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Fail to Plan/Plan to Fail

Today, administrative professionals often work in a dynamic, changing environment. Many admins take on projects that were formerly performed by technical professionals or managers. There are virtually no limits to what administrative professionals are asked to do today.

The following introduction to project management has been excerpted and adapted from AMA’s seminar Project Management for Administrative Professionals. It will help you gain a basic understanding of how to approach any project.

The Importance of Planning
One of the biggest mistakes many people make with projects is to plunge into the work rather than developing a solid plan first. Planning takes time and is often misinterpreted as “not doing anything.” Planned projects are always more successful than those that are not planned. They are much more likely to meet targets for budget and time than those that are not planned.

However, before you can begin developing the details of the plan, you must know what the project is intended to accomplish. Often the project requirements are presented in an incomplete form. You must dig them out before you begin the work. Once the requirements are complete and understood, you can develop a detailed plan for meeting the requirements and controlling the work as it is done.

Tips for Getting Started
—Don’t wait to have the project laid out for you. Be proactive.
—Ask a lot of questions to translate the idea into reality.
—Verify your assumptions about the project.
—Begin with some simple questions:

  • What is the purpose of the project?
  • What results do you want from the project?
  • What is the timeframe or deadline for this project?
  • What resources will be available for this project? People? Budget?
  • Has a similar project been done before and are there records or guidelines?
  • How important is this project in relation to other assignments?
  • What are the consequences of doing a good job or a poor job on this project?

Defining Project Objectives
Answering the questions above helps to clarify the objectives. Once your objectives are established, clearly define them by using the “SMART” approach, which states that objectives or results should be:

For example, if you are tasked with a project to plan an annual meeting for the field force, some of your SMART objectives might be to:
—Complete a plan by November 1 (Time-related), which details the tasks (Specific) and measurements (Measurable), and assigns specific people (Assignable) to each one.
—Coordinate (Realistic) the all-day event on January 15 (Time-related) in the home office auditorium, providing meals and breaks (Specific).
—Develop a procedure for planning future annual meetings (Specific, Measurable, Realistic) by February 28 (Time-related).

To effectively plan your project you will need to define and consider the following:
1. Anticipated problems
2. Anticipated opportunities
3. What are the desired results of the project and who will use or benefit from them?
4. What is the scope of the project? What should be included/excluded?
5. What is the budget? What are the accounting codes to be used? How will the budget be tracked?
6. What are my areas of authority? When must I ask permission or confirm decisions?
7. Status reporting—Frequency, format, content, distribution
8. Stakeholders and their Concerns

Developing a Work Plan
Developing a work plan and following it are at the heart of all projects. The plan contains the specific activities of the project, lists who will do each task and when it will be completed, and indicates how success will be measured for the task. These are often simple measurements but are nevertheless important components of the plan. Every objective and requirement must have a clearly defined way of meeting it.

Once the major activities are defined, the project manager decides on the tasks that need to be accomplished for each major activity. For larger projects, each task may be broken down into smaller subtasks. The number of layers of detail depends on the size and complexity of the project and what level of detail you need to guide you through the work. The art of project management is to decide on the correct level of detail for success. If you have too much detail, you will drown in minutia. If you have too little detail, you may overlook important details that can destroy the project.

Here are the tasks involved in developing a work plan:
1. Identify all the work involved in accomplishing the objectives to ensure that you haven’t forgotten anything.

2. Create assignable, manageable tasks and subtasks. Group tasks as activities so you can delegate several related tasks rather than individual ones. Grouping makes control and tracking easier.

3. Identify budget categories for project expenses such as labor, consultants, technicians, material, equipment, and so forth. (Note: You may find that there is no special budget for a project. Your manager may decide to absorb the cost of the project within the existing salary lines.)

4. Use the work plan as a basis for scheduling.

5. Break down the work into distinct phases to keep large projects manageable.

6. Provide a structure for management reporting.

7. Help the team, or those associated with the project, think about the big picture.

8. Convert large complex activities into manageable tasks that can be easily accomplished.

9. Use the work plan as documentation for the project so that others can replicate it in the future, if needed.

The Next Step
You can now take the next steps in your planning process: estimating and assigning resources, scheduling, budgeting, and deciding how the project will be monitored; and estimating the time any task or subtask will take is difficult. Most people tend to underestimate how long something will take. There is no easy formula. In the early stages of planning you must accept the fact that you don’t know enough to be as accurate as you would like. As you progress through the project, you will know more, and will probably have to reestimate how long certain tasks will take.

© 2006 American Management Association. All rights reserved.

This article is excerpted and adapted from AMA’s seminar Project Management for Administrative Professionals.

Learn more about AMA’s seminars specifically for Office and Adminstrative Professionals.