7 survival tips for sensible project management
Perhaps, you know that project management can be tricky, with a lot of influential factors involved. As PMI’s latest global survey found, 45% of respondents feel threatened by most sorts of obstacles: unclear goals, unrealistic deadlines, geographically dispersed teams, insufficient skills, and others.
Whatever project you participate in, you have to find sensible ways to align competing stakeholder interests with the constraints of limited resources and meet rapidly changing demands in the business environment. To some extent, project management is an art of surviving or juggling too many balls in the air at a time, rather than just a static step-by-step approach.
In this article, I outline seven essential tips that can help you survive “at the edge” of project failure and lead your team to success, ultimately doing a better job with less pain.
Knowledge comes first, success comes through years of experience
There are many free and paid online training courses like Coursera, Udemy, and LinkedIn Learning that popularize project management, making it easy to learn best practices and use cases.
In practice, however, theoretical knowledge may lead rookie project managers to inappropriate decisions. Let’s say, anyone can download a free Gantt chart template or create a sample to-do list using online tutorials and guides, but fewer really can rely on the savvy which comes from years of experience.
A far more effective way of exploring project management for beginners is, learning best practices and lessons from people who have already grasped all the angles of project management can save you from making common mistakes and inappropriate decisions.
Every project is unique and always requires a special management process in place. Just blindly following the survival tips in my article may not be the right solution for your specific project management process. So my appeal is, you must unambiguously recognize which of my suggestions would be valuable contributors to your project. Even “best” practices are situational and may not work for you, so think carefully and apply each only where it will add value to your project. Good luck!
1) Figure out what success means for your project
Project success needs to be measured against specific criteria. It will help you define if you’re doing things right at any point of the project’s lifetime. Lack of or unclear success criteria would lead to poor performance and unwanted results.
Here are a few steps to take:
- Hold a meeting with your stakeholders to understand their interests and expectations regarding the project.
- Agree on some clear and measurable business goals.
- Break down each business goal into a subset of objectives or even small tasks that are easier to perform and track.
- Prioritize the objectives by importance or/and urgency to tell your team what they should focus on.
Top-priority objectives should imply specific success criteria for your project. Be ready to make some trade-off decisions to ensure that each priority satisfies the expectations of your stakeholders and aligns with the corresponding business goal.
2) Identify business drivers and project constraints
They are factors that contribute to project development. A business driver initiates and supports a project and leads it to successful completion. A constraint defines the bounds within which the project is expected to develop. By identifying both, you figure out how to best utilize available resources to ensure project success.
There are five dimensions of project development, as follows:
- Scope (functionality)
- Money (budget)
- Time (schedule)
- People (staffing)
- Quality (requirements)
Business drivers and project constraints may be or may not be each of these dimensions. Your task as a project manager is to identify what resources are required for your project, in what quantity, when, and how to best utilize them. Also, you have to define possible bottlenecks which may restrict you from achieving the full potential of your project.
3) Commit your team
A highly committed team is more likely to do what they’re expected and even work enthusiastically. The only condition is that commitments are realistically achievable. Every commitment you set should be agreed with your team as well as other stakeholders involved.
Negotiations will be the way to do so. By negotiating with your stakeholders whenever there’s a gap between the business drivers and project constraints, you can best forecast the future of your project and document everything in project estimates.
Conduct daily or weekly meetings, depending on the complexity of your project, and make sure that you:
- Separate people from problems
- Keep your team focused on interests, not positions
- Find options for compromise, avoid disagreement
- Try to use objective criteria
4) Write a realistic and detailed plan
Don’t be the one who believes that the time spent on writing a project plan could be better spent on doing tasks. Planning is a complex process that requires thinking, asking, listening, decision making, thinking some more, and so on, and a lot of time and effort.
Proper planning creates a solid foundation for successful implementation. The time you spend analyzing what it takes to deliver your project will reduce the number of mistakes and failures you and your team encounter later in the project.
A realistic and detailed plan is more than just an estimate of time and a list of things to do. When you write your project plan, consider the following components for inclusion:
- Estimation of HR, finances, technology and other required resources
- Team roles and responsibilities
- A staff management plan (how to acquire, train and manage teams)
- A risk management plan (what risks to expect, how to manage them, how to solve unexpected troubles)
- Target dates for major deliverables
- Ways to communicate and report
- Ways to track and analyze work progress
If there are multiple typical projects to launch in your organization, it is better to create a management plan template and outline there all significant components needed for realistic planning and scheduling. Then this template can be easily tailored to the nature and size of each project you’re going to initiate.
5) Decompose larger activities into manageable tasks
Your project plan is a strategic document for upper management and not for team level. It tells nothing about what exact actions every team member needs to take and when. The activities outlined in your project plan should be decomposed into smaller, more manageable, and actionable tasks. By decomposing, you pave the way for accurate work estimation, progress tracking, and reporting.
Decomposition also helps avoid overlooked tasks and schedule slips. A detailed task breakdown reveals inevident problems and improves the project manager’s ability to create accurate and trackable estimates. A good start would be a breakdown of tasks of about 3-10 labor-hours each.
6) Categorize common activities into checklists
A checklist includes a series of small, typical steps and actions to complete a larger activity or task. It’s a good practice to use checklists for identifying and estimating the effort associated with each instance of tasks.
If your team frequently undertakes typical activities (ex.: running a test case or an ad campaign), try to develop checklists and sample to-do lists for these activities. Tailor each to the specific needs of individual projects and share them with your team.
7) Look back from some rework
Many projects assume predecessor-successor relationships between planned activities, which means that you move strictly on to the next activity after the preceding one is successfully done. However, some analysis of the job done will help you find failures or improvement opportunities.
So take it slow and analyze every activity that’s done and that’s to be done. Review your project schedule, estimates, performance reports to gain insight into work progress and understand if your project is developing right. Be ready to rework some parts of your project plan because they’ve been performed inefficiently. And never fear to spend a reasonable amount of time running tests and quality control activities.