Project management for those who aren’t PM’s. Critical skill.
Almost everything you do is a project. Manage it so.
I’m currently mid 30’s, just over a decade into my professional career. There are a few things I so wish I knew on day 1, knowing how to manage a project is definitely one of those things.
I’m not talking about being a project manager in the traditional sense, more in the frame of wanting to get to a specific outcome, and knowing how to get there. In the world of consulting almost everything is a project, our clients don’t pay us to keep the lights on, we are there to put the lights in, find out if they’re working, decide what to do with them next.
What is project plan? It’s a method of illustrating how activities will interact to achieve a certain objective, to all stakeholders, so that we know what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Things won’t go according to plan, we can’t predict the future, but we can understand what we think will happen, when this happens.
A plan shows which activities are reliant on each other, and which aren’t. It helps us see what will happen to our plan if something doesn’t happen along the way. If I think of preparing a simple meal with my wife, that could be a project. There is a particular order to things, we want to cook potatoes, which means I need to pick up the potatoes on the way home, and if I don’t, then we can’t make the meal we had planned. However, even though it would be nice to set the table early, it’s ok if I do it at the last minute, it doesn’t affect the overall timeline or plan. A project plan illustrates all of this. Setting the table late isn’t a big deal, missing picking up the potatoes is.
So what is a project and when do you need to manage it? The simple answer is that most things are a project, but here are some other indicators.
- You’re doing something for the first time
- It involves a bit of time, maybe a few days or more
- Multiple people are involved
- Multiple activities are involved
Here are the things that every professional should know about planning to achieve an objective
- The plan should exist on paper, not just in your head
- The plan should be created with those that are involved in the doing
- The plan should estimate how long each activity will take
- The plan should understand where the order of doing it is relevant, and where it’s not (dependencies)
- The plan should be updated frequently to show how the situation has changed. This is critical
The top mistakes of project management is the inverse of this
- Having a plan in your head
- Creating the plan alone
- Not understanding the dependencies
- Not estimating how long each activity will take
- Not updating the plan frequently
- Saying ‘maybe’ to something that isn’t in the plan without assessing the consequences. It’s either yes or no. (PS. The client hears ‘yes’ when you say maybe, but your team hears ‘no’)
The Network Digram
To create a project plan is really simple. Grab a whole lot of post-it notes and sharpies, grab your team and create one post-it per task. Once you have all the tasks start mapping them where they are dependent and where they aren’t. This will show the ‘critical path’, if any of these activities are delayed, typically the whole project is delayed.
Once you have your wall of post-it’s, now translate this into a lightweight excel Gantt chart.
Now to wrap up, here are some project management myths.
- Project plans aren’t useful because the situation changes all the time.
Absolutely the situation changes all the time, but now you know the impact of those changes. Project plans aren’t useful if they aren’t updated constantly. Plan are far less relevant than planning itself.
- Project planning is the responsibility of the project manager
The project manager will have an overall view of a program, but you will have tasks that need to be managed as projects. For instance, if you’re required to do the solution documentation, that in itself is a project, manage it as one.
- You don’t need project plans in Agile
I have yet to see even the most agile project not benefiting from the rigour and mindset that comes from project planning distributed across the workforce. It’s professional. You know the impact of changes and you can respond to them quickly because you’re fully aware of the long term impact.
It’s a skill that can transform your work experience, it can bring order to chaos and give you the mental peace to focus on the task at hand. There is a psychological benefit to this, we get endorphins and motivation when we have a goal and know we are progressing towards it. This can help you, your team and your client get that.
It’s a super skill for every consultant.