Case Study: Adapting PM Techniques and Templates to a Mini-project

One of the most common questions we get about ProjectConnections is how to adapt our templates for a particular project. Sometimes the request centers around a particular project type, like construction or marketing projects, but many members just want some guidance on adapting templates to use for smaller projects that will only take a few weeks. At the extreme end of the scale are the even shorter and smaller projects that last only a few days -- we call them mini-projects.

We really believe in project management, and we know not everyone who uses our site is a project manager, so we convinced one of our non-PMs to try project management out on a mini-project. This case study details the techniques used, shows how they were adapted to a very-small project environment, and includes links to both the formal project version and the mini-project example. This case study will serve as a good reference for anyone who wants guidance on adapting project management methods in order to do "just enough project management" for those smaller, quicker projects that can create work backlogs and unexpected surprises when they're not managed well.

Our Test Case: Planning a Family Get-Away

As a life-long lover of lists and checking them off, I am the family's designated vacation planner. This creates some minor conflicts of interest, since my idea of a vacation inevitably involves Doing Stuff, which is fundamentally incompatible with the vacation philosophy of the rest of my family: Do Very Little. In between the two, we discovered camping. Not the rough it in the wild, one backpack and a bottle of water kind of camping, mind you. We're car campers. City campers. Lazy campers. It may not be a true wilderness trek, but it's relatively inexpensive, it's quiet, and the logistical difficulties effectively prevent anyone from bringing along their work. Picture serene vistas, a total lack of commitments, and crickets chirping quietly by the firelight (as opposed to the flicker of an LCD).

Belying the tranquil mirage those words evoke, camping vacations take a lot of planning. Once you're out there, you're there, and if you've forgotten something critical -- like the tent stakes or the food -- it can be difficult to improvise. Last time out I had done a lot of advance reading and created several ambitious lists to keep us on track. It worked reasonably well, but there were still a few hitches. So I decided that this would be a perfect opportunity to test our outline for "PM in 10 Pages or Less" on something a bit more free-form than a corporate project. Over the course of the next few weeks, I discovered three things.

  • It is entirely possible to effectively apply basic project management to just about anything, as long as you keep it sane.
  • If you know what you want from a project, you can achieve it by surprising paths you would never have foreseen.
  • Working with project managers has ruined me for the rest of society.

Here's how the planning for our tiny, chaotic, risk-mangled project evolved.

Vision, Requirements, and Lessons Learned: Do You See What I See?

Since I've been surrounded by project managers for years now, I naturally wanted to start by ensuring we all had similar expectations (known in formal project environments as a shared Project Vision). Filling out an entire template felt like a bit much, but this was an experiment, and it couldn't hurt to scribble a few notes.

I began by asking my husband what he would be saying as we drove home from the perfect camping trip. His first quip was unprintable. His second, though less amusing, was more revealing: "I wouldn't be saying, 'Let's stay in a hotel next time." As intended, it called to mind the lessons learned on our first family outing.

Between my own excess energy and my family's aversion to bugs, camping never seemed like a natural fit for us. We never would have gone if it weren't for my burning desire to see the ancient coastal redwoods of northern California. I wanted more than a day trip, and the family wanted more than a stay-at-home vacation that year, so off we went. It turned into our most successful family vacation to date, fondly remembered for a general sense of awe and wonder, more bugs than you could shake a stick at, and what has become known as the Humboldt Death March. (In my defense, the trail map hadn't been updated, and we did figure this out before finishing the climb to the fire lookout.)

In spite of all this, we become semi-determined campers. It's one of the few ways southern California residents can escape the constant background hum without breaking the bank, so we really want to find a way to make this work as a regular vacation style. That requires looking behind as well as looking ahead. I made a few mental notes about the requirements for this trip. For more involved projects, we usually recommend a Lessons Learned Meeting with the team. Since our team consisted of four people, one just out of kindergarten, I settled for a few informal conversations and a "what went well, what could be improved" mindset.

  • He had hated the thin thermal pads under our sleeping bags and found them difficult to use and pack, so I would surrender to the inevitability of an inflatable mattress.
  • Bugs had been a problem for everyone except this former Midwesterner -- unless it's making more noise than a B-57 or has a wingspan that causes drafts, I usually don't notice it. I do notice everyone else's misery, though, so we'd stay close to the beach this time in order to mitigate the bug problem.
  • The two-day drive had been uncomfortable for everyone involved, so we opted to stay local in order to maximize our time.

Already our vacation plans were taking shape. We did some poking around and, miraculously, we found four days and three nights available near the beach in a local state park during the last week of August. Since the beaches of southern California are very pleasant year-round, this didn't seem nearly as deranged as you might think. We smiled, booked it, and filed for our vacation days.

As every parent knows, parents aren't the most important stakeholders in a family vacation. If the kids aren't having fun, everyone will suffer. So I pressed our teenage daughter for her vision of the perfect camping trip. A bona fide city girl, she struggles with the very concept, and she gave me a long look, clearly hesitant to answer. "Go on," I said. "I really want to hear what you have in mind. This is important to me." That was enough to prompt a response.

"I want you and Dad to be relaxed," she said. "I hate it when you get so frustrated like you were last time. I just want everything to be really easy."

That caught me off guard. I didn't remember being particularly frustrated on our first trip. I recall it as relatively calm, aside from our inadvertent mountain trek. She, however, remembered us snapping in irritation as we struggled to erect the tent, and sobbing brokenly when the percolating coffeepot refused to simmer, much less boil. "Plus, Mom," she added candidly, "you're scary in the morning without coffee. Think big black bags."

Possible exaggerations aside -- I don't have the energy to be scary in the morning without coffee, let alone to cry about it -- I do have a dim recollection of struggling with the coffee on the first day, since we'd been a bit ginger about building up the fire. The minor (in retrospect) irritations of staking the tent and concocting acceptable java had been magnified in her eyes, and had left almost as big an impression as the 4,000-year-old trees we'd camped under. We decided to practice with the tent before leaving, and to bring some backup instant coffee just in case. Lesson learned: Yours is not the only memory of how the last project went, and your version of events may not be the most reliable. Don't discount any of your team members; they may contribute important insights.

Not wanting to overlook anyone, I asked our first grader what his requirements were. His reply was refreshingly simple: build sand castles and eat pixie sticks. Grudgingly, I added pixie sticks to the shopping list. Drinking sugar out of a straw is probably still less damaging than the smores they didn't really care for, and at least one stakeholder would be easily satisfied.

But that still left the issue of our basic incompatibility in vacation styles. Surely they didn't just expect me to sit in a chair for a week? I can do that at work, after all.

It was the Perseid meteor shower that finally solved the problem no one else knew we had. While reading about them, I stumbled across news that a total lunar eclipse would occur on our first night out. Being the most casual of backyard astronomers, I'd had no idea. Excited, I dragged the family to the monitor and got at least feigned interest from everyone. "We should bring the telescope," someone suggested half-heartedly. Total relaxation is not a natural state for me, but a telescope is something I can sink my teeth into, and it officially became a Family Camping and Stargazing trip. Suddenly all was right with the world. Lesson learned: When planning, remember to look in all directions -- backward, forward, and up -- and don't be afraid to adjust your scope to fit.

Budgeting and Planning Go Hand in Hand

"How much will this cost us," my husband asked a couple of weeks after we'd made the reservations.

"Oh, a couple hundred or so, probably," I responded blithely. "We already have all the equipment from last time."

He just looked at me for a moment as we both tallied quickly through the equipment we already owned and what we'd decided to add, including the air mattresses. (By now we had gone from one to two because, as he pointed out, it didn't seem fair to make the kids sleep on the ground.) Two gear boxes, tent, chairs, and the big cooler make up the bulk of it. With some creative packing we could fit it all in my hatchback, but we'd have to leave the kids behind. Being one of three families in southern California that do not already own an SUV, we remembered we would need to rent one. "OK, probably closer to $500," I allowed ruefully.

For those who've never looked into it, SUV rentals are not cheap, or even inexpensive. Thirty minutes of diligent internet searches turned up one option that was on the low end of outrageous, but still a bit too rich to comfortably embrace on a moment's notice. Satisfied that we'd found something tolerable, I adjusted our budget and went about my business, secure in the knowledge that I'd found a solution I could implement when ready.

When I went back to reserve the rental three weeks later, the cost had skyrocketed from mildly outrageous to completely deranged, and I gritted my teeth as I typed in the required information. At least it was still available. Lesson learned: If you're going to need it then, you might as well get it now to avoid surprises and unexpected costs or delays.

Between the expected cost of the rental and the campground fees, our vacation budget was suddenly double our original estimates. We were very glad we'd elected to stay local and didn't have to pay for more than a few hours' worth of gas.

There are several variations on project budgeting and cost tracking that are well-suited to formal project management, but I'd decided that I wasn't going to go overboard with the template thing. Still it was obvious that a little clear-headed money management was in order, so I pulled up our own Project Budget Template and filled in the spreadsheet. I had to adjust the categories, of course; camping trips don't usually include Salary budgets. But it didn't take much to make some quick tweaks and convert the work breakdown into camping "phases" that made sense to us. (See the example.) I plugged in some numbers and sighed. Regretfully, I struck off several of the new camping gadgets we'd had our eyes on and brought the budget back into line. I left the original prices in the left column, in case we found extra budget slack or spent less than expected elsewhere. Typing it all out took only about fifteen minutes, and saved us from some rather nasty overspending. Lesson learned: Budgeting is one area where it doesn't pay to skip on documentation. Write it down.

A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

I was so encouraged by my results so far -- especially the satisfaction of recording the budget information -- that I quickly found myself jotting down a few more notes on paper.

My well-documented fondness for checklists had kicked in, and I found myself scanning the files looking for things that I could add to the "plan." Reminding myself that the objective was to test minimal planning requirements, I took a step back and reviewed the my two-and-a-half pages of notes. Nothing else was really necessary, it seemed. This was enough to get us on the road.

By this point, things were looking pretty good. We had a tentative timeline, a menu, suggested activities, and a short supply list. I knew when I had to set the handheld alarm for our eclipse, I knew what extras we'd want to make our planned activities easier, and we all had a generally similar impression of how we were spending our time. As the air conditioner hummed in the background, I thought of refreshing ocean breezes, clear skies, and the silence of a late night in what passes for wilderness out here. I surveyed my mental plan and smiled. It would be so nice and cool on the beach. I couldn't resist looking up the long-term weather forecast for the area, just to gloat.

The Best Laid Plans ...

When I saw the forecast, the words that immediately popped into my head, completely unbidden, were "risk assessment and mitigation." That's twisted even by my standards. More evidence of the strange mind control influence that comes from being outnumbered by titled project managers. (Someone pass me my tinfoil hat.)

But however odd the words sounded to me, they were clearly appropriate. The 10-day forecast called for a series of scorching 90+ highs, and the air quality description read "definite smoke." In California, those words are code for "shut the windows and stay indoors, it's not worth it." Fine weather for camping in the great outdoors. Lesson (re-)learned: Assume nothing.

Further investigation revealed that the situation was far more dire than it looked. The wildfire north of our campground had flared up again recently, and then some. Since we live two counties south I hadn't paid much attention. I was certainly paying attention now. I called the information office for the park and was told they were under a red flag warning, meaning no open flames at all. I recalled our teen's dramatic remarks about our morning caffeine habit and cringed. No campfire, no camping. We're only pseudo-outdoorsy, after all.

Clearly, we needed a backup plan, but I floundered between options for several minutes before finally drafting up a quick Flexibility Matrix.

  Critical Negotiable Flexible
Scope/Goal   X  
Cost     X
Schedule X    

Our schedule, unfortunately, was fixed; having committed to the dates it would be difficult if not impossible to reschedule them, especially with the school year starting. Plus, the eclipse had now officially become a Big Deal to me, inseparable from the total vacation package since I'd first accepted it as part of our scope. Where I saw it was negotiable, but actually seeing it was not, and we couldn't very well change that date. Cost -- previously such an important factor -- fell right to the bottom of the list; which isn't to say that we tossed the budget out the window, merely that it wasn't as important as we initially thought. Lesson learned: Clarity, as it turns out, simply requires forcing yourself to make choices.

With that clarity in mind, we began formulating backup plans. Could we get reservations at another park not threatened by the fire? What if we left one night earlier or later, or shortened the trip overall? What if -- perish the thought -- we abandoned the initial plan altogether and simply stayed home? It took several hours of deep breathing and more intensive googling, but we finally came up with a risk plan we could live with.

  • Since cost was a tertiary consideration, we made secondary campground reservations at another area we thought unlikely to be affected by the fire. It would mean a longer drive and a shorter stay, but the campground itself came well recommended, and we had already decided that the scope of the getaway was negotiable. Even if we ended up cancelling both reservations it would be less expensive than the single initial reservation.
  • If we abandoned the camping aspect entirely, the stargazing remained important. That had taken on a life of its own as a project goal. A little brainstorming called to mind the local astronomical society. Sure enough, there was an eclipse-watching event scheduled. It wouldn't be quite the same as observing from the peace and quiet of our own little campsite, but since it was in a university observatory surrounded by well-informed enthusiasts (rather than grumpy and uninterested fellow campers) it was certainly a reasonable tradeoff. Adaptation in the face of adversity!
  • Not knowing whether we would actually be going out, we decided to delay all new equipment purchases until the last possible minute. The annoyance of scrambling for a couple of air mattresses paled beside the possibility of dropping money on equipment that might not get taken out of the box for another year or two.

With those major risk items to face, the possibility of bugs and (however unlikely) rain seemed distant concerns. We drafted a quick risk list anyway -- I used the Non-Technical Risk List from our Risk Assessment and Mitigation Tables with some minor modifications -- and I was amazed at how much better I felt afterward. The vague, amorphous worry was replaced with a sense of purpose, and we were much better prepared to meet our primary goal: to relax and stay that way. Lesson learned: Thinking proactively about risks and how you will react to them makes you feel better, not worse. (See the example)

Mini-Project Management: Bare Minimum Templates and Techniques

All told, our entire project plan fit on seven handwritten sheets of paper, including our menu-planning grid. Here's our final planning toolkit:

Formal Planning Tool Use and Adaptations Completed Mini-project Example
Project Vision Captured a few notes using the same idea as the full form Vision notes from conversations
Lessons Learned Meeting Agenda Actually several informal conversations, but who's counting?
Tools and Equipment List Ensuring we don't forget the all-important inflatable mattresses Mini-project equipment table
Overview Test Plan To make sure we knew how to use our tent, telescope, inflatable mattresses, etc., without stressing out the kids Mini-project test table
Project Budget Heavily adapted to specific project needs Modified budget for mini-project
Milestone/Task List Our only formal project schedule, reduced to a few columns of scribbled notes Mini-project milestone list
Dependencies List (in Small Project Plan Example) Used to capture a few critical needs that would otherwise have slipped through the cracks Mini-project dependencies table
Flexibility Matrix Labels were adapted to fit the project Completed flexibility matrix
Non-Technical Risk List Strategies and dates for managing alternate campsites and equipment Mini-project risk list
Action Item List Kept in a PDA, but included here in the interests of thoroughness  

Best of all, I was the only one doing any paperwork; from their perspective it all fell into place easily with a few conversations and some group decisions. No one but me even knew it was "managed." Everything went more smoothly, and even though the final project shape was quite different than originally envisioned, we met all of our requirements.

Productivity guru David Allen frequently asserts that anything that takes more than two steps and two minutes to accomplish is a project. I've always felt that line is a bit extreme, but it quickly highlights just how low the project threshold goes. When you're confronted with anything that leaves you wondering -- even for a moment -- what the next step is, you have a project on your hands, and even small projects deserve to be managed. All it takes is a few short lists, a few deep breaths, and the willingness to check things off.

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