Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Projects, project management and careers – 11: international and trans-national projects 4

Posted in career development, job search and career development, outsourcing and globalization by Timothy Platt on September 12, 2012

This is my eleventh installment in a series on projects and project management as a career path (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 250-259 for Parts 1-10.) And it is my fourth in that, to focus on projects as carried out across geographically dispersed organizational systems and in an increasingly interactive online context. So far in this subseries I have discussed issues of team member involvement and participation in a project, and information management and communications infrastructures for developing and executing projects to achieve cost-effective results. I turn in this installment to consider the issues of scheduling and coordinating projects across distances and time zones. And I begin that with the fundamentals as to how projects are structured and organized.

Projects of sufficient complexity to require project management per se, by definition are complex enough so as to be divisible into a collection of component subtasks and sub-goals. Sometimes these can be carried out independently of each other and in any order. Sometimes order is important or even crucial where some subtask A must be completed before B can be started, as it requires the subtask products or results of A in order to do it. Sometimes A and B have to be worked upon simultaneously with output from both needed together for subsequent project work, and if not for the overall project at least for some critical work flow within it. And resource sharing strongly influences what has to be done when and in what order too, where that can mean completing a project with a lean staff and with limited hands-on skills in some area of work involved, or it can mean dealing with potential equipment bottlenecks. I have only touched upon a few of the potential complications here; my point is that scheduling can be complex and certainly when projects are complex, have to be completed in a tight timeframe, and with limited resources and with resource bottlenecks.

A number of basic project management tools are used to help organize and plan out all of this, and to help track progress and identify where slowdowns, disconnects or other problems are arising.

• The Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) and PERT diagrams constitute one of the more important and commonly used approaches for developing and managing projects,
• With that often used in accordance with a critical path methodology where projects are broken down into series of milestone goals that are mapped out for their critical dependencies and scheduling requirements.
• Another frequently used tool is the Gantt chart: an approach to visually breaking down projects in terms of what has to be done when, how long each subtask is expected to take, and how they connect to each other (e.g. with A and B starting at the same time – start to start, or A finishing before B can start – finish to start, or A and B finishing at the same time – finish to finish). And progress is marked off on these charts with evaluation of percentage of each task completed as they are worked upon, and with completed tasks and tasks not started upon yet marked as such.
• Software development and other very complex projects are often organized and managed using approaches such as the waterfall method. This breaks down the overall project into a series of phases, including project and goals conception, project initiation, project analysis, design, construction, and testing, production and implementation, and maintenance. Basically, this is a full lifecycle approach.

My goal in this series is not to systematically present on the various tools and methodologies available to project management, so I simply offer these bullet points as links to resources for finding more information about them. And I repeat in that context and with that goal, my recommendation of the Project Management Institute (PMI) for their training and educational materials and certification programs. I simply note here that these and similar tools would be used on a locally managed project or in the greater complexity of an internationally or trans-nationally distributed and managed project and assume from here, that a project manager responsible for a complex project would be using context and goals-appropriate project management tools for that.

And with that I turn back to the challenges of the international and trans-national project and with a project management toolset in hand and the issue of time zone differences. And I set up a brief scenario or at least a quick outline sketch of one as a starting point.

You are based in London, and work out of an office there, managing a project with team member participants in London and in your office, but with significant numbers of your team in the United States in Chicago, in Mumbai India and in Shanghai China. One immediate consequence is that it would be essentially impossible to find a single time when everyone could conveniently come together for a real time, face to face online or teleconference meeting, without at the very least holding this at odd hours for some participants. So you hold what synchronous communications meetings as you have to, and with a goal of being fair in how you distribute who has to call in at odd hours according to their local time zone. And you and your team agree to communicate asynchronously where possible, and certainly when working and communicating with colleagues more distantly located. And you work with Information Technology, and with your Risk Management officer to set up a secure, workable cloud-based solution for sharing files, for team-dedicated instant messaging and other online communications tools and for shared access to project-related software resources. And those time zone differences can be seen as a communications barrier and a source of operational limitation.

But you also have opportunity to divide out who works on what subtasks for this overall project, and with both skills and other resource availabilities in mind, and with project dependencies in mind too. Basically, the goal there is that if A has to be completed, or at least substantially finished before B can be started and you are on a tight deadline schedule, you can take advantage of those time zone differences too. You can, for example, have your team members in Mumbai or Shanghai working on the key areas of A that absolutely have to be completed before B can be worked on, and have your London people work on B.

If A is going to take many days or weeks or longer to complete, at least fully enough so as to enable work on B then distributing the workload this work in this way will not yield any real benefits. But when you can divide critically dependent tasks into meaningful pieces for their areas of order dependency, that would fit into one or just a few work shifts, then you can effectively have your project operations working closer to 24 hours a day on your critically interdependent tasks, and you can get them worked on and completed faster. So time zone differences can at times be turned to positive use too.

My point here is not that this is always possible. Among other things, the smaller and more fine-grained your project’s tasks and subtasks, the more cumbersome it would be to organize and manage them all in a coordinated, effective manner with the types of tools I noted above – even if that did make scheduling some of the critical dependencies easier for more rapid consecutive completion. But time zone barriers need not always be seen as problems and only as problems. If a part of your project calls for supercomputer capability, as an increasingly common occurrence, assigning critical tasks that call for this resource to team members in time zones separate from the bulk of other supercomputer users, when this system would be less than fully used already, would be a real positive and certainly for computational tasks that have to be monitored at least close to real-time.

Look for positive opportunities that stem from where your team members are located, and from when they work during their standard work shifts. Look for ways this might facilitate scheduling and without having to ask anyone to switch from day to night work hours or for other personal work dislocations. Look for how timing flexibility as coming from time zone differences can help you bypass resource bottlenecks, and both for project-specific resources and for easier access to business-wide resources too. And be creative in how you divide up the overall project into milestone goals and subtasks for reaching them, and in how this determines what resource bottlenecks you will have to account for.

I am going to turn to the issue of collaborative project management in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development. I am also including this subseries on international and trans-national projects in Outsourcing and Globalization.

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