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A Sea Change for Project Management

We all know that we need to meticulously decompose projects into tasks. We need to lay them out in a plan, and have a dictatorial project manager wielding a heavy cudgel direct and track their progress. This is simply how it’s done – plan or perish.

Or maybe not: Liquid Planner says that project management is more about probabilities and social interaction. According to founder Charles Seybold, traditional project management has its origins in the command-and-control culture of the 1950s. It is long overdue for an update.

Seybold and company co-founder Jason Carlson honed their project management skills while working at Microsoft and Expedia. They came away convinced that it could be done better. Their answer is Liquid Planner, which is currently in beta. You can log on and try it out at http://www.liquidplanner.com. It’s based on Microsoft ASP.NET technologies, and is intended to be offered as a hosted service. It also uses AJAX technologies. At least in beta, it appears reasonably responsive to user actions.

Seybold and Carlson point out that project participants are often reluctant to provide hard dates for task completion. However, according to Seybold, “If you ask them instead to provide ranges and likelihoods, they will willingly do so.” As a result, Liquid Planner works with probabilities instead of hard and fast due dates. It builds a normal curve around a date based on estimates by the project participants. It aggregates those probabilities to determine the likelihood of reaching milestones and completion dates. (Seybold and Carlson expect the next release of Liquid Planner will take probabilities into account for a series of dependent tasks.)

Seybold points out that listing only precise dates with no expressed uncertainties can result in projects with wildly inaccurate completion dates. If you carefully consider the probabilities of individual tasks, it can give you a much better picture of the likelihood of finishing a project by a specific date.

The second unique aspect of Liquid Planner is its focus on the social aspects of any given project. In traditional project management, the project manager owns the schedule -- period. He or she would hold regular status meetings in which individuals or groups would report progress against deadlines and milestones. Then the manager would adjust the completion dates as needed. Missed deadlines would reflect poorly on those who missed them. Since the project schedule is owned by the project manager, that person is the only one with write privileges to the project management software.

Working Together
That’s not how most projects run these days. Today’s projects are collaborative efforts, with participants working together informally. Most make their own decisions on the best way to move the project forward. There may be oversight by a project manager, but it’s definitely not the command-and-control type of oversight.

To support that type of management, Liquid Planner lets all project participants use the software as the project’s focal point. Besides hosting a schedule, the project site also acts as a wiki for project-related goals, opinions, ideas and an informal history. You can use it to make announcements to your team, send messages between team members and float ideas and strategies by the team.

The social component of Liquid Planner also serves another purpose. You can now do a true post mortem of a project. You and the other project participants can make actual observations and interactions at the time of specific tasks and events. One amusing adjunct to that is that Liquid Planner lets you delete items, but they remain in a trash area where you or others can undelete them. You can’t just delete and forget about your mistakes or rash comments.

Smooth Sailing
Since it’s easier to communicate among project participants, you will almost always be able to identify problems and bottlenecks early. Then you can correct them quickly and often informally. If you use Liquid Planner to its fullest interactive capacities, you’ll find that you’re using it as a blackboard, message center, trial balloon launch pad, and perhaps even social calendar.

The social focus of Liquid Planner really captured my attention, even more than the probabilistic scheduling that is near and dear to my mathematics-educated heart. Today’s 20-something professionals seem to thrive in a fast-paced and heavily collaborative environment. My take is that Liquid Planner is made for a young and fast-paced workforce.

Liquid Planner could use more features, such as an expanded collaboration model and better analysis tools, but as a pre-version 1.0 offering, it’s hitting the right marks. If you’re looking for ways to get your project teams to work together and communicate better, Liquid Planner could be a step in the right direction.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 03/05/2008 at 1:15 PM


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