5 Lessons on Project Management

So you want to become a better project manager?

I’m working on my “ultimate guide” to project management, but in the meantime, glance over a few helpful lessons I learned about project management in 2016.

Lesson No. 1 — Don’t start without clear goals

Before you start any project, you need to meet with your client — internal or external — and understand exactly what they’re looking for. If your client doesn’t know what they’re looking for, and wants help exploring concepts or facilitating ideation sessions, that’s fine… but don’t commit to a formal project brief or timeline until everyone is clear about what’s going to happen with the project.

Having your client submit a creative overview, or brief, is your opportunity to save time by gathering necessary information without scheduling yet another meeting or sending a million emails back-and-fourth. You can ask questions about the current process or user experience, pros and cons of the way things are currently, what business goals the project is aiming to improve, what they consider a success, their ideas for improvement, and special cases that you need to consider for the project.

Lesson No. 2— Focus on the people

The key to project management isn’t about having access to the perfect set of tools, or coming up with some revolutionary process for management — it’s about the people on your team. Get to know each person, on a personal level, over time. Learn how different people react to different project management styles. Adapt. Iterate. Grow.

Face Time

Get as much face time in as possible. I’m not talking about FaceTime… I’m talking about face time. It’s incredible how much of a difference it makes meeting in-person, face-to-face to discuss project scope, progress, and delivery. Don’t click send on that email… go walk over and have a conversation. When it absolutely isn’t possible to have real human interaction, at least use a webcam to meet.

Formal Kickoff

Have a formal kickoff meeting to start the project. Introduce everyone working on the project, and keep the meeting about the people. Ensure that everyone leaves the kickoff feeling comfortable about the project requirements, goals, and timeline.

Lesson No. 3— A shared project plan = success

Once you and your client are on the same page about project goals, and you’ve formally kicked-off the project, it’s time to make a plan for how you’ll accomplish those goals on time, on budget, and on target.

During the first project I managed in the corporate world, I made my first “project plan”. I understood my deliverables, so I threw them into MS Project, and I estimated how long I thought it would take to make each deliverable. Then I met with my developer and shared the dates, and we started working on the first deliverable. Now listen, this is NOT how you should run things.

I learned a few things from that experience:

  1. Never create a project plan in a silo.
  2. Get detailed — don’t just list each deliverable, but list every single thing every single person has to do to achieve each one.
  3. Share your project plan with anyone who owns a deliverable. Confirm their commitment and that the deadlines are realistic.
  4. Share the plan and track everyone’s progress consistently.

Lesson No. 4— Communicate

If you’re managing a project that involves multiple teams, make sure you set up the structure to allow for escalation of issues. Don’t give people an opportunity to withhold information or sit on blockers without properly communicating or escalating them. If you wait for people to come to you, you might be waiting for a while.

Schedule recurring (productive) standups so everyone working on the project has no excuse but to share what they’re working on now, what they’re working on next, and if they’re running into any issues. Daily standups provide a forum for great communication — if you do it right.

Lesson No. 5— React. Respond. Adapt.

You can’t control what you can’t control. Just because you’re a project manager doesn’t mean you’re Superman. Be flexible — things change. React, respond, adapt, and charge forward. Don’t let ambiguity stop you from being successful. If you start to feel stuck, get up, go for a short walk, clear your head, and then sit back down and plug away at the things you know are within your control. And take a minute to reflect back on past experience… was there ever truly a time where things just flat out failed? Maybe I’m just lucky, but no matter what happens, because our teams are made up of smart people, we always figure out a solution to every problem.