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8 Steps to Ace Project Management

Managing any project, large or small, can seem a daunting task. Where do you start? Where do you finish? What do you do in between? How can you keep on top of it all? Will it all go to plan?

The answer to that last question is ‘yes’, but only if you have a plan. Here are some tips to help you plan and manage any project, regardless of its size or complexity:

1. Note available resources

Think of a project like a recipe – before you can get started, you need to source your ingredients. Or, if you’re not into cooking, think of it as a complicated flatpack wardrobe – you don’t want to find out you’re missing a vital piece, like the door, halfway through.

This crucial first step before starting any project is often missed out in the rush to get action underway. But tallying up the resources you already have will show you clearly which resources you may be missing and help you decide at which point you’re going to need them. This could include budget, skills (people), equipment – really, any number of things.

Save yourself time, money and stress in the long run by listing these items right at the start. Be pernickety. If you need 100 red pens (you might! I don’t know what your project is) factor them in at the start. Chances are if you don’t, the point at which you do need them will be the time of the national red pen shortage.

2. Choose the right planning tools

There are numerous project management applications out there, both free and proprietary. Find one that works for you. Consider how simple or complex your project is and choose an equally simple or complex application. For instance, a shared calendar with a notes facility might be all you really need. For a more complex project you may need something more substantial.

Remember though, the tools are only as good as the information you put in. I usually start my planning with a whiteboard or large piece of paper and a stack of post-it notes, upon which I write down all those resources and requirements previously identified. This means every action, objective, resource and milestone is visible at the same time and can be shuffled around as much as needed. Arrange the post-its on the board and draw connecting lines between related actions, including dates and milestones. This is also a good exercise to do with the project team as it helps everyone understand cause and effect.

Transfer this information to your chosen planning tool, marking each post-it as you input the details, to ensure nothing is missed.

3. Planning – Start at the end & work backwards

This is the key tip. Most projects have a definitive end date and if they don’t, well, they should have – it gives you and your team something to aim for. Invent one if you have to.

Planning backwards keeps the end date nailed down, with all other actions happening at some point in between and avoids ‘slippage’. Think of deadlines as dominos: every objective requires an action and every action affects the next objective. Consider what actions must occur to achieve the final objective. Add those actions into your plan and they become objectives in themselves. Then consider what actions must occur to reach *those* objectives. And so on, until you have worked back to ‘start’.

Planning backwards is also useful as a check to see whether those milestones and the end date are actually realistic, before you get into the project itself.

4. Be realistic

It’s tempting to be over optimistic and plan for the best case scenario. It looks good and can impress clients and employers if you propose a quick-turnaround plan using few resources. But if your time, budget and team are stretched to breaking point to meet each deadline, it will become a stressful situation and in stressful situations things get overlooked or left incomplete. You want your project to run smoothly and be a good demonstration of a well run project. Give it what it needs to do that.

5. Factor in flexibility

In reality, stuff happens, usually when you least expect it. What if one of your key contributors falls ill? What if a supplier lets you down? What if a volcano prevents you from getting to an important meeting? Unforeseen happenings can throw your whole plan off course or worse still, kill your project entirely.

While it’s impossible to list everything that could cause delays and while I’m not advocating outright pessimism, it’s important to keep a little ‘wiggle room’ to safely absorb any knocks to the project without it bring the whole thing crashing down.

Keep this in mind when delegating tasks and make deadlines both reasonable for those working to them and early enough to allow for any unforeseen delays.

6. Review your progress

Keep your dominos in order. Be aware that one missed deadline might affect several others. During planning, you will have seen how each element affects another. Keep an eye on any tasks in danger of slipping past their deadline. If something affects the plan, don’t carry on regardless, hoping to catch up. The best time to alter a plan to take into account new information or unavoidable delays is when you first become aware of the issue. Make sure everyone involved knows how the plan has changed and why.

7. Communicate!

In order for everyone to *do* what they need to do, when and how they need to do it, they need to *know* what they need to do, when and how they need to do it.

That does sound obvious doesn’t it? Surprisingly, a high number of projects fall flat not due to bad planning but due to those involved not knowing what the plan is. Make sure everyone involved knows the part they need to play, their specific deadlines and the expectations they need to work to.

Additionally, unless your project is a matter of national security, what harm is there in letting those involved know what’s going on overall, at least at a basic level? While they may not technically  ‘need to know’ anything other than their own required actions, an understanding of how their input affects the rest of the project leads to greater commitment and a better chance that their contribution fully reflects the aims of the project.

Encourage contributors to give you feedback too. Better that you are aware of a potential issue early on, than having to fire-fight it at the last minute.

8. Those six honest serving men: Who, What, How, Why, Where and When

Whether you equate it to cookery, carpentry, painting by numbers or use some other suitable analogy, it boils down to the same thing: developing a clear picture involves knowing what needs to happen, when, by whom and how, where and why.

By answering all these questions, for each element of the project, you create your recipe or instructions. Now, start at the start and work through the steps you’ve developed until the end. Simple, really.

One more thought:

Every now and again, something will happen that will send your whole project off course. A merger that didn’t go through; a new product that tested badly and isn’t going to go to market after all; a key client pulls the plug on their agreement with you. When your priorities change dramatically, you can scrap the whole thing – making a real waste of the time, energy and resources people have put in – or you can salvage what you can and use it elsewhere. Be innovative – where and how could you make use of everything that’s been achieved so far? Could it form part of a new project?

How do you plan and manage?

These methods have served me well for over 20 years. There are courses and qualifications at all levels of project management and planning and the above tips are at the most basic level and don’t delve into dispute resolution or the more complex elements of procurement and resource management (another post, maybe?). Nevertheless, if the words ‘project management’ bring you out in hives, these simple tips may help you feel less overwhelmed by the prospect of planning and managing your next project.

If you have your own methods or tips, please add them in the comments. Thanks!



Laura Bamberg
Hi there - I was wondering about the tools you yourself use when planning. You mentioned Post-its and whatnot - why not Microsoft Project? Why do you have to transfer from one place to another when you can do it all in one place and then transfer your Project file to your team with a Viewer?
    Hi Laura, thanks for your comment. I can totally see what you mean, why do everything twice? I do use MS Project from time to time, depending on the complexity of the project as it is easy to share and use (eventually!) as well as logical. However, the post-it note method works for me as a 'brain emptying' function prior to putting all the details into an application. Possibly because I think quite visually (as well as a tendency to forget half the stuff in my head before I've put it into the computer), I find it helps me to lay out all the elements of the whole project and arrange them, shuffle them around, work out effects of various actions etc. It's also a good way of getting a whole team together, to understand how and why their objectives fit in and it often sparks a few ideas along the way. It's not a necessary step by any means! Recently, I've been working with a number of social enterprises and new small businesses who are not well experienced in planning and/or software any more complex than say, Word. So it can be daunting to learn both at the same time (although, arguably, at least it would be only learning one thing). Having the project team work together to think of all the details gets conversations going and gains a lot of buy-in from each member. The whiteboard/post it method is quite practical for this. Kind of unrelated, ish: It occurred to me earlier that these tips are really very simplistic, that is, there are whole industries dedicated to the teaching of project planning and management skills for specific sectors with complex structures. So to boil it down to 8 simple elements might seem somewhat dismissive of those who have studied long and hard and gained recognised qualifications and experience. I wouldn't dream of being that shortsighted! Rather, I hope just to give those who have little to no experience, and sometimes a fair amount of trepidation, an easy to digest overview and few tips to get started. :) Lyndsey

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