Early Childhood Systems Building Resource Guide: Project Management
When thinking about early childhood systems from a state or territory perspective, the broader system is composed of individual programs (child care, Early Head Start, Head Start, home visiting, prekindergarten, and so forth) that collaborate and coordinate with varying degrees of success. Within the system, project management policies, practices, and skills are essential to a well-run early childhood system as states or territories create or revise major programs or policies.
This chapter of the Systems Building Resource Guide provides an overview of key concepts of project management as an essential tool for creating a thriving early childhood system. It provides the context for project management within the early childhood system, an overview of the phases of project management at a high level, and some examples of project management tools. Additionally, this guide features examples of states with strong project management practices. Project management within the context of state and territory early childhood programs is a focus throughout the guide.
Project Management: An Essential Part of Implementation
The Roadmap for Optimizing Child Care and Development Fund Supplemental Funding Using a Systems Approach outlines the three major steps for states or territories to utilize Child Care and Development Funds (CCDF) using a systems approach:
- Planning with Engagement
- Documentation and Evaluation for Sustainability
Although project management could be used within any of those steps, it comes into play most directly in implementation. “Program Design and Implementation,” of the Systems Building Resource Guide provides an in-depth look at the theoretical underpinnings of implementation science and dives into the National Implementation Research Network’s “Implementation Drivers,” which are necessary components to building functioning systems.
Project management falls into all three Implementation Drivers, outlined below:
- Leadership: Leaders within the organization set the vision from which programs and projects are born. Leaders set expectations and give direction for how projects will be managed, accounted for, and supported. Strong leaders have also mastered the skill of delegating authority to staff within projects to avoid bottlenecks that can arise if high-level approval is required at every small step of the project. Additionally, leaders champion projects in ways big and small to both provide resources and celebrate small wins that support team morale.
- Organizational Support Systems: Project management works within and among several organizational support systems. These systems are the policies, procedures, tools for work (software, hardware, applications), and data systems used for decisionmaking that allow an organization to run smoothly. In project management, policies and procedures impact the project structure, reporting, and approvals. Scheduling and project management applications come into play in the day-to-day work, while decision-supporting data systems could be the subject of a project (for example: through creation or revision of the data system) or used to inform the output or outcomes of the project.
- Staff Competency: Having the right people, with the right skill sets, in the right roles is critical for successful project management. This applies not only for the person with the project manager title, but also for all staff assigned to contribute, such as subject matter experts (SMEs) or software developers. This means the project needs to have both the right technical skills to accomplish the task at hand but also staff with management and soft skills to move the work forward through the existing organizational support systems to obtain buy-in and approval from leadership.
Project Management Triangle
In general, project management planning and implementation is guided by three main forces within the project management triangle: cost, quality, and time.
The project management triangle shows that, for any project, if there is a constraint in one point of the triangle, the other two must compensate for that constraint. For example, Ava is assigned to test an upgrade to a state or territory’s quality rating case management system, and the testing will take 200 hours. However, the deadline for testing is in one month. Ava only has 160 hours of working time available. So, using the project management triangle, some options would be:
- Increase the number of hours per week Ava works and pay her overtime (timeline remains intact, cost increases, quality may remain the same if Ava can sustain the extra hours of working without being burned out)
- Assign an additional tester to work on the project (quality and timeline remain intact, cost increases)
- Decrease the number of testing hours needed on the project (timeline and cost remain intact, quality may decrease)
In any of these scenarios, a change in one part of the triangle typically necessitates a response in one or both of the other two to accommodate the change.
State Examples: Preschool Development Grant: Birth through Five
In many states or territories, project management occurs in all three ways described on the previous page. Preschool Development Grant: Birth through Five (PDG B-5) project management staff in North Carolina are hired as time-limited employees of the state to manage that discrete project. However, their work is integrated with program staff to ensure the sustainability of the activities within the grant after the sunset of the PDG B-5 funding.
For PDG B-5 in Georgia, the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) hired several time-limited positions to manage the project logistics and streams of work. For past time-limited grants such as the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Grant, DECAL was able to convert some of the grant-funded positions to permanent staff who became part of the ongoing structure that was built under the grant. When DECAL took over child care subsidy eligibility, they contracted with an external entity to support project management. This was a collaborative partnership, and DECAL staff were included in day-to-day project management, with the third entity helping to manage logistics. .
Special Considerations for Project Management in States or Territories
Within states or territories, project management is undertaken in a variety of ways, including those outlined below.
- Program manager as project manager: Project management is often conducted by program managers as part of their daily activities. If asked, program managers may not identify themselves as “project managers,” but they are, indeed, doing project management tasks to accomplish their work. This most often happens when a program goes through a change, or a new function or feature is added to an existing program. In this case, the program manager may benefit most from the planning and implementation skills outlined in this chapter but may not utilize the more formal portions of the work like charters, scopes of work, and so forth.
- Project managers hired for a discrete project: In these cases, states or territories hire an outside consultant to manage a specific project. This may be the result of a new or limited-time funding source like the Preschool Development Grants Birth through Five (PDG B-5) or Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Grant. This may also happen if a state or territory is undergoing large-scale change in a program, such as overhauling their child care subsidy policy and programming.
- Project managers with specific skillsets: This type of project management occurs most frequently in information technology. Due to the specialized skillset needed for managing technical projects and the need for system interoperability, program managers or state or territory Lead Agency staff may not feel comfortable managing some types of projects. In these cases, the state or territory can bring on a project manager through:
- Hiring the person as state or territory Lead Agency staff
- Contracting with the individual for project management on one specific project or for a portfolio of work
- Contracting with a vendor for a specific project and including project management services with the scope of work
In any given Lead Agency, one or all the methods may be used, depending on the budget and requirements of the program and Lead Agency. In some cases, it is less expensive to contract for services if a skillset for the project is highly specific and won’t be needed after the life of the project. However, building long-term knowledge and continuity in information technology staff, including project managers, can save money in the long run. For example, if technical staff are contracted to create a data system to track participants in early childhood programs across state or territory agencies, and they move on to other positions after the system is functional, then when the system needs modification a year or two later, the institutional knowledge of the technical staff will be lost, and work may need to be repeated by Lead Agency or contracted staff.