This article explains how I used best practice project management techniques to plan a 12,000-mile (19,000km) cycle tour around North America. This is my attempt to demystify project management, by the power of cycling! I have used PRINCE2 as an example, but I could easily have chosen other methodologies such as PMP or APMP.
The article starts by explaining how I applied each PRINCE2 principle, and then goes on to explain how I went through each PRINCE2 theme and process. I’ve structured it like this so you can see how easy it is to work through all aspects of project management, and how these principles, themes and processes can help, even when organising an adventure.
I know I could have just jumped on a plane and chanced it, but that’s really not me. I hope you’ll see from this article that by using a structured project management approach, the time and effort gone into preparation will mean more time for fun and adventure on the road.
I hope you learn something from this article, whether you’re interested in project management or simply planning a cycling adventure!
I am a PRINCE2, MSP and MoR Practitioner with a strong background in managing projects and programmes. I have a much longer background in cycling long distances! When I decided to circumnavigate Canada and the United States by bike, I approached the whole thing like a project. I read lots of books and blogs about people successfully winging it on long cycle tours, and promoting the virtues of just jumping on a bike and cycling. However, I’m not a naturally spontaneous person, and when I made my mind up about this trip, there was only one way I knew how to go about it. Much to the amusement of friends, family and colleagues…
Without really realising it, I have planned this cycle tour in more-or-less the way best practice project management suggests. For example, the PRINCE2 principles are:
|Continued business justification||I had an initial business case (for a cycling café) and have clear goals from this trip that I regularly monitor|
|Learn from experience||I’ve spent 18 months reading cycle touring books, blogs etc and speaking to anyone I can about cycle touring|
|Defined roles and responsibilities||My girlfriend (Ties) and I have taken responsibility for discrete outputs (such as the website and the route), to ensure the success of the project. And our relationship!|
|Managed by stages||The planning is broken down into clear stages; intelligence gathering, route, kit, training, mechanics, communications and delivery|
|Manage by exception||I am bound by clear time and financial tolerances, determined by professional commitments and financial constraints|
|Focus on products||There are critical outputs – such as my new bike and equipment – that must meet quality requirements and be delivered on time|
|Tailor to suit the project environment||I’ve foregone any of the usual project governance (such as a Project Board or an Assurance function), but paid close attention to the plan and the budget|
In the next seven sections I’ve briefly explained how I addressed each of the PRINCE2 themes. This was not a conscious effort, and I only realised I’d gone to this extent when so many people told me how organised the whole thing was.
Before I started my own business change consultancy (FieldsendC) I had grand ideas of opening a cycling café. I wrote a detailed business case, but decided against it in favour of setting up the business I now run. PRINCE2 would say you should write a business case to determine whether a project is “desirable, viable and achievable as a means to support decision making in its (continued) investment”. My business case performed this function as I concluded a cycling café did not deliver the outcome I required, or the expected benefits. So I optioneered and decide to establish a business instead. That has gone very well and afforded me the opportunity to plan this cycling trip.
Clearly I didn’t have a Project Board! Or a project team. Or did I? When I thought about who was involved it appeared more like a formal project than I realised. The majority of input was from suppliers, of which there were many that I had to rely on:
|Framebuilder||Donhou Bicycles||Design and build my bike for the trip|
|Local bike shops||London Bicycle Workshop, Velorution, Skinny Erics, London Bike Kitchen||Provide Ties’ bike and repairs during training, and bicycle maintenance knowledge|
|Online cycle retailers||Victor & Liberty, Always Riding, Wiggle, Spa Cycles, Evans Cycles, Sigma Sport, Urban Cycles, Tredz||Provide specialist cycle touring kit|
|Cycle manufacturers||Arkel, Café du Cycliste, Genesis Bikes, Vulpine, Garmin||Provide specialist cycle touring kit|
|Specialist online suppliers||Outback Trading, Bailies Coffee, Blacks, North Face, Ultralight Outdoor Gear||Provide specialist camping kit|
|Communication suppliers||Go Daddy, The Sign Builder, Fiverr, WordPress, MailChimp||Provide tools to promote the trip|
|Mapping providers||Bikemap, Google||Provide tools for creating a viable and efficient route that can be followed as we ride|
|Travel providers||Air Transat, Stena Line, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Sixt, PJ Hayman & Co||Provide flights to North America, ferry ride to the Netherlands for a training trip, van hire for storage of belongings, car hire for training and long stay travel insurance|
|Government organisations||US Department of State Consulate, US Embassy of London, Canadian Government||Provide US Visa and Canadian electronic travel authorisation (eTA)|
|Event organisers||Cycle Touring Festival||Provide an environment to test the kit and learn from other’s experiences|
|E-commerce||eBay||Provide a platform to sell unwanted belongings to fund the trip|
|Financial services||Michael Beaver & co, Hutt Professional||Accountancy and insurance broker|
Some of these suppliers were more important than others. For example, once I selected Donhou Bicycles to build my bike, I was restricted to this supplier for framebuilding. Conversely, if one of the many online cycle retailers didn’t stock some specialist cycle touring equipment, I could have chosen another retailer very easily.
In addition to all the suppliers, I was reliant on the goodwill and support of friends and family who gave up time to host us for overnight stays on training weekends. These stakeholders were not critical dependencies, as we could have selected alternative training locations, but they certainly relieved a great deal of stress and incentivised success!
Clearly I don’t have a Quality Management System or Quality Assurance function. I do have a Quality Management Strategy however; each output must have defined quality criteria. Take the route for example. It is essential to the trip that the route we take meets certain quality criteria:
|Criteria||How was this managed|
|Cycle-friendly||A dis-benefit of heading directly east from Toronto is we more-or-less follow the Trans-Canada Highway. To avoid busy sections, and those which cyclists aren’t allowed on, I checked the Trans-Canada Highway website cycle restrictions page, and the cycle restrictions page of every Canadian province we cycle through. I also looked at routes used by established cycle touring organisations.
The US route very closely follows three of the Adventure Cycling Association’s routes, so should be as cycle-friendly as we can hope for!
|Mappable||We are using a GPS device to navigate our way round. We will upload our route to the device and follow it like you would a TomTom in a car. The route therefore had to be mappable.|
|Paved||We are not taking expedition bikes that are capable of off-roading. Therefore the route needed to be on paved roads.|
|Facilities||We will be self-sufficient on our trip but wild camping will not always be an option due to regulations, security or bears! Therefore the route has been designed to (as much as possible) finish each day near a campsite or motel.|
|Hills||We’re not scared of hills! But we don’t want the whole thing to be up and down. I have avoided hills wherever possible, but are embracing them when they’ll enhance the experience, for example the Rockies and Big Sur.|
|Weather||I always wanted to complete a loop of North America but was wary of inevitable bad weather over the course of a year. The reason we are starting in Toronto, and heading anti-clockwise, is because summer is the best time of the year for the Canadian leg and winter the best time of the year for the San Diego to Florida stretch. There are also prevailing headwinds from the north along the Pacific Coast, so these needed to be avoided!|
Project management is all about controlling the delivery of discrete things (products / outputs) in an organised manner. When I decided to plan this trip I had some very clear products to define at the start (for example route and visas), and some that materialised through the lifecycle of the project (for example website and Ties’ training plan). In PRINCE2 terminology I needed to develop and manage stage plans to develop products:
|Discovery (initiation )||I visit a friend, leaf through a travel book and discover the Adventure Cycling Association’s Pacific Coast cycle route. An idea is born and I investigate the feasibility of a long distance cycle tour||· Mar 2014; Outline business case
· Feb 2015; Options long list
· Mar 2015; Budget
· Mar 2015; Initial risks
· Mar 2015; Initial plan
|Routemapping (delivery)||Planning the route, direction, start, intermediary and end points. Ensuring no day is too long or hilly. Making the route compatible with a GPS for navigation||· May 2015; Route plan
· Feb 2016; GPS map file
· Apr 2016; Interactive maps for website
|Communications (delivery)||Developing a multi-faceted approach to keeping in touch with friends and family during training and whilst en route. Promoting our trip on social media||· Mar 2016; Website
· Mar 2016; Instagram account
· Mar 2016; Twitter account
· Apr 2016; Newsletter
· May 2016; North American phone plan
|Kit (delivery)||Researching, purchasing and testing specialist cycling and camping equipment||· May 2016; Cycling and camping equipment
· June 2016; Bikes
|Mechanics (delivery)||Logistical and compliance activities, ranging from donation / loan of belongings, to sale of car and purchase of visa / insurance||· Nov 2015; Flights
· Feb 2016; Tenancy termination
· Mar 2016; Renew passports
· May 2016; US visa
· May 2016; Post redirection
· June 2016; Canadian eTA
· June 2016; Long stay insurance
|Training (delivery)||Physical training for extreme back-to-back distances and elevation gain. Mechanical training in bike maintenance and repair||· Nov 2015; Training plan
· Nov 2015; Homemade energy bars
· June 2016; Bike maintenance course
|The tour (delivery)||Cycling 12,000 miles (19,000km) around Canada and the US||· July 2016; depart Toronto
· October 2016; depart Vancouver
· December 2016; depart San Diego
· February 2017; depart Florida
· June 2017; arrive Toronto
As you may have gathered – if only from the fact I’m writing a project management article about a bike trip (!) – I’m a naturally risk averse person. Therefore, I love risk management. It intrigues me, and appeals to me in a slightly sadistic way. I also have to admit that I find risk management one of the hardest themes of project management, probably the hardest when it comes to programme management. But on this trip it was very easy and if you take anything away from this article I hope it’s how to manage risk. Here’s some of my risks and how I managed them:
|Gear supplier (Rohloff) insists on testing custom frame before supplying critical parts||Bike may not be ready in time for trip||I do not have a bike for the trip||Fallback (threat); change parts on my current bike to make it tour-ready||Closed; Rohloff approved the frame and I collected the bike in early June 2016|
|Entry to the US has become far stricter recently||US Visas may not be approved||We are restricted to 90 days cycling in the US (on ESTAs)||Avoid (threat); change route to spend less time in US||Closed; US Visas approved May 2016|
|Met Ties in May 2015||Ties could join me and share the adventure||Much more fun with two people!||Exploit (opportunity); develop training plan and obtain equipment for Ties||Closed; Ties is joining me and took responsibility for several outputs|
|We are cycling 19,000km over unknown terrain||We may damage our bikes||Cannot continue trip with current level of mechanical knowledge||Reduce (threat); buy the best possible equipment and attend bike maintenance course||Closed; spent time with qualified bicycle mechanics to learn as much about maintenance as possible|
|Cycling is inherently dangerous||We may become injured||Cannot continue trip due to serious injury||Accept (threat); if we are seriously injured we will use medical insurance or stop the trip altogether||Open; researching best long stay insurance|
|People are interested in our trip||We could write a book or establish a cycling business||We are able to make a living from a personal interest||Enhance (opportunity); we are building a social media presence||Open; we are writing a training diary and blog, which we continue on the trip|
There have been, and I know there will be, lots of changes in this project. I don’t have a configuration management strategy, or an issue and change control procedure, but I did go through the same options analysis as anyone managing a project. Here’s some examples:
|Change gears from standard (Shimano) drivetrain to internal hub system (Rohloff)||Less maintenance, stronger and touring-specific||Heavier, more expensive and much harder to fix if it does go wrong||Opted for Rohloff for durability|
|Change accommodation plan to spend more nights camping||Cheaper, opportunity to stay in scenic locations and greater flexibility||Less comfortable, require larger / heavier tent and wild camping maybe forbidden||Purchased a larger, heavier tent so we can camp more than initially planned and therefore make the trip as long as possible|
|Change route to visit friends and family en route||Visit friends and family||Increase risk of unsuitable cycling roads by deviating from recommended cycle routes||Mitigate risk of unsuitable roads by seeking local knowledge about deviations en route|
PRINCE2 defines it’s progress theme as measuring actual progress against performance targets to make decisions and take actions as required. When you’re managing for fun, and it’s your own budget you’re spending, progress becomes a theme you monitor like a hawk. These are the areas I monitored closely:
- Budget; as you’d expect, this is number one. I started with a budget based on what I thought the trip could cost, along with all the equipment required. I have closely monitored my capital expenditure (capex) and am currently under. I decided to change my budgeting strategy for operational expenditure (opex) as it’s unfeasible to know what my daily budget will be on the road. I know have a fixed price approach; if the trip is cheaper than expected I’ll travel longer, and if the trip is dearer than expected I’ll come back sooner. Simple!
- Training; when Ties agreed to join me, she asked me to develop a training plan for her, and monitor progress. I developed a plan that enabled me to monitor four criteria; distance cycled (increasing by five miles a month), weight carried (increasing by five kilos a month), hills climbed (increasing the gradient of climbs by three percentage points a month) and speed (increasing by 0.5mph a month). The aim was for Ties to comfortably cycle 70 miles a day, carrying 25 kilos, climbing 3,000ft at 14mph. Ties has blown everyone away with her development from cycling novice, to challenger for Lizzie Armitstead’s crown!
- Time; when I booked our flights in November 2015 it committed us to starting the trip on 3 July 2016. This left a lot to arrange, including some legislative arrangements (e.g. US Visas, apartment lease) where the timing was out of our hands. I plotted all the binary dates and worked backwards from these, focusing activities on these areas. This inevitably led to a delay in non-essential outputs (e.g. website, signs for bikes) but has ensured I’ve successfully monitored all priorities.
It’s quite rare that project management in the workplace rigidly follows the processes outlined in PRINCE2. That’s why the guidance encourages ‘tailoring’ the methodology to suit your needs. This trip was a unique project to manage, where I was without the benefit / burden of a Project Board or any independent governance / assurance. However, I still followed some of the principles of best practice process management:
- Starting up a project
- Outline business case. If I hadn’t written the outline business case I certainly wouldn’t be going on this trip, and I’d probably either still be in permanent employment or brewing flat whites for thirsty cyclists
- Lessons learnt. There is an incredible wealth of cycle touring knowledge online and in our libraries. If I hadn’t reviewed the lessons learned by others, I’m certain I’d be heading off ill-equipped or, worse still, not at all
- Initiating a project
- Creating the project plan. I created a milestone driven project plan showing dependencies. For example, renewing passports was a dependency of applying for US Visas. And a route plan was a dependency of obtaining GPS files for our cycle computer.
- Refining the business case. Having rejected my original ‘cycling café’ business case I created a detailed financial business case with the alternative outcome of undertaking a cycling adventure.
- Controlling a stage
- Reviewing risks. As stated earlier, I am monitoring risks very closely. Until last week I had an ongoing risk concerning the availability of my bike. Over the past few months I have considered many options for mitigating this risk – including delaying departure, and buying a completely different bike – but I concluded that the response I went for (adapting my current training bike) has the greatest influence on reducing impact of the risk consequence.
- Taking corrective action. There have been plenty of spanner(s) in the work requiring corrective action, most notably with Ties’ bike; the frame snapped! This was not a risk I had been monitoring and went straight to the top of the issue log. Aside from having to replace the most critical piece of equipment, the break had a major impact on training, requiring Ties to use an alternative, but unsuitable bike. The frame is being replaced but I now have a new major risk; Ties’ frame might snap in the remote Canadian Prairies or the tumbleweed strewn Texan deserts!
- Managing product delivery
- Execute a work package. The physical training aside, the most challenging product to deliver was the website. Ties had recently attended a web development course so led execution of this work package, and trained me on some aspects of web development. We are very pleased with the final results but have learned lots of lessons along the way and have de-scoped the website accordingly.
- Closing a project
- Project closure. If people find this article interesting and / or useful I’ll write another when I get back about how I applied the principles of project management to execution of the tour itself. And project closure!
I hope this article helps to demystify project management, using an interesting subject matter. I know our tour will not go exactly as planned, but the same project management techniques I have used to plan the tour will sit alongside my pump, chain splitter and spoke key as invaluable tools on the road. That’s why I find project management so interesting, and why I’ve relished using skills acquired in my professional life, on this adventure. Go ride a bike!