You have a way that you’re doing your projects, and then you have the way that you should be doing your projects.
Those are the project management best practices.
As your team scales and grows, you’ll want to have the right tech stack in place to help you navigate that rapid growth phase. You’ll save yourself more time and hours when you’ve optimized your tools to work for you and not against you.
Take a look at the following project management tips and integrate them into your workflow, to increase not only your efficiency but your communication and feedback going forward.
Top Project Management Tips
1. Prioritize projects
Ever get stuck in the everything-is-due-right-now stage?
That’s when projects aren’t prioritized and everything gets equal priority. Quite frankly, that’s impossible for any one team to pull off.
The truth is, you can prioritize your own projects or your projects will prioritize themselves.
And if you don’t do it, then micromanagers, overreaching executives, entitled clients, and well-meaning co-workers will do it for you. Before you start anything new, make sure you know where it falls on the list of priorities.
2. Gather requirements, specifications and other materials
It sounds like a no-brainer, but this project management best practice is so easy to skip. And a little extra project research doesn’t hurt anything.
You’ll want to ask for:
- The Statement of Work (SOW) – the document your deal closer likely used in the closing process to nail down specifics about goals and deliverables
- A draft schedule – it’s likely they’ve talked deadlines already, so use this as a starting point to bang out your project schedule
- A draft budget – to quote the customer, your deal closer likely had to come up with some kind of draft budget. We’ll talk about using this more below.
- Any other information you can get on the client/biggest stakeholder – what are their likes and dislikes? Does your deal closer have any notes on their quirks, pet peeves, style, or expectations? Do they have any wireframes, mockups or sketches you can have?
3. Create a project plan for each project
One of the greatest project management best practices seems so simple: create a project plan. But why? Effective plans answer important questions, giving us the peace of mind to focus on the work. Here are the areas that need to be covered:
Goals. List the purpose for your project, expected outcomes, a high-level view of how you’ll achieve your goals, and more. Include feedback from each team on how they’ll achieve the results.
Scope. It’s a mistake to rely on an informal, poorly defined scope. Inexperienced teams fight against scope creep. Seasoned pros know scope creep is inevitable. Your project plan should outline what’s in and out of scope and how you’ll handle items out of scope. Again buy-in is key. Chaos is a likely problem when everyone comes up with their own response to scope creep.
To-dos/work packages. Group related tasks or to-dos together. Give people a high-level view of the work that needs to be done. Make your project plan results-focused and centered on outcomes.
Interdependence. List the instances where work packages, to-dos, or projects as a whole are dependent on other teams, events, outcomes or items.
Scheduling. Create a project schedule that lists the products, resources, efforts and costs and time scales for each project. Your schedule baseline (ideal) and project schedule (reality) shouldn’t create conflicts. A good project management tool accounts for both, giving project managers a good idea of whether a project is on track (or not). Again, buy-in is key here. If clients or management demand an unrealistic timeline, conflict, and overruns are inevitable.
Vertical milestones. Outline concurrent and non-concurrent events that signal the change or transition in a project. Build your milestones using the feedback you’ve received from teammates, stakeholders, and managers.
Deliverables. List the tangible outcome that’s produced by the project and defined in your project brief. Outline when and how deliverables will be presented and who is ultimately responsible for delivery.
Evaluation. Outline key checkpoints where performance, deliverables, quality, and results are analyzed or evaluated. Outline the metrics and key performance indicators that will be used to measure the overall outcome.
Budgets. Starting with a budget derails your project almost immediately. Rather than determining the goals and outcomes for a project, executives often shoehorn a disproportionate amount of work into a tiny budget, which can doom the project. A better idea would be to focus on what needs to be done first, then when you have a clear idea of what’s needed, set a budget. This gives you the ability to restructure your project so you get the most bang for your buck. Worst case scenario you have what you need to make a compelling case for increasing the budget.
But project plans need some key features that aren’t always in the documentation or project tasks. These are the behind-the-scenes qualities that really make a difference when creating a project plan:
- Project plans are results-oriented – remember they need measurable goals and deliverables. You’re trying to accomplish something concrete, not nebulous.
- Project plans are vertical, not horizontal – Good project plans flow vertically, meaning many people can be working on many different tasks at once. Even if your tasks are dependent on one another, find things within the project that others could be doing.
- Projects don’t last forever, so you need an end date. After a while, things start to drag on and morale becomes a problem. Stay sharp and motivated with a project plan lasting no longer than a year—or if you can, 100 days or less.
4. Kick-Off The Projects The Right Way
Ok, now it’s getting real. As the project manager, you did your research and created a project plan. It is critical that it is well planned, well-executed, and well documented…and those responsibilities fall to the project manager every time. Now with this project management best practice, it’s time to meet and share your project plan. At this meeting, the client, department heads, executives and/or supervisors will be in attendance, but they are there to show the customer they are interested in the project and that the customer is important…nothing more.
The project manager is in charge of this point forward and how you set expectations and explain to the customer how you intend to run the project will either put the project on the right path or it won’t. You don’t get a second chance on the kickoff. Be confident, take charge, make good decisions and show that you know the ins and outs of this project.
Before the meeting you should’ve done some of this research, and now it’s time to share the project plan and what you’ve learned about the business case and the requirements to make it happen:
- Show the requirements
- Know your audience (internal or external customers)
- Define the scope
- Know your budget
- Discuss resource allocation, budget, and employees available to do the job
- Share the plan and create tasks in your project management software
5. Communicate As You Collaborate
Isn’t it funny how much people communicate about communication? But as any parent of an infant will tell you, talking is not the same as communication.
And in the middle of all team collaboration is communication. It is important to keep the communication flowing at all times. The lack of communication will impact your deliverables and lead to missed dates. As the project manager, you set the standard for communication and you need to use the right tools to make it happen. It’s an essential project management best practice that you can’t afford to miss.
- Choose the right medium for communicating with your team. For example, email is not the best method for discussing Issues that arise during the course of the project. Following a discussion thread in an email is time-consuming and not the most efficient way to resolve an issue. Email is best used for passing along important messages to the team. For status checks, reporting and comments about deliverables, you should use a project management solution like Workzone so everything is one place. You can even set permissions for only certain people to see and monitor progress.
- Schedule regular check-ins with the team. The frequency of your meeting schedule will depend in part on the tools you are using to track your project tasks and the complexity of your project. If you utilize a project management tool that enables team members to update their status in real-time, post questions and comments, and track their time, you can reduce the number and frequency of your meetings.
- Actually speak and discuss real issues. There’s an interesting study from Harvard that concludes that if no challenges or conflicts are raised during the project review meeting, it could be a red flag. Team members should be encouraged to frequently communicate and provide feedback.
In the early project stages, project managers need to set expectations for how frequently team members are expected to check in with one another. This ensures that team members can plan ahead and ask questions as needed. Without project management, team members have no long-term vision for the tasks they are expected to complete and each day they may be presented with new work on the fly. Yet with a good strategy, you can easily track and identify progress.
6. Prepare for Risks, Dependencies, and Constraints
It’s almost a guarantee that something unexpected will happen. And when it does, you should’ve had at least considered the possibility.
Dependencies and constraints have a cause and effect relationship. At its simplest, a constraint is a restriction within the boundaries of which the task has to be completed or executed. A constraint may be driven by a lack of resources like money and man-power, shortage of available time and even the lack of expertise in an area. As a project management best practice, here are some proactive steps to take to understand your dependencies and constraints.
- Brainstorm risks and challenges associated with these dependencies and constraints. You might want to have a cross-functional meeting to have multiple perspectives onboard. Once you feel you have covered most of the foreseeable disruptive circumstances, then go ahead and find solutions or pre-emptive actions to manage the impact of disturbances on the dependencies and constraints.
- Brainstorm all possible project dependencies and associated constraints. If there are many dependencies and constraints, you can go ahead and identify the Critical Path as well. This will ensure your focus and attention are on the tasks that can impact the bottom line. Often times, the constraints create a dependency, which will then be a potential roadblock. Your project plan should take these into effect, especially when estimating and managing the workload allocation.
7. Address Constraints
Once you’ve done your brainstorming on constraints and risks, you’ll probably come back to three big kinds of restraints we need to be worried about: budget restraints, resource restraints, and time restraints. You should have gathered all this information from your deal closer, customer, or supervisor already.
This is the question you have to answer, even with your project plan in place:
At a glance, and with the given budget, resource, and time restraints, is this project doable? Are our goals attainable?
Because if not, we’ve got some negotiating and re-planning ahead. Don’t kick off your project in a bad place by trying to tackle something with, say, half the resources you’ll need, or half the time you’ll need.
Take a look at how much funds are available, how many labor hours you can afford, and what the deadline for the project is. If it all looks doable, great—we’re moving on to the next step.
If it’s just too unrealistic, it’s time to have a talk with your supervisor, department head or client. What’s a reasonable budget, and how do we get it? Will we have to make sacrifices to use fewer resources? Will we have to narrow our scope to match our abilities and resources? Use this project management tip now and you’ll get to keep your sanity later.
8. Know What Everyone Is Doing
Once the project plan is rolled out, it’s up to the project manager to figure out how it’s going. This doesn’t mean that as a project manager you have to follow-up with everyone. Instead, everyone should be updating you on what they’re doing. Yes, this best practice can be a reality.
Have you ever assigned someone a task, only to them come into your office an hour later to let you know they are overloaded? Or have you ever found out that some of your team members have been playing games on their phones to pass the time because they had nothing to do?
Being able to quickly glance at workloads with a project management solution like Workzone can make assigning tasks a much simpler process. Not only will it be easier for project managers to make sure that work is being distributed as equally as possible, but it can also let them know when a new team member needs to be hired (and give them something to show the boss as proof). In addition, it can prevent your top team members from getting burnt out and resentful of those who don’t have to work overtime every day.
9. Maintain Accurate Files and Records
Oops…were those files left on someone else’s computer?
It’s a common problem that most offices still face to this day.
One way to keep your team on track is to move your important documents and resources away from emails and individual computers into an online document archive. With online document sharing, everyone can review the work done, and supervisors and stakeholders know where to go to approve and monitor the work. Team collaboration with document sharing is important so your files don’t get mixed up with the wrong project. And everyone has a copy when they need it.
10. Create a Feedback Loop
Does your team understand how to report and respond to difficulties?
It can be hard for team members to feel committed to a project and motivated to collaborate with other departments if they don’t have the visibility or the understanding of how they impact the big picture.
Give your team a holistic view of the project and a common goal. Encourage information sharing framed around shared objectives.
This can be accomplished by having a cross-departmental kick-off meeting at the onset of a project, and invite the leadership team to join the conversation and set the vision.
This will also keep your team engaged. According to the Human Capital Institute, employee disengagement is estimated to cost the US economy as much as 350 billion dollars per year in lost productivity, accidents, theft, and turnover.
Another way to anchor your team’s work within a larger context is to build in feedback loops so employees can experience the impact of their contributions.
When teams are guided by a common vision and understand how their work fits into the larger context, they’re more empowered to take initiatives.
11. Follow The Appropriate Expectations
We’ve talked about setting up the right channels and processes for communication, but here’s where you need to walk the walk. Setting and managing expectations among your team is a huge part of being a good leader.
For the sake of efficiency, stick to agreed-upon processes yourself and urge your team to do the same. And if you ever find yourself or perhaps your team straying from the plan, then you’re good.
Things change. People have new ideas. And if a team member has a new idea that doesn’t exactly jive with the current project plan but may help make things run a bit more smoothly, it’s worth a listen–as long as it helps with the execution and doesn’t increase the scope.
By this time, everyone should be in on the plan, the tasks have been entered into the project management software and people are actually doing the work. The next project management best practice is to track and report on the work.
12. Create Reports
Once the actual work gets started, it’s good to get reports to know how the project is progressing.
Reports could include meetings (though it doesn’t have to). But if you are going to have meetings, remember that they are supposed to be helpful.
Here’s what you need to make your meeting successful. It’s only 2 things. Just 2 things, and I promise you, it’ll be nice and effective and breezy.
It’s very simple. For every meeting you have with your team:
- you absolutely must have an agenda that comes with a set of clear objectives for the meeting, and
- you really, really, really should have an end time for your meeting.
But if you want to skip the meetings all together, you can see what tasks are running late, or may be falling behind with the project to-do list, Gantt charts, workload visualization and budget allocation estimates to see where everything stands.
13. Close Out Final Project Tasks
Sometimes as the main work gets finished it can be very easy to coast to the end. The smaller ending details may not get as much attention because the big hurdles have been cleared. But as a best practice, it’s important to finish up strong. You’ll want to communicate with your customers and internal stakeholders about the finished product.
These tasks are ones that’ll make sure your customer is all set to benefit from the fruits of your labor. This might include tasks like:
- Complete all deliverables
- Install and test deliverables
- Prepare any manual/how-to materials
- Agree on level of follow-up support
- Verify customer satisfaction
You’ll also want to close out any internal organizational issues. This is where we’ll do most of our reflecting on how all the parts of the project came together.
- Summarize learnings – communicate to the organization
- Prepare final technical reports
- Evaluate project performance
- Conduct final review with management
- Prepare project historical files and archive
One last part of this best practice is also closing out any administrative issues to wrap up the books.
- Dispose of leftover project material
- Close down temporary site operations
- Submit final invoices
- Forward all final payments
- Close-out project charge codes and work orders
14. Wrap Up & Reflect
Just remember that just because the product has been delivered, it doesn’t mean we’re done yet. Nope, there’s one essential project management best practice you still need to complete. The reflection period and the review document we’re about to make is just as important as project execution.
Ask yourself and your team questions like:
- What went right? What went wrong?
- Where did we overestimate? Underestimate? What assumptions led to these incorrect estimations? How can we avoid making the same assumptions in the future?
- Did we go over our budget? Or did we stay under? What tasks used up more of the budget than planned and why? How did we have to handle going over-budget (i.e. what sacrifices had to be made and where)?
Next, you’ll want to use this information and create a review report to share with the team and upper management.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but you really should create a Project Review Document that’ll address:
- Successes: What are 3-5 specific things that went right and who was responsible?
- Challenges: What are 3-5 specific things that wrong and where did we fall short?
- What can we do better next time? Use clear and specific terms on what to do differently in the future.
- Did we reach our goals? Did we fulfill our project’s purpose? Or did we miss the mark?
This document is just as important as all your other project management best practices, so it should be professionally written and filed away just like all your other important PM materials.
Thinking these things out and getting them down on paper is also a great way to be transparent with your stakeholders about the success of your project. It shows them that you’re personally invested enough to take a moment and examine your own performance. Even if you didn’t accomplish your goal 100%, a thorough and honest performance review says a lot about your strength as a project manager.
No one said project management best practices were easy. It’s often way easier to talk about a project than to actually implement the right practices and learnings.
Often, we don’t know how we would succeed any faster or better with these in place, especially since any new best practices take time to get used to. But successful project managers see the value of a plan, tasks and appropriate scoping, so also you need a plan to help your team be the best they can be. That’s where these project management best practices come in.
What do you think? Could these project management best practices work for your team? What would you add? What would you take out?