The Pioneer Post

The Pioneer Post is a resource for online students that provides tips and information about distance education.


Monday, March 26, 2007

We continue to invite our distance learning students to contribute writings that describe what their life as a distance learner is like.

Today's contribution is from Artem Veremey, a student in UW-Platteville’s online Master of Engineering program.

A Week in the Life of a Distance Learner - Part 1
By Artem Veremey

My weekend of March 16, 17, and 18 was full of events. I attended Neal Whitten's seminar on Friday and the Project Management Institute (PMI) Region 7 Leadership Summit on Saturday and Sunday. Both the seminar and the leadership summit were hosted by the PMI Los Padres chapter. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Padres chapter, I had my hands full helping out with organizational issues for both of these events.

Whitten is a great speaker! If you have a chance to attend any of his seminars, you should. The subject of his seminar was "No-Nonsense Advice for Successful Projects." Whitten shared the practical knowledge that he gained throughout his 35-year-long career in project management.

The study of almost any trade can be divided into three branches: (1) normative or solution-based (i.e., standards), (2) rational or method-based (i.e., analytical approaches), and (3) heuristic or experience-based (i.e., lessons learned). In the course ENGRG 7840, Systems Engineering Management, offered through the Master of Science in Engineering program at UW-Platteville, you can study in detail normative, rational, and heuristic branches of systems engineering and architecture. As for project management, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) establishes normative or solutions-based approach. Whitten's seminar focused on project management heuristic.

Whitten started the seminar by asking, "What do you think is the most important asset of your company?" Attendees suggested people, customers, and shareholder value. Whitten's response to this question was "leadership." A company may have excellent employees (not to mention that companies downsize all the time), devoted customers, and great shareholder value, but still fail due to lack of leadership. Indeed, leadership is what brings employees together to deliver results, builds customer base, and grows shareholder value making a company ultimately successful. Whitten encouraged everyone to work relentlessly on the leadership skills, because he believes that leadership is the most important characteristic of a project manager. Whitten suggested starting every project by establishing a domain of responsibility and guiding all project efforts to devise and implement the best (not just a consensus) solution. In Whitten's view, benevolent dictatorship is the most effective leadership style.

Throughout the seminar, Whitten brought up numerous points about practical project management, but let me focus on particular two that I found especially interesting.

First, in Whitten's opinion, the most effective way to manage project tasks is to focus on the top three priorities and work on them daily until completion. Every project manager should be able to name his top three priorities for each project at any point in time or risk loosing his credibility. The rule of top three priorities equally applies to studies at UW-Platteville. My top three for the week were completing the second exam for the Statistics course, writing the mid-term exam for the Design for Manufacturability course, and working on the Life-Cycle Assessment project for the Optimization course. I tried to work on these priorities every day, if only for a short period of time.

Second, Whitten believes that the rolling-wave planning [.pdf] is the most effective scheduling technique for generic projects. One of the required course in the Master of Science in Engineering program's curriculum at UW-Platteville -- PM 7010, Project Management Techniques I -- includes an overview of the most commonly used scheduling techniques such as the Critical Path Method (CPM), Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), and Critical Chain method (CCPM). I recommend taking PM 7010 as early in your program as you can.

Rolling-wave model is only discussed briefly in the textbooks, as it is by far the most simplistic. Simple, however, does not mean ineffective. Practitioners keep rolling-wave planning in their active arsenal of techniques. For example, Professor Jerry Perone, who taught the PM 7010 class I took, made a special note about the rolling-wave planning in one of the class assignments.

In the rolling-wave model, you identify major project milestones and estimate the time required to complete all of them, but commit only to the first milestone. After the fist milestone has been reached, you re-evaluate the timeline based on current project performance and commit to the next milestone. You repeat this process until the last milestone has bee reached. Surprisingly enough, this simple process has been known to produce superior results.

The rolling-wave planning can also be applied to your studies. Start working on your assignments ahead of time and just work them through step-by-step. Remember, procrastination is the worst enemy of a project manager and a student. Revisit your assignment several times on different days to make your self-evaluations more thorough and objective.

If you want to learn more about project management heuristics, please consider reading Whitten's book.



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