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14/08/2015

Career development: Introduction to project management

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Project management

In theory, planners should be excellent project managers – but that doesn’t mean it’s always so. What does it take to run a planning project effectively?

Organisation, forethought, awareness of context, ability to see where resources are needed – these are qualities integral to both planners and project managers.

So it should be straightforward for planners to transfer their skills to project management as their responsibilities grow, shouldn’t it?

Not necessarily.

For, although you may have many of the skills required to be a successful project manager, it pays to understand the additional skills needed. These include people management, the capacity to assess risk and to evaluate technology, budget management, and adaptability.

It also helps to have an organised framework in which to apply these skills.

An orderly approach

All approaches to project management will stress the importance of breaking the work into more manageable parts. This will begin by separating the entire project into stages, such as:

Stage 1: Set parameters

Stage 2: Develop the project plan

Stage 3: Implement

Stage 4: Review

The number and type of these stages will vary according to the kind of project you’re managing and the methodology you use. For example, Prince2, devised by the UK Civil Service, adopts seven stages from starting up a project to closing it.

It provides a detailed framework for thorough higher-level management of complex projects, and is ideal for the kind of large-scale strategic planning undertaken by TAYplan, the strategic development planning authority for the city regions of Dundee and Perth.

Pam Ewen, manager of TAYplan, describes Prince2 as “essential” and her description of the TAYplan approach to project management illustrates why she needs such a tool.

“At project inception a four-year project plan is agreed by the board and joint committee, and this runs to project completion,” she says. “Progress is monitored against this; the project plan timescales are fixed and the reporting on this deals with any deviations. Project task plans are prepared well ahead of each key stage, drilling into the detail.

“Where required, task delegation notes are issued to provide effective delegation,” she continues. “Risk planning is reported regularly to the board. Resource planning is undertaken nine months ahead of key stages. Meeting dates are set 12 to 18 months in advance aligned with the project task plans. Once this is done once, it provides a platform for the next TAYplan.”


Rebeccas Sanders, Carter JonasProject management insights: Rebecca Sanders

Associate partner & head of masterplanning at Carter Jonas LLP

What’s your starting point for a project?

“We start all of Carter Jonas’s masterplanning projects with a thorough review of existing information and a site visit. You can pick up a huge amount of information by walking around a site and its surroundings – and taxi drivers are always a good source of extra info.”

How do you determine how long different steps will take when building a schedule?

“Duration varies according to the size and complexity of the project and you cut your cloth accordingly. For example, we undertook some site promotion work on behalf of Croudace, where the site was very straightforward because it was under one ownership and without any ground constraints. We could get going very quickly.”

What kinds of obstacles do you encounter and how do you deal with them?

“We get just about every sort of problem there is. A recent application for low-density houses in Sussex had to deal with constraints such as searching for non-existent dormice, historic landscape concerns from English Heritage and objections from some local people. Technical obstacles can normally be resolved by the professional team, but emotional obstacles are sometimes impossible to resolve satisfactorily.”

What tools do you use to help you organise and keep track of projects?

“I’m a big fan of scribbled lists in my notebook and on Post-It notes! On a more serious note, I particularly enjoy the process of being able to cross completed items off and the sense of progress it provides. We also always put together a project programme which either we or our planning colleagues monitor through the duration.”


Homegrown methodologies

Your employer may have its own project management methodology that it expects you to follow – as at property consultancy Carter Jonas, where different kinds of planning projects have given rise to specific management approaches.

“Taking the example of an outline planning application,” says masterplanner Rebecca Sanders, “we normally undertake the following stages”:

Stage 1: Review and audit (including site visit);

Stage 2: Masterplan development;

Stage 3: Preferred option development;

Stage 4: Public consultation;

Stage 5: Masterplan refinement and detailed design; and

Stage 6: Design and Access Statement production.

“Cutting across all stages will be constant communication, in meetings, workshops, telephone updates and emails. Communication ensures that there are no surprises.”

What matters is that the approach makes sense, follows the natural development of a project in a systematic way, and prompts you to take into account every element of the project – including making allowance for the unexpected.

A more detailed breakdown

Broken down once more, our four-stage model might broadly incorporate the following tasks.

Stage 1: Set parameters

• Read/understand/clarify the brief

• Identify tasks

• Set goals

• Establish roles

• Communicate with other stakeholders to obtain commitment (e.g. a public consultation)

• Research wider context (e.g. site visits, desk research, regulatory conditions)

Stage 2: Develop the project plan

• Create task list, assign to people

• Create timeline

• Estimate costs

• Identify and allocate resources

• Assess risk

Stage 3: Implement

• Initiate the work

• Monitor progress and maintain control

• Meet regularly to assess progress, resolve difficulties and adjust the plan

• Bring to a close

Stage 4: Feedback

• Collect feedback from stakeholders

• Assess and identify lessons for future projects

• Report to relevant parties

• Feed learning into training/development

Managing a project is not an exact art. But the more you do, the more you can develop your own approach to dealing with the fresh challenges that every project presents.

As Sanders says, the key to good project management is to “be organised. Have a clear idea of what the deliverables are and when they need to be done by, and then you can work backwards and work out what needs to be done in order to get there”.


Pam Ewen, TAYplanProject management insights: Pam Ewen

Manager of TAYplan, the strategic development planning authority for the city-regions of Dundee and Perth

What are the skills you require for a strategic plan, as opposed to other planning projects?

“The key difference is the ability to think long term, to focus on the vision – and to focus on how places function regardless of administrative boundaries.”

How important are communication and delegation?

“Excellent communications and delegation are essential. I lead with a strategy that covers how we communicate with key partners, industry bodies, politicians, community councils and the public. It’s important that this not only focuses on when, but also how – our attitudes are very important in how we gain trust.”

How do you determine and allocate resources?

“Staff and financial resources were agreed at inception of TAYplan. Each of the four councils pay 60k per annum and that sets the budget. Financial agreement is in place along with other governance arrangements to ensure that this can be managed.

“The TAYplan team is three people – me, a senior planner, and a planner. At peaks we now have temp contracts – typically a three-month summer student, and a six or eight-month temporary planner over the years needed.”

What’s the most important thing for a project manager to do?

“Project manage! The person who is leading the project needs to do so effectively. People can change, but how, when and what an agreed project needs to deliver needs to be clearly set out.”

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