Great project management can be defined in many ways. Limiting scope creep, appropriately managing client expectations, and effective team collaboration are all indicators of a successful project. The key to achieving these, and to setting up any project for success is dependent on establishing the right amount of structure and flexibility from the outset. It is a balance of leveraging the Science and invoking the Art of project management.
The “science” is largely rooted in the structure provided by utilizing established best practices. There are numerous methodologies available that outline the requirements for any project, such as defining clear objectives and a project plan. Following one of these frameworks will afford the foundation for a successful program. However, the “art” is invoked in choosing the style and approach and it must be tailored for any given project. This tailoring technique will be based on the people and their working styles, company culture, and overall complexity of the project itself. Understanding the best approach for your project is something that comes with experience, hence the “art,” but can be honed using some basic steps. These are the vital steps that, if followed, will allow project managers to set up a project for success:
- pick a controlling project management framework and implement it;
- identify key project stakeholders and capture their expectations;
- establish a regular communication pattern and stick with it; and,
- set aside time each week to review prior events and plan on future events.
Choosing a Project Management Framework
A controlling project management framework gives the project team a foundational structure that will help to propel the project towards completion. It allows the team to establish a common, baseline understanding of expectations with the project stakeholders, who are awaiting the project results. However, as mentioned above, the right framework will vary by organization and project. Additionally, many firms have established their own proprietary project management methodology based on their experiences.
One of the best ways to begin a project is to determine if the organization or group already has an established project management framework. If the organization has a certain way of working, then consider utilizing their established framework first. As a project manager, it will be easier for you to engage people if they see tools that they are already comfortable using. If the organization does not have an established framework, then consider using the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) report on “PMO Frameworks” to find one that you feel best suits your project.
Once the project framework has been established, the delivery of completed project plans, schedules and budgets, and other project management artifacts is absolutely critical to keeping all stakeholders engaged.
A critical factor to consider when selecting a framework is the size of the project. Large projects often do not utilize enough project management structure, which can lead to critical, missed information relevant to the project’s success. On large projects, it is critical to identify all possible stakeholders and institute clear, frequent communication through an established structure to avoid such risks. In comparison, small projects can often suffer from too much project management, creating additional, unnecessary work for both the project manager as well as the stakeholders. Striking the right balance depends on the having a clear understanding of the project size, including the number of stakeholders and timing of deliverables.
In many cases, large organizations will establish a traditional stage-gate process. This style of framework requires that all design work must be completed and approved prior to any building or implementation of the solution. This works well for large organizations, in particular, because it ensures that stakeholders agree that everything they have requested has been included in the design and helps to prevent budget overrun, among other benefits. A significant drawback, however, is that oftentimes stakeholders and users are better able to articulate their needs and expectations once they are able to see an early prototype which may require distinct approvals in a stage-gate methodology. Having something more functional or “real” to react to will often spark ideas or pain points that were not previously mentioned during previous requirements gathering sessions.
For example, we saw a mismatch in project management frameworks with a mid-sized, natural gas liquefier marketer. The group had an established framework that required a fairly rigid, stage-gate process for managing projects across all business lines and within the information technology (IT) group. For the project team, this linear process did not support the agile approach required to implement an Energy Trading and Risk Management (ETRM) system. In recognizing this, the project manager worked with the business to implement modifications to the project framework that balanced the requirements of the stage-gate process and allowed for the iterative approach the ETRM system required. This included adjusting the definition of the design phase of the project to include the sign-off of early prototypes. This not only provided a jump-start on the Build Phase, but more importantly initiated the change management process with the users earlier in the project by familiarizing them with the design and incorporating their feedback. By making this change, the project team was able to deliver a front-to- back system in nine months, helping the business scale from $500 million to $1 billion over the course of three years and most importantly, delivery of system supported by the entire organization.
Identifying Key Project Stakeholders
Understanding the expectations of key project stakeholders allows them to engage in the project, which helps you to detect potential misalignments, understand what results they anticipate, and quantify what perceived benefits should come from the project. It also allows you to identify who within the organization is affected by the project, its outcomes and how their day-to-day routines will change. Part of understanding expectations is to understand the role each stakeholder plays in the project’s success. For instance, is the stakeholder truly invested in the project’s success? What is in it personally for him/her? Often you will need to understand the dynamics of the organization and where that individual fits into those dynamics. Are there any potential conflicts between the project’s success and the stakeholder’s success? Addressing these questions early in the project life cycle may detect potential misalignments earlier. Additionally, be aware of changes in alignment with stakeholder objectives as the project progresses. As stakeholders learn more, their expectations often change. Staying ahead of these changing expectations is key to preventing problems later.
The number of stakeholders identified, as part of a project will vary based on the nature of the work. In another example of project we directed, a rapidly growing bio-fuels company was undergoing a large- scale business transformation that affected the entire organization. The project manager recognized that it was important to create a sense of ownership in the overall strategic objectives of the program across the entire organization, not just from those officially listed as project sponsors. Often in organizations there are individuals who have more influence than indicated by their role or title in the organization and they must be included in the project. By identifying and maintaining communications with stakeholders across all business lines, from the C-suite to accounting, early in the project, the project manager was able to create the buy-in critical for success. As the project progressed and hit the inevitable bumps, having a common understanding of the overall strategy and organizational goals made it easier to get everyone realigned around the new plan that was being rolled out. Additionally, when building out the organization and incorporating new team members into key roles, there was already a level of understanding that had been established around the need for those new additions. This project ultimately prepared the organization to absorb several large acquisitions of refineries with little to no growing pains and again, with support from the entire organization.
Establishing Regular Communication Patterns
A well thought-out communication plan that engages stakeholders in accordance with the project framework is critical in establishing the right delivery pattern. The communication plan should denote who needs to stay informed of project updates, what kinds of updates they need to receive, and when they should have updates. As changes occur, the project manager can then communicate impacts appropriately so that everyone stays aligned and stakeholders do not feel they are being left in the dark.
Project communications occur in a variety of settings, ranging from formal meetings to informal greetings, depending on the audience and the message. Official, documented status reports should take place at a regular frequency. These will often be juxtaposed with weekly face-to-face “catchups” informing stakeholders of any progress and/ or changes in the interim. In many cases, effective communication management is as simple as maintaining comfortable relationships with team members, allowing for frequent, impromptu conversations to best stay up-to-date on project status. As the project progresses through phases, the blend of communication patterns will adjust as needed. For example, communication frequency may increase as major deliverables and milestone dates approach.
Using an example from another project we directed, at the beginning of a project for a mid-sized, crude oil refiner, daily meetings ensured everyone understood the project requirements and stakeholder expectations. These meetings, coupled with individual touch points as needed, allowed the team to incorporate the stakeholder in their approach on a more proactive basis. In addition, because the team performed much of the work remotely, these daily meetings during the early part of the project proved invaluable as it relieved some of the anxiety that existed when the project was initiated. As the project progressed and project deliverables were completed and communicated, the team established a regular cadence that the organization began to expect. In addition, the project team utilized online collaboration tools to efficiently communicate requirements, status reporting, test scripts, and working prototypes for user evaluation. In the end, the entire organization participated and supported the successful project.
Setting Aside Time Each Week to Reflect
Taking the time each week to review prior events and plan for the future allows the project manager the ability to maintain positive momentum amid the constant change and evolution. It can be difficult to take a step back and take a holistic perspective on the project when you’re “in the weeds,” working hard, on a daily basis. The project manager must take the time to take a step back to see if the plan needs to be altered. Begin with reviewing what data exists (status of deliverables, budget, etc.), organize it, and see what it says. Or, start by asking, what did I commit to doing? What did I get done? How should I adjust plans going forward? If a task has slipped more than three weeks in a row, ask why.
If potential issues are identified early, then they are fairly easy to course-correct with small adjustments. When issues are identified late, it can be hard to avoid a major problem. As mentioned previously, one of the symptoms of a bigger problem can be a task that has slipped multiple weeks in a row. Perhaps the resource is overly optimistic and overworked, or there may be an external dependency that requires focused attention. It can be hard to diagnose underlying issues in the moment, which is why taking the time to regularly step-back from the project is so vital to long-term success.
In your review, it is also important to remain cognizant of whether the project is still on track to meet stakeholder expectations. As a project matures, it is not uncommon for stakeholders to realize that what they initially planned will no longer achieve the intended results. Projects often lead to a degree of learning for stakeholders and collaboration across an organization often provides new insight.
During a project we led for an expanding, small energy firm, planned work was not being completed because new requirements were continuously taking priority. This caused overall project dates to slip and frustration from users. After a few weeks, the project manager stepped back and asked, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” By reflecting on the issue in a focused manner, the project manager revised the approach and reallocated resources. Separate project teams were established for planned work and new requirements, which created clarity of expectations and allowed for added rigor around requirements gathering, budgeting, and communication. With this change, the firm saw benefits more quickly than initially planned as the “refocused” project more acutely targeted the problem. From a communications perspective, reallocating resources alleviated some frustration experienced by the group and stakeholders felt reenergized and the project was successfully delivered.
The goal of any project is to achieve the objectives of the stakeholders to move the organization forward. Since there are so many variables within the organization, often a regimented, strict project plan does not allow the flexibility needed to complete the project while balancing the changing needs. By taking an approach to project management that balances both the art and science, projects are well positioned to see successful results. Though many have distilled project management to strictly a science, the problems being solved and the invested stakeholders always differ, giving every project a degree of novelty where soft skills, i.e., the Art of project management, provides the momentum that produces results.
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