Project management is a tough job. Teams and organizations are trying to work leaner, and often that means eliminating the role of a dedicated project manager. While it's still possible to earn an advanced degree in the subject, it's not uncommon for people with little to no experience to find themselves thrust into the role of project manager, often on top of their official job. While this can be an overwhelming experience, there's so much powerful software for project management on the market that a small project or two may not require a project manager at all.
If you don't have much experience managing projects, here are some pointers to get you started. Many thanks to Peter Clarkson, formerly of Maestro Development, and Jason Westland, CEO of ProjectManager.com, for their insight on an earlier version of this article.
1. Make Sure You Have a Project
Before you start trying to manage a project, make sure you have a project! That advice may sound overly simple, but I've heard it time and time again from expert project managers.
A project is a set of tasks that has a start date, end date, and deliverable. A deliverable is anything that's delivered at the end of the work, such as a physical product or a functioning website. Building a house is a project. Redesigning a website (as outlined in the screen from ProofHub, below) is a project. If you could in theory hand off all the tasks of the project to someone else and at the receive something back from that person, that's a project.
Sometimes people confuse ongoing work with projects, so let me give a few examples of ongoing work to make it clear. Writing new content for a website every week is ongoing work, even though you could look at the production of one single piece of writing as its own little project. Providing maintenance support for code by continually fixing it is ongoing work. Answering customer emails or phone calls is ongoing work.
2. Have a Discovery Period
Before kicking off a project, some people recommend what's called discovery. Project management discovery is different from discovery in the legal sense. For our purposes, it's a period of time when the people requesting the project explore what they want to do or make and why. It could be a meeting, a series of meetings, or an open period of time for free thinking and exploration.
Below are some questions to explore while you're in discovery.
- What will the project be? How specific can you get in defining it?
- What is its purpose?
- What outcomes do you want?
- What resources do you have to take on this project?
- When do you need the final product, and is your deadline reasonable given your resources?
3. Define the Scope
You might hear an experienced project manager say this: "If it's not in the scope, it's not in the project."
Every project needs a clear scope. The project scope defines exactly what the project will entail. It is a locked down list of all the facets, assets, features, deliverables, and other details associated with the project. Once it's locked down, you cannot add to it. For example, if you're building a house, the scope will define how many stories the house will contain, its square footage, how many windows there will be, how many stairs, light switches, and so forth.
The reason projects need a clear scope before you begin them is so that no one tries to add anything that's outside the scope once the project has started. Adding to a project's scope after it has started throws off its timeline, budget, and available resources. If you keep adding tasks to a project, it might even cease to become a project—it might just become ongoing work.
Defining the scope can happen in a discovery meeting, or it might simply come from conversations between the client or person requesting the project and the potential lead or manager of the project.
4. Hold a Kickoff Meeting
A kickoff meeting is where everyone who will work on the project is introduced to it. This meeting sets the tone for the work ahead and makes sure everyone on the project team has clear information about what it is they will be doing and why.
Notice how holding a kickoff meeting isn't even close to the first thing you do when managing a project! Because the kickoff helps get everyone on the same page, you want to be sure you have a clear grasp of the project and scope so that you deliver it to everyone else with confidence.
During a kickoff meeting, the project lead should define at least these four things:
- Project scope,
- Players and their roles,
- Deliverables, and
We've already talked about project scope. For players and their roles, the project lead will introduce the different teams and contributors to one another. Additionally, the kickoff meeting is an ideal time to discuss hierarchy, that is, who reports to whom and who signs off on work.
A discussion of the deliverables will overlap with the discussion of hierarchy because you must answer the question, "Who will receive each deliverable?"
Milestones (as shown in Editors' Choice project management software Teamwork Projects, above) are points in a project that show clear progress toward the final goal. When building a house, the point when you have a foundation poured and set might be a milestone. When you have the frame in place, that's another milestone. At the time of a kickoff meeting, you should know what the project milestones will be even if you don't have dates locked down for them yet. Sometimes, you need other team experts, such as the programming lead or the design lead, to help figure out exactly when those milestones should fall. It's good to go into a kickoff meeting with a rough idea of your milestone deadlines, but give each team lead a chance to weigh in and make adjustments to them.
5. Map Out Your Project's Deadlines
Earlier, we talked about how every project has a start date and end date. The kickoff can be your official start date. The end date should mark the absolute final close of all the work. No work on the project happens after that date. It's a true hands-off, pencils-down moment.
Now that you've had a kickoff meeting, all the key players (such as the project manager and team leads) can figure out the exact milestones and delivery dates and plot them onto a calendar between the start date and end date.
If you're using project management software, this is when you'll start using it. Put all your important dates into the app. You can also upload other documentation you've created so far, such as the project scope. Now is also the right time to start inviting all the players to join the software, too. As people join the project management app, they can receive assignments, update their progress, and collaborate in other ways. A example of all this information, mapped out in a gantt chart in TeamGantt, can be seen below.
6. Set Expectations for Communication
Both after the kickoff meeting and throughout the course of the project, it's important to keep lines of communication open. Whether your group has a full-time project manager or not, whoever is the main point of contact for the project needs to be the one who encourages and facilitates communication. It's not a bad idea to hold another all-hands meeting before the project full ramps up so that people can ask any remaining questions they have.
Set expectations for communication early. Will team leads submit a weekly update on their team's progress? How many all-hands meetings will you have during the course of the project—sometimes they're not necessary at all; what does your project need? Often, smaller teams within a project, such as the design team or the programming team, have recurring check-in meetings where everyone recaps what they've done recently and raises any potential problems. The more people give voice to potential problems early, the better everyone's chances are of thwarting them or coping with them.
Armed with these tips for getting started, you can now dig into the meat of the project. Project management software goes a long way to helping keep everyone involved in the project up to date on its progress. It also takes a good amount of human interaction, however, and as much clarity about the project and its details as possible.