People make easily avoidable yet, catastrophic mistakes when they don’t have a plan to follow. Doctors train for years but this mistake happens over, and over, and over. Better projects could come from following basic project management steps.
We make these mistakes over and over because we…
… believe these problems are intellectual. “I already know this stuff. No need to go over it again.”
That right there… That’s the mistake.
This isn’t an intellectual problem, it’s a vulnerability problem. Certain things leave us exposed and vulnerable to disaster. Most of us know how to do our jobs. But can you do your best when you’re…
- Completely exhausted? If your needs aren’t met you simply won’t be able to perform. That could be a physical need like food or rest. It can be a work related need like project parameters, processes or dos and don’ts. It becomes exponentially more difficult to perform at an elite level when our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual needs go unmet. These needs can be as simple as needing a day off after an intense all-nighter or as complex as some extended time off after an injury or death in the family.
- Mentally or emotionally disoriented? Police officers are given time off after a shooting. Women are given maternity leave and employers grant time off for medical issues. Teammates need relief for the smaller, recurring struggles that happen from day to day. These struggles sap our mental and emotional energy, decreasing our focus, awareness and quality of work.
- Unsafe or insecure at work? It’s common for nurses to notice the mistakes doctors make, but because of the unsafe power dynamic they’re less likely to hold doctors accountable. Businesses large and small struggle with the same stilted power dynamics. An employee questions an informal rule or implies that management may not be doing “it” right. That employee is flagged for “insubordination,” placed on a performance improvement plan, and eventually, shown the door. It becomes difficult or impossible for teammates to do their best work in this kind of environment.
- Controlled by social or political dynamics that dictate when, why and how you respond to crisis? These are the implicit rules that state, do the right thing and you’ll be punished. Performance suffers when cliques, silos and politics dominate work. Instead of fighting for your employer or your company teammates are conditioned to make decisions based on politics, connections and favors. This creates a toxic environment that dooms most projects to failure.
Good project management prevents a wide variety of failures:
- Surgical teams at eight hospitals use project management to reduce surgical complications and accidental death. Hospitals that don’t, continue to struggle with complications, accidental deaths, and lawsuits.
- Korean Air uses project management to save passengers and pilots circumventing cultural and social dynamics that make plane crashes far more likely.
- Chris Gammell, a product manager at Supplyframe, uses project management and his checklist manifesto to show engineers and product designers how to optimize their manufacturing processes.
- Adria Saracino used project management to save her marketing team and her campaign from failure. She found herself managing a brand new team of marketers at an agency and quickly found herself flailing. She used agile marketing, focusing heavily on the research and planning phases of her project.
Project management and the appropriate steps are a necessary part of work whether you’re a surgeon, engineer or marketer.
The Project Management Steps
If you’re unfamiliar with project management, you may not be aware of the project life cycle and why it matters.
Here’s why it’s so important.
Understanding the steps in your project – the project life cycle – and using them well, can mean the difference between a successful project and complete failure – going over budget, creating something no one wants, creating a terrible marketing campaign, etc.
Okay, what are these steps?
- Start, also known as initiation, is the step where you use a business case to define the project. You clarify your current situation, the purpose of your project and state your business case (e.g. reduce marketing campaign costs, increase leads generated, etc.). You identify the high level reasons behind the project. The why, your desires, goals, fears, and frustrations.
- Create a project plan. A project plan is something that’s put in writing. It answers important questions, creating a set of project guidelines your teammates can follow. “What’s our budget? How do we complete this project? How do we change something? What do we do if things aren’t going as planned?” A great project plan answers these questions in detail, giving teammates security and peace of mind. Project plans cover the: goals, scope, to-dos, schedule, dependencies, milestones and deliverables of a project.
- Execute the plan. A successful plan is one that’s followed/completed. That requires buy-in and ownership from the team. When teammates contribute to the plan they’re far more likely to follow the plan. In this step project managers distribute tasks and milestones to their teammates, outlining dependencies and responsibilities for deliverables. Great project managers trust their teammates to execute the plan, checking in to provide support and assistance as needed. They hold underperforming teammates accountable, doing their part to keep the project on track and in-budget.
- Watch the plan. Mediocre project managers demand teammates follow project plans rigidly. Experienced project managers know reality tends to ruin our plans; these managers flow with reality giving their teammates the freedom and ability to negotiate and even say No to bad ideas. When reality demands you change your plans you flow with the changes, bending and shaping reality to modify and complete your plan. Efficient project managers compare the project status and performance with the actual plan, distributing resources and adjusting schedules as needed. Their focus? Keeping the project on track.
- Close the project. After stakeholders approve the outcomes and results, the project winds down and comes to a close. Project managers and teammates evaluate their performance; top performers are recognized and everyone is recognized for their hard work. The team analyzes performance to learn from the mistakes that were made and continue to grow.
These are the five basic steps of project management. Some projects have more, some less. These steps may have different names but the foundation remains the same.
So why aren’t people using project management? As we’ve seen, project management makes a huge difference – across industries, job titles and functions.
What’s Keeping You From Following The Project Management Steps?
There are two distinct problems that keep us from reaping the rewards of project management. These problems hide in our blind spots, keeping us from the system we need to achieve the success we so desperately want. At first glance they seem obvious, our response may be automatic, “I already knew that,” when they’re anything but.
What are these problems?
- We’re unaware of project management. We’re unfamiliar with what it is, how it works, what it can do and most importantly why we need it. This is the position marketing teams at small to medium sized businesses find themselves in. They’re tasked with a high pressure goal of growing the business. But most of the team operates on unreliable tools – memory, gut feel, and the emergency of the moment.
- Our egos keep us from using project management. Some of us, when we achieve a certain level of mastery, allow our egos to take over. We swallow the lie our egos feed us – we’re an expert, we already know all that stuff, we know what to do. Doing this teaches everyone around us, the ones who aren’t experts – the bad habit of relying on a single knowledgeable expert. That’s a disaster, when experts leave so does their knowledge. Amazing teams rely on project management, using a systematic process that gives high performing teams the ability to iterate and grow.
Why rely on project management if the team knows everything?
Project management creates safety and accountability. It gives every teammate a codified system to follow and a way to hold underperformers accountable.
But it also makes success repeatable.
Without it, you’re less likely to identify the criteria that made your project a success. Change any of those ingredients, forget to follow a procedure or process and you put failure permanently out of reach.
When fatigue, fear and frustration kicks in you’ll need a system that shows you how to keep everyone – novices and experts – on track. Project management gives you that system, but it also gives you something better.
It gives your team psychological safety.
With project management, you lay the foundation you need. It’s easy to identify underperformers, find bottlenecks and flush out points of failure. It tells project managers they can hold everyone accountable – managers, executives, specialists.
Knowing and responding to the different stages of project management helps you do it.