Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, famously declared, “Plan your work, then work your plan.” Those words underscore the importance of good project management—and are music to any project manager’s ear! Managing projects can be challenging, especially if they span multiple divisions, time zones, and even countries. When project management is done wrong, it can destroy careers (or even companies!). But when it’s done right, it can help vault you into senior leadership.
Short of obtaining your project management professional certification (a great idea, by the way), you can also develop your project management skills by following these 10 tips. They can help you improve your ability right now to lead projects to successful completion!
1. Define the goal in absolute terms.
“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”
—Tony Robbins, motivational speaker and author
Defining what’s “in” and what’s “out” forms the foundation of your project plan and provides direction to the various teams and departments involved in its implementation. Before the project starts, make sure everyone understands what the goals are (including deliverables and their requirements). Once the project is under way, keep teams focused on its primary objectives and don’t let them get distracted by ancillary issues that can often pop up on large, complicated projects.
2. Understand the tradeoffs between performance, time, and cost.
“You may want it good, fast, and cheap. Pick two!”
—Larry Richman, author of Improving Your Project Management Skills
A change to one limitation affects the other two. Even when a project has unlimited funding, for example, money can go only so far: eventually, the project specifications will require sacrifices in time or performance.
3. Define quality expectations.
“Quality is everyone’s responsibility.”
—W. Edwards Deming, statistician
Failure to meet quality standards can have serious negative consequences for your company (just ask Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors). In addition, the cost of preventing mistakes is typically much lower than the cost of correcting them. Defining quality constraints (in areas such as meeting stakeholders’ needs, aligning with company culture, targeting customer needs, and providing accurate and consistent results) before the project begins will ensure that teams understand that how goals are delivered is just as important as meeting them.
4. Pick the most qualified team members.
“The P in PM is as much about ‘people management’ as it is about ‘project management.’”
—Cornelius Fichtner, project management professional (PMP) trainer
If you’ve every managed a project, you know that many team members are selected because of their availability—not their qualifications. But if you want your project to succeed, you must have the best people working on it. Before picking your people, create a list of the skills needed for each task or group of tasks, then evaluate each possible team member’s skill set against those lists. You should also evaluate each individual’s ability to learn new things and work with others (critical attributes for anyone who’s part of a large team).
Once you’ve selected your team, clearly define each person’s roles and responsibilities (including time frames for their completion). Although availability should not be the determining factor, it is still important, so make sure that key team members’ priorities have been adjusted so they can give their best work to your project.
5. Determine communication tactics for your team.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
—George Bernard Shaw, playwright
Many project problems can often be traced to poor communication—or the lack of any communication plan at all—within project teams. Project leaders typically spend 90% of their time focused on communication efforts both within the team and external to the team, and without a good strategy in place those efforts might be wasted. Defining communication expectations before the project kickoff puts communication on the project schedule and ensures that team members stay fully informed right from the beginning. More importantly, a good communication strategy enables early identification of problems—and their solutions.
An effective strategy addresses these questions:
- Who will play what role in the team’s communication strategy?
- What will be communicated within the team and when?
- Where and how will the team communicate?
- What media will be used?
- How does the communication plan change if team members are spread across the USA (or are scattered around the world)?
6. Identify risks and constraints.
“Working ten-hour days allows you to fall behind twice as fast as you could working five-hour days.”
—Issac Assimov, science-fiction author
The project leader’s goal is to anticipate what can go wrong two or three steps down the road and mitigate those issues before they arise. He or she must also manage customer expectations, because risks (including those associated with ensuring the availability of resources such as employees, vendors, suppliers, technologies, and equipment) occur throughout the life of a project. Although throwing additional monies at resource constraints can be an option (see the second item on this list), even that strategy will eventually be self-limiting.
7. Hold team members accountable.
“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
—Stanislaus Lezczynski, 18th-century king of Poland
To make it easier to hold team members accountable for deliverables and timelines, get their buy-in on these issues before the project starts. Connect their involvement to the larger project and to the success of the division (or company), and make it clear that you’ll regularly report the team’s progress to each member’s manager and to senior management. Give feedback to any team member who fails to meet deadlines—don’t ignore the problem or fill the gaps yourself. If his or her performance doesn’t improve, be persistent in pursuing a solution (which may involve escalating the issue to higher-ups), particularly if the problem will affect the timeline or other project-performance requirements.
8. Communicate regularly with stakeholders.
“If it is not documented, it doesn’t exist. As long as information is retained in someone’s head, it is vulnerable to loss.”
—Louis Fried, author of Managing Information Technology in Turbulent Times
On projects with multiple stakeholders, a tight project schedule can make it difficult to keep track of who needs to be updated about what. To determine who should be informed as the project progresses, use a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, or Informed) matrix and stick to a consistent, easy, quick messaging system for project communications.
- Responsible: The person or role who does the work to complete the task.
- Accountable: The person who signs off on the work that the responsible person produces.
- Consulted: Those people whose input is used to complete the task. (Communication with this group is typically two-way.)
- Informed: Those people who are kept informed of the status of the task. (Communication with this group is typically one-way.)
9. Follow up and follow through.
“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
—Peter Drucker, management consultant and educator
When problems, questions, or challenges arise, roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches to identify the necessary steps to get things back on track. If, before the project begins, you understand how the team will handle changes or setbacks, you’ll find it easier to react quickly to any problems that do appear.
10. Achieve closure.
“A project is complete when it starts working for you, rather than you working for it.”
—Scott Allen, entrepreneur and social media strategist
As the project completion date nears, how will you know if the deliverables have been met to the specified quality standards? Get your client’s signoff that the project was completed to his or her satisfaction. Then conduct a post-implementation audit so that future teams can learn from your mistakes—and successes.
A strong, disciplined approach to tackling projects both small and large can help you ensure success consistently. What other project-management tips would you add to this list?
Any other suggestions you’ve found useful when managing projects? I would love to hear from you in the comments section here or on the Val Grubb & Associates Facebook page.