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  • Writer's pictureGreg

Projects: do they ever just go to plan?

3 crucial tips from a pro PM



Project management can be one of those seriously polarising jobs – people seem to either really love managing every step of the delivery of a project… or really hate it.


And for those of you grimacing at the very idea of it, the likelihood is you’ve been burned somewhere along the lines by a process that got away, a supplier that didn’t show up, or a timeline that extended beyond anything you ever imagined possible.


Whether you’re developing a new product, or building a new website, running a campaign or an event, the idea of so many moving parts all needing to work together can and has been enough for SME businesses to pull up stumps and go in a completely different and easier direction.


Now, of course, this would be the perfect time to plug our services and remind you that if PM isn’t your thing, you don’t have to lose out on the project just because you don’t want to do the job yourself -- we can do it for you!


BUT, to be honest, right now, I’d rather help make the project you’re currently working on -- without us -- more bearable by sharing a few tips I’ve learned along the way in my role as a project manager.


1. Clarity is critical

From what I’ve witnessed over the last twenty years, the place most projects fall down before they get started, is at the briefing stage. At this point, someone is telling someone else what they ‘re trying to achieve, and that second person is then expected to deliver on it.


Delivering on what someone else wants can only be done to the degree you truly understand their brief – with no misinterpretation, no bias, no deviation.


Understanding is key – detail is everything – questions are paramount.


Back in the day, when creating a digital product like online software, we’d start with a Requirements Definition Document (RDD) to make sure every question was answered. In fact, even at a smaller level, like a website, we’d start with an RDD.


This doc would lay out, point-by-point, the purpose of the site or product, what components needed to be included, and how everything would work – right down to, ‘click this button on this screen and this happens’.


The two parties – the supplier and the client – would pore over the doc until they agreed on exactly what was going to be produced. And while, inevitably, things would evolve as the project went along, the essentials were agreed, and everyone was on the same page.


These days, RDDs for standard digital products or assets are not as common, even often for big projects. New agile project management techniques have partly done away with them, but really, they just sort of faded away a bit.


Despite this, understanding and being on the same page is still vital, so when you’re managing a project and briefing in your suppliers, put yourself in their shoes. Ten minutes ago, they knew literally nothing about this project and what you want. Now, they only have ten minutes more knowledge than they did before.


Being clear and ensuring everyone knows exactly what is expected helps ensure no one is surprised at the end.


Be detailed, be open, be honest, encourage them to ask any and every question, and allow time for them to research, to mull it over it and to come back to you with more.


2. Communication is a commitment

Years ago, before all the digital communication tools we have today, project management was both easier and more difficult, in different ways.


It was more difficult for obvious reasons – we couldn’t just reach any stakeholder at the touch of a button and get an immediate answer.


It was easier, I think, because we picked up the phone and communicated directly with people through conversation.


When you have a conversation, often things come up that weren’t part of your original question and you cover more ground and learn more.


These days, we communicate frequently, but maybe we don’t always say enough – which comes back to the clarity point above.


Direct communication is also key. I collaborated on a project in an inhouse role many years ago as part of a project team working for an agency that was managing the paying client.


So, our client was the agency, but their client was the key stakeholder, decision maker, and the guys paying the bill.


At some point, the team in the middle – the agency we absolutely relied on – stopped asking questions of the client in order to feed us more info, and also started picking and choosing which of our questions or comments to pass on.


The result? The brief to the middle-man was misinterpreted and our team started down a path of building something that did not meet the requirement. This problem was only rectified, luckily, because we ended up insisting on direct communication.


Communicate frequently, meaningfully and with plenty of the right detail, to the right people.


3. Partners are paramount

I deliberately used the word partners here instead of suppliers. Why? Because suppliers are transactional; they come and go to get something done, while partners are genuinely invested in the outcome.


Partners move heaven and earth to get what you need on time because they actually understand how important it is. We have entire articles about this topic alone because it’s just so critical.


Select partners you can really trust to invest in you and your project.


Based on my experience, a lot of the time, the boutiques are where it’s at.


You aren’t a number, or being served by a team of juniors with some distant manager peeking in every now and then. With a smaller, specialist business, you are getting the actual experts, input from the boss, and really personalised service, because their success relies on your success and the success of the project.


In any project, whether you’re building a giant aircraft or rebranding a company, every member of the project team, and that includes every partner, needs to be genuinely invested, and absolutely reliable.


How do you test this before you start? Building up a trusted partner network that you use over-and-over again is a good start. For example, we like to work with Quantum for web whenever we possibly can, Spek’d for ops and so on, because we know they are as committed as we are.


If you don’t have that network and you have to find new partners for a project, spend some time with them, ask them lots of questions about the details of past projects, talk to their previous clients and check into their case studies.


-- -- -- -- -- --


All of the above probably seem like quite common sense points, but it is often the simplest things that are our undoing when managing projects.


It’s also a desire to just not be annoying – I don’t want to ask too many questions, insist on something, make a point for a third time.


But as a project manager – whether as your title or just because it’s literally what you’re doing right now – that’s your job. Not to be annoying, but to be thorough, to pay attention to all the detail, to be the stringent keeper of the timeline, the stakeholders, the budget, the suppliers, and ultimately, the outcome.


And now… it’s time for that plug! If, after all this, you still don’t want to manage your website rebuild, your rebrand, your campaign, talk to us, we'd love to it!


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