One of the most frequent questions we are asked by those tasked to manage a complex project or strategic planning initiative is “what are your tips for good project management?” We decided that it was high time to offer some tips learned from working with project managers over the years.
First, a framework for project management. One of the primary reasons for creating a project plan is to improve performance. This is centered on the principle that if you clearly define the work needed, assign accountability for completion of the tasks and then manage those accountabilities, you will achieve results that aren’t possible without such plans. That is the purview of the project managers – managing accountability well.
At PGS we have a saying, “plans don’t get things done, people do”. It is not plans that ultimately make a difference, but completed plans that do. Project management is the conduit between the plan and the people. Improved performance is dependent upon effective project management, i.e. assuring that the project is completed as intended and on-time. Often project managers are thrust into this role without the tools or experience to be successful. Here are our tips for being successful:
- Clearly Define the Project Tasks
The most significant portion of a project plan is the set of tasks or steps to complete the project. We have learned the hard way that upon leaving the planning session, attendees often quickly forget the scope of one or more tasks they have been assigned. The further down the timeline of the project, the more that is the case. We add a step at the end of our project planning process in which each team member defines their tasks for the project manager, documenting exactly what they are to produce (e.g. report, PowerPoint, database, set of recommendations or findings, etc.) and the specific steps they will take for completion. As a project manager, these definition sheets assure that a) you both share a clear picture of the product of each task, and b) that the steps being taken to complete a task will produce a thorough, high quality outcome. This step also supports succession planning during the project, when a key player may need to exit the project before it is finished.
- Frequent Tightly-Run Accountability Sessions
Over time we have learned that, if you are not checking on progress on your project plan at least every two weeks, you will likely find yourself behind and unable to catch up. Further, team members need that frequency of updating on their responsibilities to the project, because like everyone, they succumb to the tyranny of their in-box and find themselves out of time to devote to projects that don’t demand attention every day. The sessions are a good opportunity to problem solve and provide extra help to team members struggling on a task. These sessions should be tightly run and last no more than 15-30 minutes depending upon the size of the project. Start them on time and end them on time. Your team members will appreciate that. For those that come late, delay hearing about their progress until they arrive but don’t make others wait to start the meeting.
- Instill a Team Culture of Results Not Reasons
There are countless reasons out there for why a task hasn’t been completed. At the end of the day, the real reason is that something else is taking a priority over the task. Be careful not to judge whether the reason that a team member is not completing a task is good or bad. It just is. Your focus should not be on the reason at all, it needs to be on whether to support the team member in catching up or to chart a new path. If a team member wants to keep the task, give that member one meeting to catch up (i.e., two weeks). If they are still behind then, reassign the task or break it down into smaller tasks and bring in help. Remember: At the end of the day this is not personal, it is about the success of the project and moving an initiative forward. Focusing on a successful project prevents alienating team members who have too much on their plate.
- Be Decisive and Strong
If the performance on projects in an organization is going to change, project management must change. Sympathy and enabling for the overloaded or distracted team member won’t get the project done. Pressing empathy is an important trait to have. This allows you to say, “I bet that is difficult, what’s our solution?” As consultant Jen Jarvis states, “don’t be sorry, be better”. Once the team sees that upon falling behind, their tasks will be reassigned, the commitment to get tasks done will increase. No doubt this will be a shift in your own behavior relative to peers. They likely will push back with “what got into you”, or “you used to be a nice person”. But, in the end, they will forget the push you made on them when they are graciously accepting the accolades from the team’s success.
- Don’t Change the Logic of the Plan Without Good Reason
We encourage clients to frequently revise their plans. It never goes as intended. There will be unforeseen tasks that need to be added. There will be some steps that aren’t working that need to be rethought, etc. These revisions are necessary. The revision we caution against, however, is changing due dates on tasks based on the argument that the circumstances that resulted in the delay will go away. Unless there has been some sort of true crisis that took one or several team members off the project and on to something else, changing the due date on tasks in the project will result in the final outcome not being completed on time.
- Work with Individuals Who Are Committed to Get Tasks Done on Time but are Struggling
There are two primary struggles individuals have in getting their tasks completed. The first struggle is with time management issues. Time gets eaten up by the emails, meetings, phone calls and fires that make up a day. Project tasks demand that you block out time on the schedule to work on them and you maintain the discipline of that schedule. Coach team members to help them schedule the time and then monitor frequently how they are doing at keeping to that schedule. The second struggle may be missing information. People generally are of good intention and want to be part of a “winning team” and support getting the ball across the line. In this case you would also use coaching to help diagnose and support a team member by helping to fill in missing information. An example may be, “I am not sure how to access certain data” or “I am not sure how that department will react to this change”. A simple conversation can often rectify this type of stall or inactivity.
If you are tasked to manage a complex project or strategic plan initiative, utilize the six tips above to find greater success both as a project manager and with the project or plan itself. Questions or need a little help to revive your project? Email us for some free coaching.