Projects have a lot of moving parts—objectives to achieve, tasks to complete, people to manage, and more. When those parts interact as smoothly as a Swiss watch, everyone involved with the project is happier: the customer, stakeholders, team members who do the work, and project manager. Here are five tips to help any project run more smoothly.
1. Start by identifying what the project is really about.
Like starting your day with a nutritious breakfast, figuring out the point of the project makes everything that follows work better. Focusing on the right goal from the beginning of the project makes it a lot easier to deliver what the customer wants at the project’s end. I can’t say it any better than Yogi Berra did: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”
Some project goals are obvious—for example, getting a raccoon out of your pantry. But for most projects, you need to chip away to uncover the goal and the other elements that define the project.
The process starts with identifying the underlying problem or opportunity, which you can write up in a document called a problem statement. For example, if your company is overwhelmed with customer support requests, your goal might be to reduce the number of customer support requests to a manageable level. Another goal might be to reduce the effort required to handle support requests.
The “goal” is a high-level description of what the project is supposed to achieve. The “objectives” are lower-level achievements that support the goal, like reducing support costs or improving customer satisfaction.
The goal and objectives help you choose the strategy for achieving the project goal—in effect, how you’re going to solve the problem. For example, the project could be creating a new web-based support system so customers can find answers to their questions, or redesigning the product so it’s more reliable and easier to use.
Once you know what you’re trying to achieve, the project plan and execution fall into place without drama or the need for the occasional crowbar.
2. Get buy-in from the project customer and other stakeholders.
You’ll still hit the occasional bump in the road as you plan the project and then see it through to completion. Sometimes you need help navigating those obstacles and resolving problems. Early on in a project, you identify stakeholders and what they want from the project. With that information, you can line up support for the project and your approach to it. When problems arise, you know where to turn for help.
Project managers almost never have enough authority to direct all the groups involved in a project. So how do you get stuff done? You get the project sponsor to anoint you with authority. The project sponsor is someone who wants to see the project succeed and has formal authority to make that happen—for example, the project customer, an executive, or someone at a lower management level who is willing and able to take action when needed. When you accept the role of project manager, the project sponsor publicizes the project and your role by distributing a document called a project charter. This document briefly describes the project and also outlines the authority you’ve been given to manage it. (If your project sponsor doesn’t prepare a project charter, ask him or her to do that. Or you can write up the project charter and ask the sponsor to sign and distribute it.)
3. Do everything you can to get enough time for planning.
Lots of people like to get working right away. When executives fall into that category, you have a challenge to overcome. Project planning is important, but management might be eager to get work started. Sure, you can cave in to the pressure and shortcut your project planning. But if the project fails, which is more likely without a plan in place, the blame is also likely to land on your shoulders.
Try to convince management to give you the time you need to plan. If they balk, remind them of the planning that they do, like the analysis and preparation that goes into a merger or acquisition. Worst case: negotiate for a shorter planning period, then squeeze as much planning as you can into the time you get.
4. Match your project management approach to your organization’s culture.
Organizations have personalities like people do. Your projects will run more smoothly if the project management processes you use fit the organization. For example, if your company empowers its people, tightly controlled procedures with a gazillion levels of approval will rub team members the wrong way. Giving the team free rein when they’re used to being told what to do might energize them—but they could also mill about like a herd of sheep without a border collie. One way to match processes to the organization is to ask your team members to participate in developing the procedures they will use.
Getting status updates from your team members is another area to align with people’s preferences. Gathering the right amount of data is important: Asking for too much takes time away from getting project work done, and you might struggle to keep your project schedule up to date. Getting too little info means that you won’t have a clear picture of where the project stands, which could lead to unpleasant surprises and unnecessary crises.
5. Identify lessons learned throughout the project, and use them to do things better the next time.
Over the life of every project, people learn things that help them do better next time. Whether they make a huge gaff that is burned in their memory or stumble onto a really slick way to get something done, those lessons shouldn’t stop there. You want everyone to learn and continue to improve.
Don’t wait until the project is done to collect lessons; many will be long forgotten by then. Instead, include time for lessons learned in regular meetings, like code reviews or status meetings; or ask team members to include their lessons when they email their status updates.
In addition, make sure lessons are easy to access. Set up a repository for them and keep it in a location that everyone can view, like a shared drive.
Keep a positive focus on lessons learned. For example, if you hold a meeting to gather lessons learned, call it a project review or project implementation review. Remember, the point is to improve, not to assign blame to whomever made mistakes.
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