Monday, January 24, 2011

The Task

“Is the PaRC Coding task complete?” asked Evelyn, the PM.  “Yes,” responded Jeff, one of the best programmers, who then continued “I completed all of the coding yesterday.”  “But what about the unit
testing?” Evelyn followed up.  “No, I’ll get to that tomorrow,” replied Jeff.  “But the task includes coding and unit testing,” Evelyn noted exasperatedly.  “It isn’t done until both are done and it’s ready for turnover to the test group.  You know that.  Why do you tell me it’s done?”
I’m trying to build some of the context for presenting best practices, but PM best practices are difficult to document, in this case, because everything is so integrated.  You can’t really discuss one thing being a “best practice” until you have a context for that practice to be best in.  For example, you can’t comprehensively discuss estimating without also including risk management.  You can’t discuss reporting best practices without addressing stakeholder management.  You can’t address acceptance management without addressing scope management, which also has to involve change management.
So I’m going to start with a fundamental and see if I can build a base sufficient to start expanding into more complex topics.  The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a core project management document and the task is the atomic element of the WBS.
Typically a task should be a single component of work delivered by one person.  This would generally be a best practice.  I have frequently made exceptions to this practice, but that doesn’t prevent this from being a best practice.  And knowing when to make exceptions is part of the pragmatic, flexible responsibility of the good PM.
The task should have clear transitions.  The inputs, outputs, and hand-offs (in- and out-bound) should be clearly understood.  This is one of the main areas where I frequently experience problems, when I assume that team members clearly understand their tasks, including Done.
I’ve developed some techniques to address this problem.  PMBoK v4 references the WBS Dictionary, what used to be called the task dictionary.  The WBS dictionary is without question the appropriate reference for this situation.  But who has the time and budget to include one in the project?  What I’ve found that I can do for key project tasks is sit down with the task owner (Owner A) and the owner of the next (successor) task (Owner B).  In this facilitated discussion with Owner A and Owner B, we discuss what is included in the task, what is expected as inputs and outputs, and what constitutes done.  This often identifies differences in expectations by the owners which, without the conversation, would’ve left  some ball dropped.
The key point I make sure to include in the discussion:  Owner B has to accept the results before the task can be closed for Owner A.  Universally the task owners know more about their jobs than I do, so I don’t have to impose the general task scope, all I have to do is make sure each successive owner is clear about the task boundaries.  It’s amazing how many problems this little discussion has prevented.
Call it a dynamic WBS Dictionary, maybe.
Do you have any experience with a WBS Dictionary, or problems with not having one?

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