Beta Man

A Sea Change for Project Management

The technology is no longer just about command and control.

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 to 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's 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 www.liquidplanner.com. It's based on Microsoft ASP.NET technologies, and is intended to be offered as a hosted service. It also uses Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) technologies. At least in beta, it appears reasonably responsive to user actions.

Careful Consideration
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 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.

Social Aspects
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 holds regular status meetings in which individuals or groups report progress against deadlines and milestones. Then the manager adjusts the completion dates as needed.

But 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 among 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.

Smooth Sailing
Because 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 a social calendar.

The social focus of Liquid Planner really captured my attention, even more than the probabilistic scheduling that's 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.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.

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