how to attain project management nirvana

If you’ve ever had the frustrating experience of finding a project you’re overseeing hasn’t turned out quite the way you’d hoped – or if you’re new to managing projects and wondering where to begin – try following these five steps to successful project nirvana.

1. Get clear on the desired outcome before work begins. It might sound obvious, but too often people forget to make sure they and others working on a project agree about what a successful outcome would look like – and then are surprised when the final work product isn’t what they were expecting. To avoid this gap between your expectations and the final outcome – and to avoid having to go back and make changes after work should have been complete – always talk explicitly at the start about what a successful outcome would look like. And be as specific as possible here, so that everyone involved is agreed on how you’ll know success when you see it.

2. Establish clear roles. Projects can languish when people aren’t clear on their roles and who’s responsible for driving different pieces of the work forward. To avoid this, be explicit at the outset about who should play what role – who’s the project “owner” (with overarching responsibility for its success), who is available as a helper to the owner, who should be asked for input, and who must sign off on decisions before they’re final.

3. Conduct “pre-mortems.” You might be used to conducting post-mortems when a project is over, but as Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work recommends, it can be far more helpful to do a pre-mortem before a project starts. As you’re still in the planning stages, ask your team, “If it’s X date (some point after the work is over) and the project failed or didn’t go well, what will we look back and say went wrong? And what can we do now to adjust our plan to address that?”

4. Build in check-ins along the way. Sure, if you’ve talked through the project at the start, it would be nice to assume that the work will happen according to plan. But in reality, you’ll need to stay involved and check in as the work progresses. Those check-ins are what will allow you to keep the work on course, catch problems early, and change course if necessary.

5. Debrief when the work is over. It can be tempting to skip this last step when new projects loom, but scheduling time at the end of a project to reflect on what went well and what could have been done differently can help you draw out lessons and get better results in the future. A write-up of these lessons – even as just a quick bulleted list – can be invaluable to have on hand the next time you conduct a similar project.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Zahra*

    The frequent check-ins and debriefing are something I really like about my current workspace. We work in an Agile environment (short deadlines, delivery by small increments, peer review before delivery, daily short meeting about what everybody’s doing, what’s blocking them, what’s done and to be done, etc.).

    Some projects do not lend themselves to daily meetings (ours is about 15 minutes long), but I think some projects can be divided in bite-size pieces and benefit from some elements of the Agile methodology.

  2. CollegeAdmin*

    My boss thinks she does all of these, but she is (sadly, for me) mistaken. I could rewrite this list as “How to Ensure Your Project Turns into a Clusterfluff.” In fact, here we go!

    1. Have a vague idea of what your goal is, and change it at least three times during the course of the project.
    2. Say that certain people should be involved, but don’t get specific as to how. Assign yourself tasks, but then at the last minute, hand them off to your overworked/underpaid assistant.
    3. When asked, “What happens if X doesn’t work or if Y doesn’t get done?” just say in a firm tone, “No, it will. That just has to happen.”
    4. Once the project starts, work on it half-hardheartedly for a week and then sweep it into the corner. Occasionally trot it back out after the tenth reminder from your assistant, but cancel 90% of your meetings with her to discuss it.
    5. If the work finishes by some divine intervention, say, “This is great!” and use its success as a reason to create three larger projects to complete simultaneously using steps 1-4.

    …I may be a little frustrated right now. Sorry for the vent!

    1. WM*

      Hahaha! Number 3 is my favorite! If you haven’t already – search you tube for a video titled “stuff project managers say” (but replace stuff with the not-appropriate-for-comments word). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’s a good time. Now get back to that project plan! haha ;)

  3. The IT Manager*

    I am a project manager so like CollegeAdmin, I can post a list what not to do gleaned from my own and others’ experience.

    Biggest things I have seen lately is planning to the deadline ie Working backwards from the deadline. The schedule has no basis in the reality of estimated amount of man hours it’ll take and the number people assigned. Instead we start with the deadline and place completely unrealistic estimates on how fast each step can get done. Leads to much disappoint and frustration.

  4. T*

    Does anyone have suggestions for when the team members are volunteers? I had a project in which it was impossible to get the group together after the initial interest meeting. I had little response to e-mails for one-on-one updates. Some of the people came through, but I had to streamline the project and do more of the work myself than I had originally planned.

Comments are closed.