Has It Ever Been Done?

So, you're studying the cost-analysis breakdown. The benefits outweigh the negatives, but only barely. You're staring at your screen thinking, maybe, just maybe, someone's had to do something like this before.

One of the most significant factors in determining whether or not to embark on a project is whether or not it's been done before. You may be hoping there is a template or at least some documentation of similar projects that have already been completed. While you won't become famous, you might stand a better chance of success if you can model your project after a previous endeavor and put your special signature or touch on it.

One of the most important reasons for keeping accurate documentation of a project as you proceed is so that the next project team can have something to look at to see how it was done previously — for better or for worse. Evaluating previous projects is very important at any level of project management. If you're planning a convention, a conference, or a seminar for your company or organization, surely you will want to look at the previous conferences and seminars. Historical information is useful, so find out where prior events were held, what resources were used, who was on the planning team, and whether or not the project stayed within budget.

Sometimes businesses start on a project hoping they will generate the funding later. This can be very risky, as many dot-com companies have found out. The first phase of the project should be to create a marketing plan to gain the funding necessary to proceed.

When analyzing previous projects, you need to analyze all the elements involved with an open mind. You also need to consider the time, place, budget, and resources of that project in comparison to your project. If, for example, the last team was clearly understaffed and everyone had to put in significant amounts of overtime to complete the project, then you will know from the start that you'll need a bigger team — which might require more money in your budget. On the other hand, if it took a team of five people a year to complete a project in 1991, a decade later you may find that it could take five people half that amount of time. Thanks to the Internet, more efficient computer systems, and a host of technological developments, teams and projects tend to progress more efficiently. Conversely, if someone planned a wedding for $25,000 in 1988, that same wedding today might cost $45,000. Account for a variety of factors when looking at previous projects. Obviously, the most recent project that is most similar to yours will be the most informative.

Here are some other considerations:

Budget. Of course, costs are higher today than they were several years ago. Make sure the budget accounts for the rising costs and higher rates charged by experts in the field. Also, look at whether the previous project came in under or over budget. See where the last team cut corners and determine whether or not you can cut those same corners if necessary.

Personnel. All factors being equal (comparable budget based on today's figures, a reasonable time frame, and so on), you may need to account for changes in personnel. Do you have the same level of expertise available to you that the previous team had, or will you need to look for someone with more experience?

Leadership and management. Just because the last chief executive said no problem to holding the annual new-client luncheon in his backyard, doesn't mean the new chief executive wants you anywhere near his property. A new regime means new rules to follow.

External factors. The previous project manager imported materials for the project from a foreign country. Because of internal political strife, the country has stopped all exportation of the materials you need. You can't control rules, laws, jurisdictions, and other factors. If you're planning an outdoor event, external factors can be as basic as the weather. No matter how similar all of the available resources may be, some things are going to be out of your hands. Try to be aware of as many of these factors as possible and see if you can work around them.

Contingency plans. Did the previous project managers have backup plans or strategies? Sometimes these are not included in the documentation if they were not implemented.

Turnover problems and conflicts. You may not be able to foresee who will leave halfway through a project or what problems or conflicts are likely to arise. However, if you see a trend that developed during the previous project you may be forewarned as to where the problem areas lie. If some of the same individuals are involved, you'll know ahead of time which people did not work well together. This can range from competitive sales reps to sibling rivalry among your kids. You'll be able to pay closer attention to issues where potential conflicts lie as identified by evaluating the documentation of previous projects.

When evaluating a previous project, you should also look at the subsequent results. Did retail sales increase after the company took its business onto the Internet? How long did it take for the benefits to appear? Will that same time frame work for your project, or do you need faster results to stay competitive? Treasurers usually have last year's budget handy when making up the current annual budget. Accountants have the previous tax return nearby when working on the current return. You too can benefit from having the documentation of previous projects handy, whether they are yours, your predecessor's, or ones you've researched that have similar key characteristics. Remember, no two projects will be exactly the same as long as human beings are involved. Try to use a close match to guide you.

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