The 7 Key Steps for Managing a Project
Good project management looks effortless, but requires a great deal of skill.
A well-managed project works like a well-oiled machine – all of the parts work in harmony. It’s only when things break, it screeches to a halt and cogs and springs start flying out everywhere that you realise just how complex the internal workings were. It’s much the same for the person managing the project – like a magic trick, you only see what the magician is doing when it all goes wrong.
Luckily, unlike magic tricks or the inside workings of a machine, almost all project management works in the same way, regardless of whether your project is getting your running team ready for a marathon, putting on a production of Hamlet, fundraising £1,000 ahead of a charity skydive, or anything else you might want to do. Almost all projects can be managed using the same steps – and here’s what they are.
1. Figure out your objectives and your resources
At the very start of the project, figure out what it is that you want to achieve – for instance, by writing a list of objectives. Some of these objectives are going to be straightforward (“to put on a production of Hamlet” or “to run a marathon and all finish in under four hours”) but there might well be secondary objectives that you aren’t currently thinking of, such as ensuring that the production makes enough money for the drama club to continue next year. Write your objectives and then get the team working on the project to agree on them. These objectives are going to be your lodestar in times of trouble and disagreement; you’ll have to pick whichever course best enables you to achieve them.
Once you know what you want to achieve, figure out what you have to enable you to achieve it. Your resources will include things (e.g. a rehearsal space) and money, but also time and people. Make sure you budget your people-hours realistically – you won’t have anyone’s time twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If you’re scheduling in a certain time commitment, make sure your project group is comfortable agreeing to it, as it’ll be much harder to cut down on hours further down the line.
At this point, you might realise that your resources aren’t sufficient to achieve your objectives – if that’s the case, go back and rewrite your objectives now, rather than going any further trying to achieve the impossible.
2. Create a schedule
A schedule is a fancy way of saying a huge to-do list, complete with dates. This is not something to be put together in a hurry; your schedule is the foundation of your project, and now is the point at which you put in a lot of hard work in exchange for easy sailing later on in the project.
One way to start is by creating a calendar – perhaps in a spreadsheet – of all the dates between now and about a month after the end of your project. Then fill in all of the hard deadlines, such as the date when you absolutely must have a venue booked, or the date when tickets are set to go on sale. How long is it going to take you to achieve each of these things? What’s the earliest that you can start work on them? For instance, you can’t get tickets printed until you know the date and the venue, but you can definitely get tickets designed with blanks for those details, to be filled in once you have them. Fill in these earliest possible start dates too.
At this point, your schedule should be starting to come together. Now fill in any obstacles. If your project depends on being at school, fill in your school holidays when your team won’t be able to meet. If snow is going to stop you training for three weeks of the year, make a note of that as well.
You should now be in a position to fill in all the remaining details: you have your earliest start dates, you have your deadlines – look at those and figure out a good date at which to start, balancing the different aspects of the project so that you don’t have a couple of weeks of against-the-clock activity followed by a couple of months of doing nothing. Give yourself a lot of padding to allow for things to go wrong, because far more will go wrong than you can possibly anticipate at this stage. And fill in all the details of what needs to be done that you can possibly think of, even the really trivial and obvious ones. Things that seem minor and obvious now will easily be forgotten when the project is underway and your team is busier and more stressed. Assume that if something has been left out of your schedule, it isn’t going to get done.
3. Assign tasks
You have your schedule – now who’s going to do all of the tasks? It is very easy and very dangerous to assume that if your team has a list of everything that needs doing, they’ll sort it out between them and ensure that it gets done. In reality, the fun and easy tasks will be picked off, and the dull tasks quietly forgotten, until the most conscientious member of the group does them at the last minute.
Instead, it’s much better to assign tasks to everyone. That way, you can make sure that people get the tasks that they’re best qualified to do, and that the fun and boring tasks are evenly distributed among the group. An effective way of assigning tasks can be to get people to look over the schedule in their own time, and then meet up with a list of the tasks they’d like to do. You can then do your best to ensure that people get the tasks that they want, but also use the opportunity of everyone being in the same room to ensure that the task assignment is agreed. Make it very clear to your team that this is the point at which they get to decide which tasks they’re doing, whether the time allocated to the task is adequate, and whether they’ll have the resources that they need to achieve the task. Changing things up further down the line will be much harder.
You should also get your team to double-check the schedule at this stage. Just in case.
4. Monitor and document progress, and make adjustments
It’s only at this point that anyone actually gets started on the work of the project, but all of the planning should pay off as everyone sets off on their allocated tasks, ticks them off before the deadline, and the project begins to come together.
If everything goes perfectly at this stage, you shouldn’t have too much to do in managing the project – you can watch as all the pieces fall into place. Of course, nothing ever goes perfectly, so you’re likely to be as busy as ever. Your role is now to monitor and document the progress that’s been made, as well as looking ahead and getting things set for later stages. That might mean making sure contracts and negotiations are properly recorded, or that everyone’s handed in their receipts for their expenses. It also means keeping your team up-to-date, including updating your schedule with which tasks have been accomplished and which haven’t.
Inevitably, you’ll also have to make adjustments. There will be tasks for which you thought you’d scheduled twice as much time as anyone could possibly need, which will nonetheless run over and have a knock-on effect on something else. Or your resources will be constrained in ways you weren’t expecting, whether that’s a theft of your cash reserves or one of your key volunteers falling ill. But if you’ve planned appropriately, you should know what’s going on well enough to know exactly what needs to be reorganised in order to get the project back on track. You should also be keeping notes on this that are thorough and clear enough that if you’re the one who falls ill, someone else can step into your place and see exactly what’s going on.
5. Update your team
You might know everything that’s going on, but your other team members won’t – unless you update them. Aim for a couple of different ways of keeping them up to date; as a general rule, every team will contain one or two people who never check their emails, and one or two people who don’t show up to meetings until halfway through (or at all). If you only use email or only use meetings, they won’t know what’s going on (and you can insert any other medium there – don’t only use WhatsApp, or only a Trello board, or anything else exclusively).
A key skill for a project manager is being concise but informative. That could mean sharing with your team that the ticket designs are delayed, but will be ready by the end of the month, instead of wasting their time with the full story of the graphic designer, the cup of coffee and the hefty laptop repair bill, or omitting to tell them and leaving them wondering where the tickets have got to. Avoid dwelling on the blame for any mistakes and focus on what the team needs to do to push the project forward.
6. Manage expectations
No matter how carefully you wrote your objectives, there’ll probably be some people in your team, or otherwise connected to the project, whose expectations are unrealistic. Maybe they think you’ll wildly outperform your initial goals, such as raising £10,000 instead of £1,000. That kind of expectation is easier to address. More challenging is when team members have unrealistic expectations of each other – for instance, that they’ll sacrifice schoolwork and sleep in favour of spending all hours of the day working on the project, or that something they’re doing as a hobby will come out at professional quality.
Part of your role as a project manager is to keep expectations in check. Your schedule is a valuable tool in this; if the schedule gives someone ten days to complete a task, then there’s no need to place pressure on anyone to complete it in five. What matters is whether the task has been achieved in time, not exactly how or when it was achieved. If you find that team members are starting to raise expectations in this way, gently redirect them to the next task on their list, and reassure them that you have the project in hand.
7. Wrap it all up, celebrate and evaluate
When your project comes to an end, it’s time to celebrate and evaluate. Celebrating should always come first; even if it didn’t all go exactly as you’d hoped, remind yourself that no complex project ever does. If you and your team are still keen to work together in future, you can count that as a success. Spending some time celebrating it will help with team cohesion if you do want to take on a big project again – and even more so if there’s another project immediately in the offing.
Once you’ve all patted yourselves on the back, take the time to look back over the project as a whole. What went right? What could have gone better? Go back to your objectives here – did you achieve them? If not, why not? As much as possible, try not to make this about the individuals involved in the project, or about apportioning blame for mistakes. Instead, it’s about making sure those mistakes can’t happen again. For example, it shouldn’t be “the tickets were delayed because Miles spilled coffee all over Sarah’s laptop – Miles shouldn’t be such a clumsy idiot” but instead, “we should make sure crucial files are backed up in future. Sarah, perhaps you could save your designs to the cloud rather than to your laptop?” When you embark on your next project, remember these things and make sure you put them into action.
Images: basketball player; datebook; paper and phone; clock on table; pink cake pieces; like a boss mug