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Effectively Reviewing the Structure and Sequence of Your Project Tasks

written by: Tom Olzak, CISSP • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 5/25/2011

Planning a project requires understanding the business objectives to be met and how to gather and apply appropriate resources. Assessing resource requirements and business time or ROI constraints both depend on proper identification and sequencing of phases, activities, and tasks.

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    The Basics

    Proper structuring and sequencing of project work is strongly related to how you approached task identification and planning with the team. I like to use a six step approach, leading to a final review of plan completeness, including questions about whether the right tasks are identified, in the right places, in the right order, with the right dependencies.

    1. Define project scope and success criteria. This step results in a project charter, signed by the project champion. Projects without this document tend to float, never quite reaching shore. Download a project charter template, made available by Carleton University.
    2. Define project phases. Although completion of Step #1 can be accomplished without bringing together key members of the project team, Steps 2 through 6 are ineffective without input from representatives of the design and implementation teams. Input starts with definition of the major project phases. For example, the following phases are from an actual project with the goals of ensuring accounts of former employees are immediately disabled across critical applications, and realizing an ROI via self-service password resets and synchronization:
      1. Automate account terminations
      2. Implement password self-service
      3. Synchronize password resets
      4. Automate stale account processing
      5. Develop metrics
    3. Define activities within each phase. Although there are different ways to approach this step, I usually define activities in terms of the expected deliverables.I usually include a note in MS Project for each activity in which I describe the deliverable, management expectations, and any assumptions made.
    4. Identity tasks to create deliverables. In this step, you identify the work required to produce the deliverable described in each activity. The granularity of the tasks--how deep you have to drill to ensure proper management--depends on the complexity of the work and the risk involved. Too much granularity can be as bad as not enough. Consider developing checklists for complex or risky tasks instead of breaking them down into painfully small project sub-tasks.
    5. Identify resources, work duration, and dependencies for each task. This is where proper activity and task structure becomes critical. However, this is a first pass. Let the team work through the entire plan first, assigning people, work effort, predecessors, and successors for each item. See figure .
    6. Review plan against charter success criteria, adjusting activity/task structure and sequences as necessary. After completing Step #5, it's important to compare the results to success criteria defined in the charter created in Step #1. Often, time or cost constraints are exceeded, requiring a review of dependencies and work structure to identify opportunities for improving project efficiency.
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    Review Task Structure and Sequence

    Ensuring proper structure and sequencing of activities and tasks can reduce resource requirements--people and dollars--and shorten the project timeline. Microsoft Project provides two tools, which help examine these--critical path management and the resources and predecessors windows.

    The critical path consists of the activities and tasks dictating when the team will complete the project. Close management of critical path activities is an important part of making sure your project stays on schedule and on budget. However, critical paths are sometimes based on erroneous dependencies, successor and predecessor relationships that don't actually exist. They are mistakenly perceived to exist by members of the team. Just as important is the possibility that managing against a self-imposed critical path might result in less attention paid to activities and tasks that actually determine your eventual success. Another common mistake is failing to identify and document real dependencies that could entirely change which activities and tasks are the most critical to project success.

    The following steps (I used MS Project 2003) help identify the actual critical path, and whether your activities are in the right places with the right relationships to other tasks:

    1. View critical path activities and tasks. In Microsoft Project, there are a number of ways to view critical paths, as shown in the figure . I prefer the second method on the list, Show Only Critical Tasks, by selecting Critical from the formatting toolbar drop down. See figure .
    2. If necessary, assess dependencies (predecessors and successors) for each critical path activity and tasks. The best way to start this step is to split the project display window. Click on Window on the menu bar, and select Split. A dependencies window appears at the bottom of the display, as shown here . Selecting an activity or task causes any related dependencies to display on the right. Dependencies can fall into one of four types, as shown in this figure . In the example, the default type, FS (Finish-to-Start) is shown. Clicking on the type causes a drop-down list to appear, allowing you to select one of the other three relationships. These relationships, or the absence of them, have the greatest impact on activity completion sequences and definition of critical paths. Work with the team to delete perceived relationships that don't exist in reality, to add missing dependencies, and to adjust dependencies to reflect actual work requirements. Perform this same analysis for items not in the critical path. Ask the following questions, and document the answers, for each activity or task:
      1. Does the start of this activity/task depend on output from the completion of one or more other activities or tasks?
      2. Is there a requirement for executing this activity/task at the same time as other activities or tasks?
      3. Are the most efficient project flow or certain deliverable requirements dependent on this task completing at the same time as other activities or tasks?
      4. Is there a requirement/assumption for this activity/task not to finish until other activities or tasks have started?

    One final note about task sequencing. As your team adjusts dependencies or completes tasks and activities, task priorities might shift. The critical path might once again change, affecting project completion dates. It's important for you as the project manager to continuously monitor the changing nature of the project, adjusting or adding tasks and relationships as necessary.