My PM “Piece de Resistance”

Have you ever thought back on your project management career and find that one project that just rings true?  That it was because of your efforts, ideas and fortitude that you were able to motivate the team and through a “Team Effort” bring the project to a successful completion.

Well, I looked back at a troubled project that I was brought in to rescue.  The client laughed when I asked if I could see the last 3 months of status reports, it had been months since one went out.  The project plan had not been updated in the same period of time.  I thought to myself that this is definitely a ship without a rudder.

It was time to go “Old School” on the team.  My favorite project management approach is to take brown butcher paper and tape it on a wall (or in this case I used several of the large flip chart pages taped together).  I brought the team in to the room and had them sit down.  I told them that this is a team building event.  It was up to us to bring this project in on time and together we were going to work out the details.

I told them that we were going brainstorm and come up with all the tasks that needed to be done and that I was going to write them down on multi-colored 3 inch post-it® and stick them on the wall.  A different color would represent the different process streams (e.g. light blue = functional, green = technical, purple = training, orange = communications, magenta = conversion, etc.)  Each post-it was then had a line 2/3rds the way down and then again 2/3 the way across that to form 3 sizes of boxes on each post-it®.  In the large box I would write down the task that needed to be completed.  In the second largest box I would write down the “responsible party” – this is the person reporting back to me on the status of the task and not necessarily the person or team doing the task).  In the small box I would ask for the duration of the task and not the effort.  Knowing that many of the people on the project had “other” work to do, I was more concerned with how many days a task would take to complete (e.g. an 8 hour task being done in 3 days due to other obligations).

After the team brainstormed all of the multicolored tasks, I put a yellow post-it® on a 90 degree angle on the left side of the assembled flip chart paper and wrote the word “Start” and another on the right side of the paper and wrote “Finish”.  I looked at all of the colored notes and asked the question “if we were to start today, what would be the very first thing we could do?”  After hearing a couple of the responses that represented different process streams, I took each of those notes and placed them to the right of the “Start”.  I then drew lines from the “Start” task to these tasks.  I asked “are there any other tasks that could be started.  And a few more suggestions went up.  I then repeatedly asked “what is next?”  I would put the task up on the sheet and draw the appropriate lines.  Of course, one task could have several lines drawn from it to represent the one-to-many relationships or the possibility of many task lines to one task (many-to-one).

At first I saw some confused faces, I could tell that they did not know exactly what we were doing, but before long, I had several people up and putting the tasks on the board and drawing lines to make the connections.  I had them write on the lines if the relationships between the tasks are F/S (Finish to Start), S/S (Start to Start), or F/F (Finish to Finish).  Before long we had our network diagram completed.

I then had everyone leave while I then put the network diagram that we just completed into MS Project to determine the critical path as well as the estimated completion date.  We then met the next day and I had the project plan up on the projector with the critical path highlighted.  I said this part will require some more attention to detail.  Our “plan” had us finishing in over 60 days and I told them our goal is to compress the plan to what is truly realizable.  We looked at the critical path at the largest duration task.  I asked if we could make this in 10 days versus 13 days.  The conversion team agreed to this.  Recomputed the plan and now we took a look at the next biggest duration task . . .and so on and so on.  We finally got the plan down to 45 days and we all agreed that this was realistic.  With big smiles, we had our plan and I managed to that plan.

 Everyone enjoyed the experience, they felt committed to the project, and we used that same process for the detailed cutover plan.  We put the cutover plan on the wall of the “War Room” and would put a “/” through the post-it® when we started the task and an “X” when we completed the task.  Everyone could visually see where we stood on the cutover process, what the next task to be done and if we were on schedule.  This type of planning works and I try to use it on all of my projects. 

I was proud of the project, the team, and myself to make it the success story that it was.



Filed under PM Tips and Tricks, Program Management

11 responses to “My PM “Piece de Resistance”

  1. Harry Abell


    I love the brown paper idea. I have found times when the client didn’t have a whiteboard available and your brown paper idea will take care of that.

    • gcimmarrusti


      Whether you use butcher paper or even just tape a 5 by 2 matrix of Flip Chart paper works really well. All the best to you buddy, let me know if I can be of any help to you.


  2. Angela Waner

    I did something very similar several times.

    I have taped large sheets of white paper to the wall. Then sprayed the paper with adhesive.

    Then we brainstorm around index cards which are placed/moved on the paper.

    • gcimmarrusti


      The process works on Project Planning as well as Process Improvement. I like to take the process with different colored cutouts (representing the flow diagram shapes and use it with the project team to define “Current State” processes and then reflect what “Future State” will be. “Old School” processes (non-computer) still work in today’s powerpoint/visio era. Not that I am against those techniques. I actually prefer computer Mind Mapping to brainstorm ideas, project charters, etc. A good project manager worth his or her salt will use all the tools in their toolbox to drive a project. All the best and thank you for the post.

  3. Fran Steele

    Greg, in addition to the mechanics of the brown paper exercise to develop a network diagram, your story also illustrates how you quickly and creatively engaged a team that you had been called in from outside to lead. You’ve described the process really well. What was the outcome – did the team deliver to the schedule they developed? Best regards, Fran

    • gcimmarrusti

      Yes, we were ready on schedule. The client decided to wait, due to their international operations, for 2 weeks to allow their counterparts additional time to get their data ready for conversion. But we were ready to make the original date. The additional time did allow us though to make a very detailed cutover plan using the same method.

  4. Penny

    I think this demonstrates a really great way of re-energising a project team that has lost its way. Sounds like everyone bought into the task at hand and having visual targets really helped to accelerate the project to achieve completion.

    • gcimmarrusti

      Penny, that was it exactly. I am a very visual person and being able to see the tasks, in color, and connected by the lines brought the project to a realization that it could be done and that managing to the critical path was truly adopted by the team.

  5. Sheridan

    Loved reading your success story, Greg. I use a similar approach to produce project plans for teams.

    I find it particularly useful for teams that are unfamiliar with project management approaches and/or who may be initially resistant to MS project and other software tools in the belief that they are bureaucratic. This visual way (and most of us are visual people) of building a plan enables people to really understand what planning is all about without them being phased/distracted by the software tools.

    Using this approach I find that not only is a project plan produced but a “shared” plan is produced that is “owned’ by the project team and not the project manager. Absolutely necessary in my view as they are the people who need to deliver against the plan. They use their own language to describe the task and by putting their names forward they are taking the first step to being accountable for delivery.

    I have picked up a couple of alternate angles in your article which I will try, so many thanks. My approach is to get everyone to indivdually brainstorm tasks to complete the project and then we build the plan together against a plotted timeline on flip charts and focussing on completion dates. A second pass is subsequently undertaken to put in start dates and complete dependancies that have started to emerge with the first pass.

    I suppose at the end of the day the beauty of all these ideas is that we can modify our approaches based on the people and the organisation we are working with.


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