I’d write less, but there wasn’t time in the schedule

This month’s Managing Up post “You Want How Much Done? By When?” introduces scheduling fundamentals for contract #tech-communications workers.

Work Breakdown SchedulePatty at Steyer Associates reported that their research showed that ~300 words was the right size for a blog post. So I had to pare from the 950 words I’d already drafted. I’m providing the whole article here—since scheduling for a program manager is a whole discipline. A 300-word peek won’t give you much insight into a manager’s compulsive, continuous thinking about schedules.

This topic is of interest if you are anywhere in your technical communications career where you need a deeper understanding of the scheduling processes.

What’s in the Project? Understanding Work Packages

A key set of tasks for program manager success occur back in the Project Launch tasks:

  • Write and gain approval of the functional and technical specification.
  • Create work-package definitions for the tasks to be completed.
  • Define, manage, and correct the project schedule.

Whether a project uses a “waterfall” or “agile” management methods—or some combination—the project manager needs a comprehensive and detailed definition of the work tasks to be undertaken. The detailed definition of the work tasks allows the manager to:

  • Confirm staffing and related assignments
  • Coordinate deliverables and cross-dependencies with other teams
  • Set the schedule
  • Set quality and quantity metrics

Work Packages and Content Strategy

“Content strategy” and “content management” have passed from buzz words to being key concepts that tech-comms professionals often need to discuss in interviews and on their resumes. In her The Benefits of Content Strategy blog post, Shawn Prenzlow provides a good introduction to content strategy, with links to good resources for understanding the discipline.

Where does “work package breakdown” fit in overall content strategy processes? Typically project leadership will have identified the overall content quantity and quality goals for a particular project, including providing a budget and staffing. Often, the high-level project milestones are defined in concert with other project teams (such as Development and Marketing teams for software projects).

With these general goals and milestones, the project team leader (or PM) has to develop the detailed schedule for meeting milestones and delivering on the quality and quantity goals.

Work Breakdown Schedule

Many scheduling PMs formally use the work breakdown schedules [WBS] method, as practiced under the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional [PMP] discipline. Not all PMs use this formal approach, but even an informal approach to scheduling has to consider in detail:

  • What’s in the package? A work package is the lowest level of deliverable or work component in one collection of the overall project tasks. For a technical communications work package, this includes an estimate of new versus revised content and the level of technical difficulty.
  • What it’s going to take? How much work (of what skill set) will a task require? In PMP terms, this is Level of Effort [LOE]. For a technical communications work package, this includes all aspects of creating text, art, and multimedia content and the required editorial and production support required.

Here are some resources and templates for learning more about work breakdown schedules, especially focusing on the formal approach taught in PMP:

Time Estimates and Scheduling

Most experienced content managers apply rules of thumb for estimating the time required for specific project. This might include general estimates such as “0.5 day per new UI input box” for new help topics, or “3 pages [or 1500 words] per day for new developer help topic.” True planning will include more than just rules of thumb.

When the PM is working on detailed time estimates, all these dimensions must be considered:

  • A comprehensive list of content deliverables, including estimated size of each deliverable, and how much new content is proposed.
  • The human skill set required to complete each task.
  • Availability of tools and other non-human resources required.
  • Human resource availability—which staff members have the required skill sets? What are the gaps?
  • Expected difficulty of specific tasks.
  • Expected duration for completing specific tasks (typically expressed in person-days).
  • Expected start and end dates for each content development tasks, accommodating cross-team dependencies and overall project milestones.

Mapping all of these factors might be done on a spreadsheet or in a project tracking tool like Microsoft Project. The project details might be output to an issue tracking system, such as Team Foundation Server, and might be represented on a Gantt chart, for a clear picture of whether resources are over saturated and to show the critical path for the project.

Your Role in Task Definition and Schedule Details

As a contract worker on a technical communications projects, you might arrive on the project after the deliverables and the schedule are set, so that it might seem that you are performing in a framework over which you have no control. However, even if you are not specifically invited to offer feedback on the completeness and accuracy of the work breakdown and schedule, you can—and should—provide your manager with specific information to help the project meet milestones:

  • Provide accurate, up-to-date information about how long it takes to complete specific tasks.
    Especially for early milestones, this can help your manager identify whether the correct time has been allocated for each related work task. Your accurate information about the time it takes to complete tasks can help your manager course-correct for what can be achieved within each milestone.
  • Provide early insight into any missing task definitions, duration estimates, or “difficulty” of tasks.
    Especially when your role is to create new content—for example, new APIs in developer documentation or new user interface elements in end-user web applications—changes made by cross-dependent teams might affect how much work you need, how many revisions at milestones, and so on.Again, the sooner you can identify changes or requirements for additional tasks, the better information your manager has for course-corrections in the schedule and milestone deliverables.

Upcoming

This is part of a series for contract technical communications professionals on how your project manager might think about program management activities. Future topics:

  • Creating mechanisms for tracking tasks and schedule, and monitoring changes.
  • Completing final projects tasks, with a post-mortem.

Send me comments and questions so that I can address your key interests and fears.

Image is from  Garry L. Booker for the public domain. Some text, an exemplary WBS for a custom bicycle project, is from the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures (Second Edition), ISBN 1-933890-13-4, and employed under fair use.

About anniepearsonOK

Author of the Rain City series, managing editor of Jugum Press, and writer/project manager for eclectic technical communications projects.

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