Leading With PERT

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I suppose when we "wing" a project, we expect an angelic host to show up and do the work. We pray for a miracle and hope that somehow, some way, "We'll just get through it." But a lack of planning can dent a leader's integrity quicker than a poorly prepared message.

The imprint of a leader shows up in every aspect of event or project management. Delegation of event planning can place a leader on the wrong side of a slippery slope. Planning skills often make or break the voice and ascribed authority of all who lead.

It's not that leaders score points for effectively directing the details of an event; it's the poorly planned and executed activity that leaves a memory and scar not soon eased with any inventory of balm.

We've heard that "what starts well ends well." It's a comforting aphorism but provides little direction in the how-to of the matter. Leadership training seems to focus more on the style of the leader rather than the "doing stuff" part of the job.

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Many years ago, I was asked to teach a class in operations management and stumbled upon the Project Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT). The United States Navy developed PERT, which was initiated to build the Polaris Submarine in the 1950s. It was adopted in many industries and formed the foundation for planning the Winter Olympics in Grenoble in 1968. PERT provided operational direction from early 1965 through the opening ceremony of the games.

PERT begins with a building-block diagram. You could draw your diagram on a napkin and immediately improve your planning. The building blocks of PERT are known as predecessor events and successor events.

A PERT event is marked by the fact that some activities must be performed before the next step can be executed. There are certain key points in the planning of any event that must happen prior to moving forward.

It's the waiting game, or waiting on others, that derails any project. PERT helps you identify those key logjam points. Successor steps to activities await the completion of predecessor events.

What I like most about using PERT is the critical path line that moves through the planning. Time is the enemy of most planning. Many project committees are optimistic about the estimation of time needed to complete an activity. Leaders tend to be more pessimistic in planning completion dates.

What helps in most planning is to create a realistic view of the project and use "expected" time planning. Expectations evolve from experience with a team and often the reality of completion times for previous project elements.

The critical path is the longest path through the network of activity blocks. It determines the actual number of calendar days needed to complete the project. Therefore, if we experience a delay in an early step, we add the completion time to the end of the project. I like knowing if we are days ahead or behind an expected finish date.

To make PERT practical, direct the purpose of your first project meeting to list every activity your team needs to complete. Then agree on the number of expected days it will take to finish each step.

Be careful to not allow a hijacking to occur. A planning meeting will often drift into a people focus instead of retaining its activity focus. This is an important opportunity to teach your team how to discuss activities rather than performance of people. Planning is activity focused. Evaluation is people focused.

I prefer to hand-draw the activity boxes, times and priorities. Yes, there are many software products and apps available for project management. I find the learning curve for software too long to be practical. Consider this simple sequence:

Get the right people in the room. Be inclusive.

Discuss any history you have with the project for planning, not evaluation.

Make a list (whiteboard or paper) of everything that must be done.

Discuss completion times (in days) for each activity. Leaders will ask questions and probe for the time-truth.

List every activity in chronological order. Then label predecessor and successor activities.

Add the days and determine if the needed time is available to execute the project with excellence. Can the project be downsized by cutting project days?

Planning isn't hard labor. Good stewardship begins with a plan.

"There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless, the counsel of the Lord will stand" (Prov. 19:21).

Dr. Steve Greene is publisher and executive vice president of the media group at Charisma Media and executive producer of the Charisma Podcast Network. His Charisma House book, Love Leads, is available at christianbook.com, amazon.com or your local bookstore. Download his Love Leads podcast at cpnshows.com, and follow his Love Leads blog at charismamag.com/blogs/love-leads.

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