Like anything in our world, there are certain written (and un-written) rules when it comes to successful project management. Copious articles, op-ed pieces, novels and blogposts have given numerous views on the various beneficial philosophies versus gotchas that exist within the project management sphere. From best practices to rules of thumb, there is certainly no shortage of advice and ideas available to project managers to assist them in their day-to-day duties.
So from a baseline level, what are some of the fundamentals when it comes to the dos and don’ts of project management? What ideas should a project manager embrace versus ones that he/she should avoid in performing their duties?
1. Always have a Project Plan
In a previous post, I spoke about the need to have a comprehensive and detailed project plan in place for any new project. (For review, please read the post: The Project Charter – What is it and Why is it Needed?) This is probably one of the most crucial needs for any project. If anyone was a fan of the old 80s television show, ‘The A-Team’, the lead character would often chime in with his catchphrase: “I love it when a plan comes together.” Needless to say, the need for a plan is of vital importance. A plan gives the stakeholders and idea of how the project will play out as well as giving the team some structure and milestones for their deliverables.
2. Identify Dependencies and Risks Early
Depending on the complexity of the project, making sure that all dependencies and perceived risks are catalogued early will give the project the highest likelihood of success. As is often the case, it’s what you don’t know that can kill you and projects are no different. Being diligent up front to successfully itemize as many of the variables up front as possible will minimize the likelihood of problems appearing downstream.
3. Understand the Corporate Culture
Whenever looking to either take over a new project or instantiate one from scratch, it is important to have a good idea of how the company functions from an internal perspective. Are they more conducive with the seat-of-the-pants style of operation (often referred to as ‘disruptive innovation’) or are they more Mr. Spock-like, being studious and diligent with their process internals and methodologies. Whatever the case, the project manager needs to be adaptable. Attempting to align a management style with any organization that operates in a different fashion is likely to lead to contention. While this can often be somewhat frustrating to the project manager who is used to operating in a certain way, it is important to recognize that attempting to enforce a philosophy or Draconian process on a group of team members who are used to being more independent and less structured could lead to tremendous pushback.
4. Always have a Communication Plan
The communication plan is one of the most important aspects of the overall project plan, especially in scenarios where the team is distributed or spans global geographies where English may not be the first language of all members and where real-time communication may not be feasible. Whatever the case, how communication channels are handled and how information is distributed to the team members should be defined well up front. And it should be consistent, regardless of whether part of the team is co-located or not.
5. Continuously Engage with Stakeholders and Sponsors
In the end, the sponsor and the stakeholders have the most vested interest in the success of the project. As such, they should be continuously kept apprised of the status and active deliverables inherent to the project. Additionally, while features (and scope) are defined up front, all things being equal, these may require some ‘tweaking’ as the project moves forward. So it is important to have the stakeholders re-evaluate the requirements and features as they become available to ensure what was asked for matches what is being produced.
6. Use Metrics to Continuously Monitor Project Status
When projects slip, it is never a good sign. Sometimes this is unavoidable. Other times, it could have been avoided had the project manager simply been diligent in monitoring the project status through reports and good metrics. Reports not only provide the project manager with information on how the project is progressing, a good project manager can often use them to extrapolate the future progress of the project. This can be achieved through use of trend analysis, burndown charts or the equivalent. Whatever the case, good metrics are not only a good indicator of what ‘has’ happened, but what may also happen in the future.
7. Utilize an Effective Process
The word ‘process’ can often result in cringes from individuals that have been part of projects that had massively overwhelming and often overly cumbersome processes. Nonetheless, some level of process is always required, even if its relatively minor. Process in and of itself achieves one core result: it gets the team functioning on the same page. So even a minor process that is at least adhered to consistently will do wonders for ensuring a project’s eventual success. But as noted earlier, be cognizant of what level of process the team is comfortable with. Start small and let the process evolve. This will greatly increase the likelihood of successful adoption of the process with minimal pushback.
8. Adhere to the Triple Constraint
The Triple Constraint (Scope, Time, Cost) is one of the most staple concepts in the world of project management. (For a review of the Triple Constraint, please consult the post: Scope, Time and Cost – Managing the Triple Constraint) Now while the concept is well-known in project management circles, it is often unknown (or ignored) by individuals in different areas of expertise. As such, it is imperative for the project manager to convey the concept effectively and adhere to its principles. Often times, stakeholders and management will try to make project adjustments on the fly during a project life-cycle. And they assume that changes have no effect on the overall timeline or cost of the project. It’s the job of the project manager to make them aware of what repercussions the change request may have and also explain its feasibility. Management naturally never wants to hear the word ‘no’, but from the standpoint of the project manager, he/she must make them aware that no change is without cost, in one form or another.
1. Never Take Anything (regarding the project) for Granted
What is that old adage? When you ‘assume’, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. This adage is true in everyday life and it is certainly very true within the sphere of project management. Assumptions regarding budgets, resources, dependencies, and so forth can lead to severe ramifications for the project down-stream. The project manager must always be fully aware of all aspects of the project as a whole and not take anything particular portion of it for granted. (Murphy’s Law exists in spades in the world of project management)
2. Do not Underestimate Budget Constraints
If your project has a budget associated with it, it is important to ensure that the project manager does not simply assume that the money is adequate or will last. As part of the risk assessment for the project, calculations should exist for scenarios that could affect overall budget. Speak to the stakeholders to get a good gauge for how the project budget is being distributed. Often times, a budget is spanned out over several quarters and while the original sum is stated up front, budgets can often fluctuate within a business. As such, how the budget will be distributed over the lifetime of the project must be determined. Also, if contractors are being used, do not assume that their costs are static. A contract can be terminated prematurely and a subsequent contractor hired to fill the gap may command a higher premium. These cost assessments should also be performed up front.
3. Never Assume a Project Plan is Final
As mentioned earlier, a project plan is going to be a living document. Regardless of how much upfront planning is performed, there will always be a strong likelihood that new requirements, organizational changes, company business re-alignments, etc. could change how the project is going to be implemented. The project plan should be re-visited regularly during the engagement meetings with the stakeholders and sponsor to ensure that it still applies in its current guise. If not, adjustments need to be made accordingly.
4. Do not Play the ‘Blame Game’
A project will often run into some problems during its life-cycle. Sometimes those problems are minor and sometimes they are major. But from the standpoint of the project manager, regardless of who is at fault for the issues, it is extremely important to not go into ‘excuse mode’. Not only does this cast a bad light on the project manager, especially if these problems become systemic, but it will do tremendous damage to the morale of the team and their perceptions of the project manager if they are called out by name when something goes wrong. Remember, the project manager is part of a team and the success or failure of the team affects the ENTIRE team. As such, when a problem does occur or a mistake is made, simply pointing fingers is not an effective means of dealing with the situation. As the old staying goes, united we stand, divided we fall.
5. Do not Make the Process to Overwhelming
One of the ‘dos’ listed earlier was the need for a good process. But as mentioned, the process should not become the project. (Note, please review the post: The Process Imperative – How much is Enough?) If you are discovering that the team members are slipping on their deliverables and the answer provided is that they are spending too much time on process, scale things back a bit. This is not always easy, especially in areas where adherence to a strict process is mandated (such as a government contract), but adjustments can be made. If the process is flexible and defined by the project manager, take steps to scale it back to make it more accommodating. If it is being dictated by the senior leaders or is part of the contract, adjustments will need to be made to the timeline to ensure scope does not slip.
6. Do not Make Assumptions about What the Team Knows (or Doesn’t Know)
This goes part in parcel with the communication plan. But what seems evident to the project manager is not always as obvious as you might think to the team members. As such, utilize the regular meetings to ensure that task assignments, project milestones and key deliverables are well understood by members of the team. Also, perform a priority triage as needed so that team members know up front what needs to be performed first.
7. Do not Over-rely on One Resource
This is a common problem for both functional managers and project managers. You have one rock-star resource and you often utilize him/her for specific tasks that are more complex. But one situation to try to avoid is to not saddle that resource with too much simply because they are performing better than other resources on your team. If other resources are not producing their deliverables with a certain level of quality or in a timely manner, this needs to be addressed. But simply brushing the problem under the rug and leveraging your rock-star resource to compensate could lead you to a point where that one individual becomes frustrated and either leaves or asks to be re-assigned. And that could have catastrophic consequences for your project.
8. Do not Conduct Meetings without an Agenda
Meetings are probably where project managers spend a good portion of their time. And as many know, these can sometimes blur together. Regardless, it is always important to be prepared for a meeting and having some level of an agenda in place is an absolute must. Performing meetings ad hoc is a time-waster and often requires more meetings than would otherwise have been needed mainly due to the fact that topics that should have been covered were neglected or missed because the meeting was derailed. Even if the agenda is written on a napkin five minutes before the meeting, it is better than no agenda at all.