Meet Jamie. She just got promoted to the project manager. She’s excited to take on more responsibility and help grow the company.
Project management can be tricky, though. That’s why we’ve created a guide to project management full of information about what it takes to be a project manager, how to prepare for success, where to focus your attention, and pitfalls to avoid. If Jamie reads and applies the principles in this guide, her next project will surely be a success!
What Is Project Management?
At its core, project management is simply seeing a project through to completion. According to the Project Management Institute, “Project management is the use of specific knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to deliver something of value to people.”
Specifics will change, but nearly every project will have a timeline; a budget measured in time, money, or resources; a team dedicated to the completion of the project; and a set of guidelines and expectations the team will need to meet. A project manager’s job is to look at the project as a whole and act as a communication hub and go-between for internal team members and external stakeholders.
Why Is Project Management Important?
Believe it or not, most of humankind’s significant achievements have come from successful project management.
For example, let’s look at the construction of a large building. Teams working toward the completion of this building might include the company or investors supplying capital to the project, the hired construction team, city officials, a legal team, structural engineers, and a host of other groups and individuals.
What Makes a Good Project Manager?
Many different types of people can successfully manage a project to completion, but the most successful project managers have several characteristics in common.
Communicative: Communication breakdown is one of the quickest ways to project failure. A successful project manager must maintain open communication lines between different teams and individuals to produce the best result.
Empathetic: Understanding and relating to the people working with you on projects is important. No one wants to work with someone unwilling to see things from their perspective or empathize with them when they encounter a problem.
Goal-Oriented: Goals are waypoints leading to the ultimate success of a project. Successful project managers are driven to reach these goals and, in doing so, keep the project on the path to success. Flexibility and adaptability are important but lackadaisical about reaching goals increases the possibility of the project derailing.
Organized: Project management is a lot like juggling. Suppose a project manager stops focusing on organization, the balls all collapse. The organization will help you keep all the different parts of your project in sync and move you toward project completion.
A successful project manager will have several or all of these traits. The good news is that these traits can be developed; they’re more of choice rather than an inherent trait. As you progress, there are plenty of other project manager traits you can also develop.
Preparing for Success
Successful project managers know that spending extra time and energy before the project starts can save time. Follow this checklist to set yourself up for success!
Checklist for Project Management Success
- Set a project goal and define success. It’s impossible to reach your destination if you don’t know where you’re going. You need an overarching goal to unite your team and make it easy to gauge the success of your project.
- Determine KPIs that indicate you’re on the right track. This might be reaching milestones on time, a client’s happiness, the success of team communication, or any other indicators based on the project.
- Define your deliverables. You have one main project goal, but what proof can you offer stakeholders during the project that everything is progressing well? You want to maintain everyone’s confidence in the project so you’ll have the support and resources to see it through.
- Decide which team members are needed for the project. Match a person’s skills with the project’s tasks, but don’t forget to consider interpersonal relationships and communication skills when selecting team members.
- Come up with an adequate budget of time and resources. This can be difficult because of the unknowns and variables project managers don’t have control over. Ensure the budget includes wiggle room for unexpected expenses of both time and money.
- Create a roadmap with timelines and milestones. As with any large project, it’s important to break down the project into smaller, more manageable chunks. As they say, an elephant is eaten one bite at a time.
- Anticipate difficult steps and potential bottlenecks. Knowing where or when difficulties might arise makes you better prepared to handle them. Anticipating problems can prevent a minor setback from turning into a missed milestone.
- Decide which tools/platforms will be used for tracking and communication. With so many moving parts, project management can quickly become a headache. Software and other digital tools can be invaluable for tracking and maintaining communication during the project’s duration.
- Schedule regular check-ins with the project team. Regular meetings help prevent project silos from forming. Everyone should have a basic understanding of what other team members are working on and collective progress toward project completion.
- Identify and communicate your plan to external stakeholders. Sharing plans and progress with stakeholders can prevent interruptive requests when external stakeholders can’t see progress or aren’t updated.
If you follow these steps during the project’s planning phase, you’ll be well on your way to successful project completion. Here are some additional tips for the tricky parts of project management.
Estimating a project’s resources is one of the most complicated parts of project management, especially when long timelines or large teams are involved. Project managers tend to forget that some of their team members might have other work obligations alongside working on the project. Failing to recognize and account for these obligations can leave both the project manager and team member feeling misunderstood or disrespected. Bring in extra help or reallocate work to other team members as needed.
Unforeseen circumstances are common during any project, but don’t let these unknowns bring the project to a grinding halt. If progress isn’t monitored closely, a single small issue can create a domino effect, with half the team twiddling their thumbs. Your team members are your greatest asset; don’t let a bottleneck throw off your timeline. Encourage your team members to be candid about timelines, progress, and workload to get ahead of any potential problems.
Forecasting End Dates
People don’t usually mind waiting for something, assuming they are told how long it will take. This is true for restaurants, doctor appointments, and shipping dates. What frustrates people is waiting much longer than they were told would be the case. Some people avoid this issue by refusing to predict when something will be ready or complete, but that’s not a great option for project management. Instead, make sure to keep everyone in the loop. If the project, or a part of it, is going to run over, or be finished early, make sure to communicate that. The worst thing you can do is leave someone in the dark until the last moment.
Task Management vs. Project Management
Project managers are not meant to be task managers. They need to look at the big picture and coordinate. Tasks should be given to teams or team members.
If you have to manage tasks, you may need to sit down with your team and discuss expectations. You may find confusion somewhere or a need for additional team members. In rare cases, a specific team member may need to be replaced.
Data and Progress Visualization
When your boss sends you an email or stops you in the hallway and asks how your project is going, you don’t want your response to be, “Uhhh . . . good.” Prepare some data or visuals that can be updated and shown to stakeholders and team members. Everyone loves to see progress visually. That’s why fundraisers use those large thermometers to track donations. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing that red line move toward the top of the meter.
Ensure you have a place to store all the documentation and information generated during your project. A cloud drive or something like Dropbox is beneficial for sharing and disseminating information. If you wait until everything is disorganized and getting lost, you will have wasted time and energy that could have been saved by thinking ahead a bit.
Here are the most common project management pitfalls and how to avoid them:
Underestimating the time/energy required
Plan for a bit more time than you think will be required. You’ll almost always need it. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments if your plan isn’t working out.
Not understanding the goals/deliverables of the project
Ask for clarification. If you’re being given a new project to manage, ask as many questions as you need. Likewise, as you bring other people on board, answer all their questions and ensure everyone understands the goals and deliverables.
Not involving enough team members
If you can, don’t hesitate to ask others to help out. Most people are happy to help, especially if you need their expertise or experience, and frame the request as such. If you aren’t sure how many people you’ll need, let a few people know you may need their help, and you’ll let them know if the time comes.
Failing to check in with team members regularly
Put it on the calendar, and make it a Zoom call—even an email thread is better than nothing. You need to make sure everyone is on the same page somehow.
Not adjusting timelines when necessary
Nobody likes missing deadlines, but running your team ragged and being under extreme pressure yourself doesn’t lead to quality work.
Not holding teammates accountable
It’s difficult to deal with teammates that aren’t meeting deadlines or are struggling in one way or another, but the rest of the team is counting on them to contribute to the project. Let them know that their actions affect others. Don’t let past interpersonal dynamics prevent the project from successful completion.
Allowing scope creep to take over
It’s easy for a project to morph into something much more complicated than it was originally intended to be. Avoid this if at all possible. The planning and resources you decided upon initially won’t match a project plagued with scope creep. If you must add to your project, revise your plan to succeed.
Constantly reporting to internal stakeholders
Reporting is an important part of project management. People need to know what progress is being made and what the timeline currently looks like. Avoid letting reporting take away from the time or energy the actual project needs. Consider sending a weekly recap email or reporting at a certain time each week and not deviating from it.
These issues can all cause the failure of a project, but the biggest cause of project failure is the inability to maintain stakeholder interest. There are plenty of ways to do this—many are listed above. If you are disorganized, lack resources, or are poor at communication, stakeholders aren’t going to see the project as a priority, will stop communicating themselves, and will become ambivalent towards the success or failure of the project. With stakeholders in such a state, project completion isn’t likely. Avoiding pitfalls and planning well initially can prevent this from happening.
Tips to Save Time and Energy During Project Management
We’ve talked about what to do if your project is already behind, but here’s how you can prevent missing deadlines in the first place.
Invest time and energy into planning before jumping in.
As previously mentioned, don’t skimp on the pre-project planning. Spending time before the project starts laying out a solid plan will pay dividends.
Automate whenever possible.
Don’t waste time doing things the hard way just because that’s how it’s always been done. If you find a new tool or process that could speed things up, try it!
Use time tracking and project tracking tools and software.
Take advantage of software like GUIDEcx, which is made to help with complicated processes involving multiple people. Invest in these tools.
Recruit help when needed.
Don’t spend hours researching if there’s something you don’t know or something you can’t do. Find someone else to help. There are subject matter experts all around us. It will save time if you don’t plan on doing everything alone.
Now you know what project management is, how to succeed, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls. If you follow our checklist, you’ll have no problem making your projects successful.
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