Key strategies to keep your project on track

Project management is a highly complex discipline that requires a cool head, enormous attention to detail and the ability to multi-task. Use these project management skills to keep things running smoothly and on schedule.

 1.  Planning is Everything

Planning is the single most important project management skill required. Detailed and systematic plans are a must if the project is to succeed and should be drawn up with the input of all key stakeholders so that they are as realistic as possible in terms of timelines, completion dates, resources and costs. Once in place, the plan becomes the ‘Bible’ by which everyone operates and it is not deviated from until circumstances change and it needs to be formerly amended. Avoid the temptation (or pressure from above) to get up and running and then let the planning ‘catch up later’. Usually the plan never quite ‘catches up’ and the project becomes a rudderless, unfocused disaster.

2.   Assemble the Right Team

Having a plan in place will tell the project management team the kind of skills they need for the job at hand. Analyse what skills and expertise are absolutely critical and then aim to get the best people to fill those roles. Secondary skills can often by adequately filled by (cheaper) generalists, providing they receive the right guidance and oversight from top-quality key staff. Once they’re in place, let key personnel get on with what they’re best at and protect them from interference, interruptions and needless bureaucracy, such as too-frequent meetings and unnecessary report writing.

3.   Encourage Active Stakeholders

Clients, stakeholders and project sponsors typically (and rightfully) demand the right to approve project deliverables. Along with this should come a willingness to be actively involved, particularly in the early stages. If not, part of the role of project management is to insist that stakeholders help to define deliverables, undertake interim reviews of completed deliverables (in a timely way that keeps the project moving forward) and assist with removing any obstacles in the way of the project manager. This includes providing access to additional resources if these become necessary.

4.   Get the Right Approvals

Disaster awaits the project manager who isn’t forceful enough – or ‘too busy’ – to get the appropriate approvals and sign-offs from the client or other stakeholders. A mere nod and a mumbled “that looks good” doesn’t constitute authorisation! This will, as project management expert Michael Greer ( explains, “give ‘em plenty of room to weasel out of agreements”. Greer continues: “It’s this simple; anyone who has the power to reject or to demand revision of deliverables after they are complete must be required to examine and approve them as they are being built”.

5.   Communicate What is Needed

A vital project management skill is the ability to visualise how the finished deliverables and completed project will look – and then communicate these in such a way that everyone has a similarly clear picture of what is required. In the absence of this, key individuals will create their own versions of the ‘picture’ and the project will begin to pull in different directions. Remember that a clearly understood and detailed picture equals a common direction for everyone involved. At all costs, avoid creating a vague and ambiguous picture which is open to individual interpretation. From time to time, as people become bogged down in the minutiae of their tasks, also take a moment to remind them of this ‘bigger picture’.

6.   Responsibility Must Equal Authority

A project manager with many responsibilities and numerous deadlines – but no authority – is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s vital that the management team has the authority to hire and fire when necessary, to access funds and resources, and to insist on timely approvals and revisions from clients and stakeholders. Obviously there should be financial and other boundaries beyond which the project manager may not venture without authorisation, but within those boundaries the project manager and his team must have the flexibility – and trust from above – to be able to quickly and effectively take whatever measures they feel are necessary for successful completion.

7.   Ensure there’s time to do it right

It’s an ironic fact of life that ‘urgent’ projects are often done so quickly – and without the necessary plans and measures in place – that the ‘finished product’ has numerous problems which first need to be corrected or re-engineered. The end result is the project takes longer to come on-stream than if it hadn’t been rushed in the first place!

The lesson here is that the project management team must fight for sufficient time to do it right the first time. Spend time with clients and other stakeholders explaining why this is necessary and lobbying for the appropriate amount of time. Successful projects use a tested and proven lifecycle and ‘short cuts’ are usually self-defeating and more costly.