Project Management: 3 Ways to go From Good to Great

If there was one way to describe project management, it would be “balance”.

Being a project manager is all about maintaining a delicate balance. You have to balance leadership with management, analytical thinking with creative persuasion, and relationship-building with effective delegation.

How does one go about achieving this balance? How can you mix up the right-brained and left-brained parts of project management without losing your way?

In other words, what does it take to go from merely ‘good’ to ‘great’ as a project manager?

We’ll share some answers in this article.

1. Focus on Risk Management

Why do projects fail?

Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s usually due to a lack of technical skills. You couldn’t complete the project on-time and under-budget because you did not have the capabilities to do it.

But data suggests that this isn’t always the case. According to Gartner, only 1% of projects fail due to technical reasons. An overwhelming majority of failures can be attributed largely to organizational skills.

Image source: Gartner.com

Any experienced project manager will tell you why: unexpected risks always crop up. A resource you were depending on might drop out. A contractor might delay a key deliverable. A stakeholder might go MIA.

To go from good to great, you need to anticipate such risks and develop the organizational robustness to tackle them.

This is a two-step process:

  • Document all potential risks before the start of the project
  • Create a risk management plan to tackle these risks

Potential risks to a project can be many, but you can broadly divide them into two categories:

  1. Implicit risks i.e. risks related to the structure, nature, or scope of the project
  2. Explicit risks i.e. external risks related to specific deliverable (or group of deliverables), resources, or stakeholders

Some projects have inherently high implicit risk. If you’re trying to land a rocket on Mars, there is a good chance the project will fail simply because of the difficulty of the task itself.

The best way to deal with such implicit risks is to make sure that your project is structurally and organizationally sound. You should have a clear project management methodology, a project dashboard to monitor progress, strong communication, and robust resource management.

Explicit risks, on the other hand, are easier to catalog and avoid.

For instance, a meta-analysis of your projects might reveal that your clients uniformly delay signing off on projects. This might indicate that your communication practices are subpar.

Your top priority, thus, should be to document all these explicit risks and create a plan to tackle each one of them. Two ways to do this are:

  • Historical project data: Dig through your older projects and catalog all bottlenecks and issues. Try to spot any patterns. Do you uniformly make the same mistake across projects? If yes, consider it as a risk event that can be avoided in the future.
  • Expert analysis: Before developing your project plan, consult domain experts within your team to spot potential risks. Ask them what kind of issues they’ve encountered on similar projects in the past and what can be done to mitigate them.

Ideally, you should create a risk repository to catalog all these risks. You can then turn to this repository to spot potential issues with a new project.

2. Develop Robust Scope Management Practices

Scope creep is one of the biggest challenges for project managers, especially in large and complex projects. As PMI’s 2018 survey reveals, 52% of projects experience scope creep in some form.

Image source: PMI.org

This can make some project managers almost resigned to the inevitability of scope creep.

But things don’t have to be that way. Going from a good to a great project manager means developing best practices that can contain and even eliminate scope creep.

To develop stronger scope management processes, you first need to understand why scope creep happens in the first place. Usually, the culprits are:

  • Poorly defined scope: Scope creep is common in projects where the scope is loosely defined as a set of goals, not a definite set of deliverables. Your scope should emerge from your work breakdown structure, not the project charter or vision document. That is, you should know exactly what you have to build before you allocate any budget.
  • Limited stakeholder involvement: An absent or disinterested stakeholder can easily cause a project to balloon out of scope. This problem is particularly acute in projects where stakeholders are necessary for micro-decisions (such as creative projects). Better communication can solve this problem, as can establishing a chain of command in case a stakeholder goes MIA.
  • Lack of scope management practices: Do you have a formal process for documenting change requests? Do you have a way to track changes? If you answered ‘no’, your scope management process is clearly lacking. Developing this process is an easy way to mitigate scope creep issues.

The solution, as noted above, is to strengthen your scope management approach. Ditch the ad-hoc manner in which most small organizations deal with change requests. Instead, develop a uniform, scalable process to document, investigate and execute changes.

Some steps you can take are:

  • Get project sponsors involved in the scope planning process. It’s better to know exactly what you have to build at the start of the project than at the very end.
  • Use the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) as a guideline for planning project scope. This gives you a better idea of what you have to build.
  • Create a change management process that focuses on documenting all change requests in a central library. You can then prioritize each request based on urgency and impact. You should also have a way to track any action or communication related to the change request.
  • Invest in better monitoring. If you have all your project data in a centralized dashboard, it will be easier to spot projects growing beyond the scope and take remedial measures early.

Recommended article: 8 Expert Tips on Avoiding Scope Creep Without Losing Clients

3. Create Better Project Teams

Being a great project manager won’t help you much if your project team itself is poorly organized. Whatever skills you might possess as a PM are limited by the skills of your team.

Improving project team composition and organization, thus, can have a lasting impact on your project success.

There are two aspects to creating better project teams:

A. Improving team engagement

A checked-out team member is an underperforming team member.

Unfortunately, disengaged employees is a huge part of project inefficiency. Disengaged employees have lower productivity and morale. Their higher absenteeism and lack of enthusiasm can also spread to other members of the team.

Image source: iHire.com

This problem often arises when employees don’t feel they have a stake in the project. They are simply checking off a list of tasks instead of actually working on something they care about.

The solution? Get team members involved. Include them in your decision-making. Share project updates with them. Make them feel that they are a part of the internal-external stakeholder relationship.

The more you get them involved in the project’s progress, the more you’ll find that they care about it.

B. Optimizing membership across multiple teams

Do some of your team members work across multiple teams and projects?

What used to be a rare phenomenon is now becoming increasingly common, especially in small businesses. A single individual might be a part of several teams, often working on different deliverables at the same time.

While this can be great for resource-strapped organizations, it can leave employees burned out. There is only so much task switching you can accomplish before it takes its cognitive load.

As one South African study found out, there is a point beyond which being a part of multiple teams has a negative effect on performance.

The solution is to find the optimum point between performance and team membership. This point – the “Goldilocks Zone” –

This is the point where you can add a resource to multiple teams without sacrificing performance.

There is no scientific way to find this optimum point; every organization, team, and team member is different. You will have to talk to your people to figure out how they like to work.

Some questions you can ask are:

  • Are their tasks have a high or low cognitive load?
  • Can their tasks be grouped into different types? If yes, can they be spread across multiple projects?
  • How do they deal with task switching? Are they effective multitaskers, or does it overwhelm them?

You’ll find that some of your people are focused workers (i.e. they can only work on one task at a time) while some are multitaskers (i.e. they can focus on multiple tasks simultaneously).

Your goal should be to schedule projects in such a way that focused workers get extended time to deal with individual tasks (which should also be grouped by type). With multitaskers, you have more freedom.

Accomplish this and you’ll find that multiteam membership is not only possible, but also highly productive.

Over to You

Going from “good” to “great” in project management has no fixed path. However, certain issues that crop up in most derailed projects – scope creep, risk management, team management, etc.

Focus on these aspects of project management and you’ll find it easy to go from good to great.

Alma Causey

Alma Causey

Alma Causey is a Freelance writer by day and sports fan by night. She writes about Fashion and Tech. Live simply, give generously, watch football and a technology lover. She is currently associated with Workamijig. You can find her on twitter: @AlmaCausey

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