Here are some bits of Project Management (PM) wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years. I can trace each of them to a PM trauma, scar, hard-won victory, or a behavior pattern that seemed to consistently produce good results. I hope you find these valuable!
1. Hire the best, most experienced people you can.
You need people who can help you anticipate problems and prevent them. And you need people who have developed their own internal “wisdom filter” through experience. The battle to get the best people for your project is the most important battle you can fight.
2. Encourage team members to speak up and make themselves heard when they see something’s going wrong.
Chances are your team members will know about a looming problem for days before you’ll hear about it. And if they feel free to let you in on it early you can often take action to fix it before things get out of control. (Just make sure they aren’t simply complaining. Insist that they give you a suggestion for fixing things along with every complaint!)
3. Do any menial work that’s needed to keep your team moving.
For example, when my team of tech writers was meeting with SMEs (subject matter experts) who would arrive without copies of documentation, I went to the copy center and made copies. Thus the team could conduct their interviews and still leave with reference material.
Generally, I like to think of myself as the guy in the white coveralls with a broom and garbage can, following the elephants in the parade. I locate the crap, deal with it, and help the marching band (my project team) avoid stepping in it so we can keep the music flowing.
4. Know your project life cycle cold.
At any point you should be able to tell any stakeholder or any project team member exactly what’s going on, what’s coming next, and what inputs they are expected to supply.
5. Continually sell the value of your project’s systematic, iterative life cycle to sponsors and stakeholders.
Clients, contributing experts, and sometimes even team members themselves aren’t always convinced that our project life cycles are made up of absolutely essential tasks. So it’s up to you to make sure everyone knows that there’s a bit of science behind your art. Convince them that your project’s life cycle (i.e., its unique tasks, phases, reviews, revisions & iterations) are absolutely linked to the quality of your finished product. Make it clear that each review-revision loop is ultimately creating a solid foundation for success. (For more on project life cycles, see “Project Life Cycles versus Key PM Processes.”)
6. Don’t let your sponsors get out of making the tough decisions.
Sponsors usually engage project managers to create specific, tangible results. They typically don’t hire project managers to determine their organizational priorities or strategic directions. Setting organizational priorities and strategies – and figuring out how these are manifested through specific project deliverables – is usually the sponsor’s job. So make sure she does it! After all, that’s why she’s getting the “big bucks,” right?
For example, if your team is building a new product, let the sponsor resolve the discrepancies between what the engineers say the product will be able to do and what the marketing people or lawyers say the product should do. It’s simply not your job to resolve these kinds of disputes. In effect, you need to say to the sponsor: “Get back to me when you decide what you want this thing to do! We can make it do anything… you guys just need to figure out what you want!”
7. Always create some sort of blueprint, design, flowchart, system specifications, outline, or other detailed “on paper” description of your finished product before you build the real thing.
This way, people can review, argue over, revise and finalize these preliminary items before your team spends a lot of time (or invests a lot of creativity and passion) building your finished product. In other words, let them pick apart your choice of yarn before you spend the time and energy to knit an entire sweater – then have them reject it because it’s the wrong color!
8. Make sure your sponsors provide or, at the very least, approve all the experts on the team.
After all, if your sponsors are paying for and approving your results, they should be prepared to stand behind the experts who will be helping you shape these results. If sponsors don’t trust your experts, they’ll likely spend a lot of time challenging your designs and your finished products. And that means you’ll have to spend a lot of time and energy defending the experts’ choices – or, worse, rebuilding your results to suit your sponsor’s idiosyncratic vision of an expertly crafted finished product.
So at the very beginning of the project, before the finished results are described or designed, ask the sponsors to enlist the help of any experts they trust. And if they have no particular experts in mind, make sure your sponsors have a chance to meet, think about, and approve the experts you recommend.
9. Protect your project team members.
Make sure that everyone who is creating your project deliverables is protected from political disputes, unnecessary management reports, endless meetings, and low-value dog-and-pony shows. Handle these potential distractions yourself so the creators on your team can stay fresh and focus on making great contributions from their areas of expertise.
10. Fight for enough time to do things right.
If you cave in to ridiculous time demands and end up creating a lousy product, no one will remember how short the schedule was or how self-sacrificing you were when you agreed to it. They’ll simply remember that you built something that is substandard. And the professionals who worked on your team will remember that they were frustrated because they had to cut corners, only to endure the disappointment of having built something that turned out to be second-rate. In either case, you’re likely to end up with a client and team members who want nothing to do with you when it’s time for that next project. So it’s up to you to fight for (i.e., to defend the need for) enough time to do things right.
And what if they dig in their heels and won’t allow you more time? Then try to negotiate to provide prototypes instead of finished products, provide solutions that are “buy-versus-build,” or simply provide fewer items or fewer features than they originally wanted.
11. Know when to give in.
Don’t lose the war because you couldn’t resist fighting every little battle. As one of my more colorful senior managers used to say, “You don’t wanna get in a pissing match unless you are ready to get wet!” So… ask yourself: “Is this really worth getting wet over?”
12. Understand that the brain is a physical mechanism that needs to be rested to work properly.
The brain is an electro-chemical mechanism whose neural synapses require periods of rest to prevent them from becoming clogged with waste products and malfunctioning (or maybe even going “blank,” like you did in college, after pulling that “all-nighter” studying). So don’t expect your highly-paid, well-educated, and creative professionals to produce quality results on a ridiculously short schedule. You wouldn’t run a finely tuned race car without a pit stop, would you?!
13. Stay humble about your PM. And accept this in your heart: PM is overhead.
PM typically doesn’t produce anything that end users need. Sure, PM can keep complicated team efforts coordinated and on track. But, in and of itself, PM doesn’t create finished products. It creates its own sometimes-arcane artifacts (Gantt charts, budgets, network diagrams, etc.) that help managers up and down the food chain feel more confident. But PM doesn’t create finished products.
So ask this question of everything you, in your role as project manager, do:
Is this really going to get my finished products done more quickly, with higher quality, and with less frustration on the part of those who are creating them?
If you ever answer “No” to this question then you should consider stopping that PM thing you are doing. It’s fine for consultants and professional associations to suggest particular PM practices. Truth is, they want to sell you training and services to help you figure out the more complicated stuff! But unless these practices really improve your project results or make things better for your project team, you should feel free – maybe even feel obligated – to ignore the PM stuff as just so much overhead.
14. Step into the fear.
Know that at the beginning of nearly every project – especially when facing unfamiliar technical content – almost everyone experiences that moment when a little voice inside says, “I’ve finally done it! I’m really in over my head this time! This is where they find out I’ve been faking it! Aargh!”
When this voice speaks, remind yourself (or any team members who feel this fear) that you have heard this voice before and that you have a track record that says you will eventually overcome this fear, that you will soon resolve your confusion and you will succeed. Then use the energy of the fear to help you stay focused, alert, and resolved to get great results.
A couple of particularly good ways to deal with fear:
- Break down that which you fear into component parts or small steps. Then simply focus on addressing these one at a time.
- Find other people who have overcome the challenge you are facing. Ask them: How did they do it? What would they do differently? What was the most important thing they learned? What would they do if they were in your shoes?
- Then just step into the fear and do the next thing you know you must do to move you toward your project completion. Then do the next thing, and the next thing, and…
(See also this podcast, http://www.inspiredprojectteams.com/?p=645)
15. Be on the lookout for team members who are in pain and help them find ways to eliminate it.
All teams are different. And all project environments are different. But one thing’s universal: When someone is frustrated, distraught, discouraged, or strung out so far he can’t do his job properly, you can’t ignore it. If you try to ignore it you might face an emotional meltdown or, less dramatically, end up with a team member who is producing inaccurate or haphazard work products. Either way, you shouldn’t deny the reality of this person’s pain. Your whole project could become a casualty of this neglect.
So when someone on your team is in misery, pause and try to find out more about what’s causing the pain. Then think about the kinds of help or intervention the local culture will support. Finally, work within these local cultural boundaries to help him remove or reduce his pain and get back on track.
16. Think of yourself as a switchboard.
Constantly relay information and decisions to members of your project team. Keep everyone informed about what’s going on with everyone else and the deliverables they are all creating. MBWA (Management by Walking Around) is a great way to gently and unobtrusively gather informal bits of information about the project’s evolution and to share these. Remember: Creativity and quality often comes from the “cross pollination” of ideas that are shared among team members. And who better to quietly buzz around spreading the pollen of ideas than you, project manager?
17. Fight for what’s right.
It’s okay to feel a sense of righteous indignation and dig in your heals in the face of decisions that threaten the quality of your finished product. After all, no one will remember why you caved in to a half-assed work process or substandard tools or materials. They’ll just know that your finished product is flawed. And so, too, will be your reputation and the reputation of the professionals on your team. More importantly, you will have spent your time and energy creating something that might not ever work the way people originally hoped it would work!
Now this isn’t just about ego and professional standards. It’s simply a stupid and short-sighted business practice to expend precious organizational resources (time, money, and peoples’ effort) creating stuff that doesn’t work right! But sometimes senior managers, especially those operating from a “Ready, Fire, Aim” frame of reference, ask professionals to do things that they themselves don’t realize are stupid and short-sighted. So it’s your role as a professional to “push back” and help senior management learn that they’re asking for something dumb. In other words, one of your highest roles in the vast scheme of things is to fight for what’s right!
18. Insist that the sponsor (customer) sign off and approve deliverables as they are evolving.
“You will pry my sign-offs out of my cold, dead hands!” – MG
Projects are finite. Projects must come to an end. Therefore our works-in-progress (our deliverables) must each come to an end. The question is: How can we know when we’re done with that outline or that flow-chart or that set of design specifications? How do we know when we can confidently move on to the next iteration of our deliverables without having to go back and rethink or rework the stuff we ought to be finished with? The answer: Get a meaningful sign-off for each iteration of our deliverables. And that means getting the sponsor’s signature to a statement indicating her approval of the work and agreeing that this hunk of work is now finalized… and we can now move on.
Make sure your sign-off includes some kind of consequences (more money, more time, or more resources) for completely rethinking a deliverable after it has been approved. After all, if your budget and schedule are limited, then the number of revisions must also be limited. That’s only common sense… and it’s only fair!
Think about it: Would you really expect a plumber whom you contracted to re-pipe your kitchen to expand the project and re-pipe your bathroom without charging you more and asking for more time? Of course not! So why let your sponsors get away with all sorts of add-ons without providing your team with more money and time. Aren’t your team members as valuable as that plumber?
19. Develop a sense of humor and a “willful suspension of disbelief.”
Things can’t always make sense on a project. After all, we’re working with humans who are often complicated mixes of weird histories, hidden agendas, and sometimes bizarre behaviors. And, unless something’s diminishing the quality of your project outcomes, it’s not always necessary that you fully understand all of the weirdness. There are times when it’s easier, or at least more expeditious, to simply enjoy the ride.
In other words, when your customer is acting like Alice’s Red Queen, then try to relax and enjoy the experience — The White Rabbit may be along soon and prove to be pleasant company!
20. Plan, plan, and re-plan.
The main work of a project manager is planning. Plan the marathon that is the project. Plan the sprints that are the activities and phases. Adjust the marathon strategy based on what happens during the sprints.
Use your own, organization-specific rules of thumb (project history) to lay the groundwork for a solid project plan. Then review that plan every week or so and revise it as needed. Remember that as the keeper of the plan, you should be constantly running ahead, just over the horizon, planting the flag and guiding your team to the next milestone.