Project management seems so straightforward. You set a deadline. You set a budget. You select the right people. The project gets done. See also: best free project management software.
In reality, project management is rarely straightforward. The wrong people are assigned to the project. People don't know what is expected of them or get conflicting information. The scope changes. Deadlines aren't met. Put more succinctly: Stuff happens.
So what can businesses, and project managers, do to improve the odds of projects being completed on time and on budget? Dozens of project leaders and project management experts share nine secrets to successful project management.
1. Ensure that you have full project details before starting. "Creating a completely detailed project scope approved by all stakeholders is a necessity," states Adam Balkwill, technical director, Garfield Group, an integrated marketing agency.
"The scope should include interim milestones, with deliverable dates and a budget worksheet that represents all time involved. If the initial project writeup has enough detail, the better you and your client will interact through its production," Balkwill says. "Change requests will happen on every project, but this allows you to manage the client when something is out of scope."
2. Have the right (and right-sized) project management team in place. In order for a project to be successful, you need to have the right project team in place, people whose skills and experience can benefit the project, from the project manager on down. It also helps to "limit the number of people involved," says Josh Meah, COO, JackMyRep.com, a reputation management company.
"Amazon.com uses the 'pizza' team methodology based on the idea that a team shouldn't be larger than 6 to 10 people," he explains. "A manager really can only handle so many direct reports without losing grasp on either the vision for the project, details of the work involved, and personalities and personal requirements of their organization and staff," he says. "So, to maximize effectiveness, limit the size of your project management teams." And involve people whose skills match the project requirements.
3. Set expectations -- and milestones -- up front. "Set relatively (based on risk) frequent milestones and check in often to ensure projects stay on track," advises Pat McGuinness, chief technology risk officer, GE Capital. "If you only set longer-term or high-level milestones, you won't realize a project is in trouble until it's too late. My team at GE Capital schedules multiple project benchmarks and iterative reviews to make sure the money being invested in an IT project is being used efficiently and that project goals are being addressed."
"When [everyone] on the team clearly understands the [scope] from the beginning, you eliminate the ambiguity that can derail a project," adds Juan Velasquez, marketing specialist, Do It Wiser, a provider of toner cartridges and green office supplies. A good way to do this," he says, is to hold a kickoff meeting, where everyone involved attends. Kickoff meetings "help to set expectations," where you can "discuss the project in detail," create a workable roadmap and assign people roles and responsibilities.
4. Be clear about who is responsible for what -- and deadlines. "When multiple people are collaborating on the same task, assignments, deadlines and other important details often get lost in translation," explains Fred Mouawad, founder and CEO, Taskworld, a task management platform. To avoid confusion, "determine which team members are responsible for which pieces of work [up front], and enforce accountability. An online task management program is a simple way to do this."
"It's important that each member of your team understands what is expected from them," adds Brandon Seymour, owner, Beymour Consulting, an SEO and inbound marketing firm. "This includes the full scope of the project and a precise timeline of when tasks need to be completed." Because every project is different, "it helps for all of the key players to have a solid understanding of how each of their efforts contributes to the project as a whole. Project milestones and benchmarks are great for managing these expectations and keeping teams on track with deadlines."
5. Don't micromanage. "Meet regularly with the team members who will be working on the project. However, allow them breathing room to work without feeling micromanaged," says Shilonda Downing, owner, Virtual Work Team, a virtual assistant company. "Creating a balance here is key to ensuring that work is being done and that team members feel empowered to do their best work."
6. Make sure you have a good system in place for managing the project, one that everyone can and will use. "Email seems the most obvious form of communication when managing a project, but it can hinder progress," says Chris Griffiths, CEO, DropTask, a visual task management solution. "Trawling through email threads for previous correspondence is a huge time waster. Using software that keeps all project information and communication in one place not only saves time, [it] maintains a productive workspace."
"Our team and clients are located across the country, which means we can't share physical files," explains Amy Driehorst, lead project manager, Weaving Influence, which connects authors to online audiences. So "we use a digital project management application that not only allows us to manage all aspects of the project through task lists, but also serves as an online filing cabinet housing all the documents associated with the project as well as a discussion board," she explains. "The ability to [easily] add clients to the project allows for smooth communication and sharing of information."
7. Keep team members motivated by rewarding them when milestones are reached. "It is useful to set milestones while planning projects," notes Ajay Kaul, managing partner, AgreeYa Solutions, a provider of business software. To ensure projects stay on track, "recognize team members whenever a milestone is met. Celebrating milestones can be a great way to track progress while keeping team members motivated."
8. Hold regular project status meetings or calls, but keep them short. "Frequent communication with all members of the team as well as the client is the best way to ensure a project is on track," says Driehorst. "This is especially important in a virtual environment, where [you] don't have the luxury of popping into a colleague's office to check the status of a task. I find scheduling regular calls in addition to all the other forms of digital communication we use ensures open and clear communication for all concerned."
While keeping everyone up to date on the project's status is essential, "you need a way to communicate everyone's status to the rest of the team without getting bogged down by the details," says Martijn van Tilburg, CEO, 10,000ft, a project and resource management solution provider. To avoid participants tuning out, "keep status meetings short and sweet [by limiting] everyone to [for example] 90 seconds of talking. This encourages team members to focus on the most relevant details about the past week."
9. Build in time for changes. "In technology, projects don't ever seem to follow specifications exactly," notes Samit Shah, cofounder, EventEdge, which builds custom event apps. "To avoid pain points and save time, build in extra time for specification changes and requests. You will be thankful."