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Tools to Help Accelerate Project Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anita Larson
October 23, 2015

Nothing is as exciting or stressful as the receipt of a large grant or other complex project for which you are responsible to implement. At this point in my career, I have been involved in at least two large, well-funded projects that required ambitious objectives for long-term work involving multiple levels of my organization. In each instance, my background in planning and evaluation has helped me move forward. Two simple tools have been particularly instrumental in my ability to wrestle with implementation and stay on track.

Brainstorm and Model

Implementing a complex project requires a systematic view of the work that will be required in relation to long-term objectives. Funders may set some of these objectives for you but they are often broad or articulated at a very high level (e.g., reducing recidivism or increasing school readiness). This often contributes to the anxiety felt when embarking upon a large project because the work seems overwhelming.

An important first step is gathering your team around these high-level objectives and brainstorming ways to determine whether your intended work will contribute to or achieve these objectives. Sometimes this will also mean involving front-line staff and asking them how they know if they have been successful and when they have made a difference in the short or long term. Simply sitting your team down and asking them “what do we want to accomplish?” and “what are we obligated to accomplish? “ can get this processed started.

Graduate public administration students or individuals who have taken basic program planning or evaluation training will be familiar with the logic model. Some grants also require applicants to “model the logic” of the activities they propose. If you have never created a logic model, it is simply as the name states: a logical representation of work and outcomes. Technically, you can model any plan—a vacation, a wedding or an intervention to reduce classroom disciplinary problems in third-graders. The WK Kellogg Foundation continues to offer one of the best guides on creating logic models and offers users a variety of formats.

To support project planning, using a basic four-part logic model should suffice. In this model, the following four steps can help project planning teams clarify the work and begin building timelines and benchmarks:

  • Inputs (resources)
  • Activities (the work)
  • Short-term Outcomes (evidence, indicators and measures)
  •  Long-term Outcomes (how your work will change the world or community)

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In this very simple example, a new grant has been received. The intention of the grant is to increase data use in the field of early childhood in order to boost program quality and school readiness. Note that the long-term outcome of boosting school readiness is the overarching objective of data use. It is always important to make sure the true end goal of all work is clear.

Identify Project Plan Components

Because the logic model contains short- and long-term outcomes, it can support the identification of performance measures and benchmarks for progress. These components can be pulled into project plans (e.g., using applications such as MS Project) and identified as milestones. The activities identified in the logic model can help project leaders understand theories of change by creating connections between what is done in the work and the likely outcomes. (Consider also checking in with the research in your area of work to be sure your activities and service model align with expected outcomes and your model is implemented well).

Shown below is one component from the logic model example. “Data is used to improve program performance” has been added into the project plan. Note that activities and resources have also been brought down to the project plan from the model and additional details have been added. Most project management software applications or hard-copy worksheets accommodate resource inclusion and tracking. In some cases, you can even assign percentages of effort to individual staff in a formal project plan. A logic model helps with any level of specificity you need to support your project planning.

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Setting aside the time to create a logic model and move components of that model to project planning tools can help you manage a complex project and communicate with leadership, stakeholders and funders about the work you are doing each day. Project plans can lay out work in multiple formats to support managing teams and busy calendars. Project planning resources are available online and through a variety of consulting resources. Applications like MS Project, Excel or free online sources such as Smartsheet are quite intuitive and basic functions can be self-taught.

Planning well can not only reduce the anxiety of launching a complex project but is also essential to fulfilling our commitments to utilizing scarce resources wisely. Creating clear connections between work and outcomes also reinforces transparency and enhances staff sense of mission.


Author: Anita M. Larson, DPA, is a part-time faculty member in the public administration program at Hamline University. Email: [email protected].

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5 Responses to Tools to Help Accelerate Project Management

  1. Roman Benesch Reply

    October 29, 2015 at 3:45 am

    Good primer. May also serve to remind more experienced project managers where to put their focus :)

  2. James Butt Reply

    October 23, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Not a blaze of new insight, but an excellent summary of a very important approach to project management. I watch too many not even get this far, even PMPs. PM is not that hard, but it’s VERY easy to get wrong. This article is a good bit of help.

    • Anita Larson Reply

      October 29, 2015 at 9:15 am

      James, absolutely correct that this is practical stuff! Glad that you found it to be a good summary of key points. Thanks for reading.

  3. chuck georgo Reply

    October 23, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Under brainstorm and model, the table is missing a column for “outputs” – the sequence, ala GPRA is:

    1. inputs (resources)
    2. activities
    3. outputs
    4. near-term outcomes
    5. long-term impact

    Thank you…r/chuck

    • Anita Larson Reply

      October 29, 2015 at 9:18 am

      Chuck,

      You are absolutely correct that the short-, or near-term outcomes column is missing from the traditional logic model. However, in working with teams brainstorming implementation this four-part model seems to work equally well to get staff moving on identifying tasks. In planning, the outputs and near-term outcomes can be discussed together and then parsed out later when creating benchmarks and performance metrics (which this article does not address of course). I thank you for reading and commenting!

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