present a summary; following the general structure of the main report is the obvious starting point, but avoid slavishly adhering to it subtitle-by-subtitle. You’re being asked to process complex ideas and lengthy arguments, and deliver them to the reader in an engaging and digestible way – not write up a secondary school science experiment (Hypothesis / Method / Results / Conclusion).

Using bullet points for key ideas and implications, and asking questions are more good ways to highlight important elements of the report, and draw the reader into the full piece. 

 image credit: utroja0

image credit: utroja0

Finally: the golden rule for summaries is to imagine the reader will never read the full report, but just what you’ve written here.

Make sure it’s exactly what they need to know.

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