Involving the Group in Project Planning

08 September, 2014

The type pf people in project teams tend to differ from industry to industry. In several instances, a Project Manager could have a team made up entirely of introverted people. In these cases, the advice given in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) is not very easy to apply. As part of the Develop Project Team process (which is in Project Human Resource Management, for those of you who have not studied for the PMP® exam), Project Managers are advised to get the team involved in planning activities, such as collecting requirements.

But how do you get input from a group of shy people? Often these attempts can fall flat on their faces, because no one is willing to contribute, or they become dominated by one personality. To get value from group participation, the Project Manager needs to employ what the PMBOK® Guide snappily terms “group creativity techniques”. Foremost among these is Brainstorming, which can be a disaster if not managed well.

If the Project Manager assembles the team and requests ideas for requirements, the room is likely to fall eerily silent. The question is too big; no one knows where to start. However, if the Project Manager has some preparatory work done on the requirements, the initial list can provide a useful launch pad for ideas. A Project Manager will get better results if s/he asks about specifics rather than abstracts. A team member is more likely to suggest something relating to a particular area, than to offer a generic suggestion. For instance, the Project Manager might explain that the new drug the team is to develop must meet the regulations in all African countries. If there are people on the team who have experience of the sorts of regulations required, they might be able to contribute by suggesting that aiming for U.S. FDA approval should cover all the different African standards.

Once the first idea is suggested, others follow quickly. The important part of Brainstorming is to record the ideas – not to criticize them, or prioritize them. An effective Brainstorming session is where one idea triggers another and team members spot connections between ideas that had not been obvious before. This is why a group is needed – this sort of synergy is impossible in one-to-one sessions. Interestingly, it is often the non-specialist who spots something interesting because s/he is looking at the area with fresh eyes.

However, the resulting collection of ideas is not a requirements list or a Work Breakdown Structure. After the Brainstorming session, we need to put order on the ideas and select the best ones. In large projects, where several Brainstorming sessions are required to cover the entire scope, we need to do some sort of Pareto analysis to reduce the number of ideas into something more manageable. The PMBOK® Guide recommends Affinity Diagrams, where the ideas are clustered under headings. This makes further processing of the ideas more manageable, creating a sort of Ideas Breakdown Structure.

Another way to structure the ideas is to use mind mapping. This is a similar concept to the Affinity Diagram, but allows more sophisticated relationships to emerge.

Including these techniques – Affinity Diagrams or Mind Maps – into the Brainstorming session can trigger more ideas as people can see emerging relationships in a graphical format. However, which ideas should be chosen and elaborated further?

The first point to make is that choosing and refining should be done in a separate session from the Brainstorming meeting. In Brainstorming, we want to capture all ideas, no matter how bizarre - one person’s wild suggestion could trigger a more sensible idea from someone else in the group. However, at some stage, the Project Manager needs to discard the non-viable suggestions and work on refining the remainder.

The Nominal Group Technique can be used to rank ideas according to their usefulness. This technique includes the problem identification and solution generation of Brainstorming, but also offers a voting step to prioritize ideas for further work. Before voting happens, the ideas are ordered – perhaps using Affinity Diagrams or Mind Maps – and duplicate ideas are removed. Then each team member is asked to give a short opinion on each idea and to rank it in order – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. The results are added together and the ideas with the lowest scores are selected for further consideration.

A drawback with the Nominal Group Technique is that the ranking is entirely subjective. To get a more objective picture, the Project Manager might develop a Multi-criteria Decision Analysis list. In other words, the Project Manager asks the team to rate each idea under a set of headings. For instance, requirements would need to be testable and measureable, so these criteria could be chosen, as well as areas such as cost and complexity.

Brainstorming is often associated with terms like “clean sheet” or “out of the box” thinking. However, it is vital that the Project Manager prepares carefully for a Brainstorming or Nominal Group Technique session. Just like any meeting, the agenda must be clear: we are here to generate more detailed requirements based on what the customer is looking for; we are here to identify solutions to this particular problem. Hopefully the ideas will come, but the first one will be difficult. The Nominal Group Technique recommends having the team prepare beforehand – present the problems and let their sub-conscious minds ponder on the issues before the meeting. This technique also suggests polling everyone on the team to get their ideas – shyness in group situations can stifle a lot of ideas.

As a Project Manager, you know the session is going to be a success when the team takes over and are generating ideas based on what they have heard already, creating new knowledge and spotting links that no one has seen before.

Velopi’s project management training courses cover Project Human Resource Management. If this area is of interest to you, our project management certification courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway for your convenience. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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