The 5 Keys to Effective Project Management

effective project management
A pragmatic guide to project management

The 5 Keys to Effective Project Management

The 5 keys to effective project management is a pragmatic approach to project management that transcends project methodology, written by professionals with over 3 decades of management experience.

The very word “project” conjures many different and powerful thoughts and emotions. For some it conjures feelings of stress and fear knowing that they will be burning candles at both ends for days on end, week after week only to end up behind schedule and over budget. For others, it may bring a rush of adrenaline that feeds their desire for conquest and success.

Just imagine any project kick-off meeting you have attended in the last decade. There’s always some folks that are way too busy to be there, let alone be bothered with what the project sponsor is blabbering about. There’s one, maybe two, newbs madly writing down every “if, then and but” and frantically asking each other to repeat the last thing that was said. Then there’s Mike from the network team that can barely keep his eyes open because he was up all night pushing firewall rules. A smattering of people that have no idea why they were invited to the meeting in the first place. And finally, the overpaid, overdressed, know-it-at consultant in the corner that’s supposed to provide technical air support. Well, the good news is that somehow you have to deliver a multi million-dollar project on time and on budget with this motley crew. No problem!

Let me begin by stating that project management truly transcends all corporate boundaries. It applies to all forms, types and lines of business from Information Technology to Human Resources to Accounting and everywhere in between. It is this versatility that makes project management a necessary tool for implementing change within your organization, and it is your reliance on this tool that makes it a critical thing to get right.

Here are the 5 Keys to Effective Project Management.

    1. Business Requirements

“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see” –Mohamed Ali.

Business requirements absolutely must be defined and clearly understood in no uncertain terms by your entire team! They are the target you are aiming for, the end goal you are striving to achieve, the objective, and the whole reason for your project. The better defined they are, the better chance you have at delivering them successfully.

The phrase business requirement infers the requirement be derived by the business. You will get better results if you start defining the requirements with the people that will “own”, “use” and “will be responsible for the output of” the end product or system. The needs, requirements, and information you gather from these folks should be genuine and unsolicited. Do not influence their decisions with fancy products that may have nice bells and whistles but don’t ultimately deliver what they (and the business) need.

Start with a Business Requirements Document (BRD, or SRS or SRD) or, at the very minimum, a MoSCoW list. Then use this document as the sole driving force behind any important decisions that are made concerning the outcome of your project. Straying even a bit from this document invites nasty things such as scope creep, uncontrolled change and continuous growth into your project, turning it into a monster that cannot be delivered or tamed. All changes to the business requirements, whether small or large, should be signed off on by project stakeholders and the description of the change (including its potential impact on the timeline) must be communicated to the entire project team. See #2 – Managing Expectations.

Some projects must account for constant change to either business requirements or functional elements that drive business requirements. It’s much easier if these types of project are delivered using an Agile project framework.

    1. Managing Expectations

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” ― Charles DickensGreat Expectations

Managing expectations is likely one of the most challenging activities you will encounter as a project manager. No one likes delivering bad news, particularly when it concerns project delays or failure. While proper planning and establishing solid business requirements is a great start, there is no way to mitigate 100% of the risk 100% of the time. When you have to deliver bad news to an owner or stakeholder, use an honest and optimistic approach, it will serve you well in every situation.

There is no magic potion that will help you avoid delivering bad news. However, there are several tips you can employ to keeping from having to do so in first place:

“It is better to under promise and over deliver than vice versa” – everyone ever. Set reasonable goals and objectives and cut out the hype. It is better to deliver on every requirement within the BRD, then to miss a key requirement requirement and over deliver on fluff. If you are confused, remember MoSCoW.

Milestones and KPIs. They are more than just talking points. Milestones lay then foundation for your project, without them, you have no direction. KPIs keep the pulse of your project, whether it is alive and healthy or on its last breath. Milestones and KPIs convey the status of your project to owners, stakeholders and sponsors in a tangible, practical and meaningful way. See section #4.

Constant contact. Stay in contact with your team and resources. Use short standing meetings, weekly status reports and spot checks to make sure things are flowing. N.B. This does not me immerse yourself in every aspect of your resource day-to-day tasks, or combing through the commit messages for spelling mistakes. It’s just as easy to see the water in the river moving from shore.

This is an excellent article on various ways to manage customer expectations.

    1. Accountability

“Accountability is a two-way street.” — me

As a project manager, you rely on your team. You trust them to get work done, and in turn, they need you to literally clear a path so they can get work done.

Dealing with underwhelmed and despondent team members.

You are in a Scrum meeting with a room full of folks assigned to your project. You begin the meeting by asking for the status of each task assigned to your resources. “What did you do yesterday? What are you working on today? Do you have any road blocks?”  One by one, each team member responds with short, one to two words answers, their heads down, completely disengaged from you and your queries. Some of your team members view the Scrum as a complete waste of time. Some are dealing with additional issues dumped on them by their managers beyond the scope of your project. While others could be upset with the way things are being done by you or someone else. Regardless of the issues at hand, you have to garner the information you need to keep the project healthy and moving forward.

I find that the TBV (Trust but Verify) approach works the great for engaging teams. For example, when I’m leading a daily Scrum and asking a resource if something is done, or what the status is, I’ll say, “OK, Steve. Is the login feature done?” (Steve: “yes”) and I’ll say, “Great, can you show us how it works tomorrow? I want to get the team’s feedback.” This gives Steve a) the opportunity to tighten up his code and, b) the incentive to get involved because something is at stake. I use this technique from time to time to spot check my team’s progress and ensure they stay engaged. It’s not something I do on a daily basis, just here and there to keep the team on their toes. If you plan on adopting this technique, remember to spread the wealth and not just pick on Steve.

Another method for keeping the team engaged is to begin the meeting by conversing with the folks that are mostly likely to respond positively. This sets the tone and a standard level of engagement for the meeting. If a team member responds a bit flat, I will have a quick chat, and perhaps, a pep talk after the meeting.

The 3 Ways to Keep Your Team Motivated From Start to Finish provides some great advice!

Accountability is a two-way street! I said it again, so it must be import.

The resources you have involved with your project need you just as much as you need them; in fact, part of your job as a project manager is to enable them to do their job – clear the path as we like to say. It could mean anything from providing the right work environment such as temporary access to software, to scheduling a quiet office to get some coding done, to quick pep talk. It is important to remember that you succeed when your team succeeds.

    1. Tempo

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” – C.S. Lewis

Use Performance Measures and Milestones to Establish Tempo

Don’t confuse a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) with a Milestone. They are different in meaning and purpose, yet both are important to the success of your project.

A Milestone is the state of achievement in a project that has a defined outcome, such as, “Funding secured”, “QA testing complete”, or “Infrastructure ready”. It is merely a stepping stone to the final project completion and delivery.

A KPI measures an certain aspect of your project’s performance. Collectively, KPIs represent your project’s heartbeat. When deciding on which KPIs to use, it is important to select those most applicable and relevant to your project without going overboard. Trust me, death by KPI is a real thing! For instance, if you are delivering a software project, you will want to know the Code Commit rate, Quality Audit Pass rate, or Resource Burn rate. If you are restructuring your company’s HR policy, you could use Policy Approval and Adoption rate.

Take your time to properly plan out your project road-map by ascribing the appropriate milestones at reasonable intervals throughout the project timeline. Rely on SMEs (Subject-Matter Experts) to determine if your if milestones are achievable in the allotted time frame. Once your milestones are in place, determine what KPIs you need to keep track of to meet those milestones. You will also want to determine the KPIs that give you the most accurate picture of your project’s health. E.g. Story Completion Rate, code commit rate or expense burn rate. Use this information when communicating the project status to owners or stakeholders.

A well-constructed plan has its own rhythm or cadence to it. It flows and feels almost circadian when delivered. Your resources and team members will have a consistent amount of work to complete on a daily basis without burning the candle at both ends. Work products such as WSRs (Weekly Status Reports), Field Reports or RAID logs get submitted on time and, mostly importantly, expectations are met as promised.

    1. Be A Consummate Professional

What is more frustrating to a developer that stopped coding, took four elevators and crossed a busy Toronto street to attend an urgent meeting only to find that the project manager, that insisted he attend, was completely unprepared? NOTHING!

As a project professional, you are asking for people’s time and attention. Often, the resources assigned to your project have other responsibilities. From Database Administrators and Human Resource Managers to Engineers and Business Analysts, it is very likely that the team you manage have other obligations within the business. Be considerate and respectful of their time! There is absolutely no better way to win the respect of a team member than by being respectful of their time! Let me repeat that. There is absolutely no better way to win the respect of a team member than by being respectful of their time!

Here are a few tips to run efficient yet effective meetings:

Keep meetings short and to the point.

Meetings should serve a purpose. E.g. “Daily Scrum”, “Technical Review”, “Project Funding”. Only invite team members required to be there. Meetings with no purpose are actually destructive and waste time.

Use the “Close By” rule for members that may need to attend only if called upon. Allow them to work at their desk, then call them in when you need them and dismiss them when they are done.

Maintain control. Do not let anyone commandeer your meeting. Nothing is worse than listening to Carl from accounting spew on and on about how bad the cafeteria food is.

If important points need to be addressed, schedule a breakout meeting and only invite team members required to solve the problem.

Of course, these are only a few ways to be the consummate professional project manager. For more information, check out the consummate professional.

Project management truly transcends all corporate boundaries. It applies to all forms, types and lines of business from Information Technology to Human Resources to Accounting and everywhere in between. The 5 Keys to Effective Project Management discussed herein are tried and true techniques that my team and I have been using for over twenty-five years. It is my absolute pleasure to share them with you!

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