Project managers are often viewed as leaders in productivity and effectiveness, but even as project management professionals we can use tips and tricks to excel in our craft. A top-notch project manager can make or break the success of a project. Their experience and skill plays a large part in influencing the project outcome. For the average project, 39% succeed, 43% are challenged and 18% fail1, and these numbers only get worse for larger projects.
To help project managers ensure the success of major implementations in financial services firms, we’ve broken down three key areas of project management and explored three ways to optimize in each.
Discipline 1: Work Plan Management
As a Project Manager, one of the most gratifying statements we hear from our client is, “Wow, we didn’t think we’d be able to get that done, but you got it done.”
The responsibilities of a project manager are seemingly clear: create a plan and pave the way for your team to execute the tasks needed to complete the plan. Project management is a critical skill across all industries, but the responsibilities of a project manager are often broadly defined and the methodologies to manage projects successfully are constantly evolving.
While the responsibilities of a project manager may feel immense, there are numerous tactics that keep new project managers and seasoned veterans alike timely and accountable.
Key among these is a work plan that is shared with key stakeholders to outline the formal architecture or roadmap of the actions that the team needs to complete within a project. From Day 1, plan management is essential to a project’s success.
Names, Dates and Artifacts – The work plan ensures all collaborators are on the same page, acknowledge their responsibilities, and are cognizant of tasks and updates. Work plans should document revisions, deadlines, and countdown markers to indicate time until completion. Each item on the plan must include three key elements — names, dates, and artifacts.
- The name is the single accountable individual responsible for completing that item in the workplan. While it sounds straightforward, many projects are undermined when a 'TBD' team member doesn't get the job done.
- The date is when that task needs to get done. Again, it sounds straightforward, right? It’s very easy to take down the target dates for tasks, but as those target dates near, holding team members accountable to delivery dates is paramount to project management success. Interim dates may change for a variety of reasons, including approved changes. When they do, updated dates should be included and cascaded through the workplan.
- The artifact is what needs to get delivered — this can be an artifact in the traditional sense, like a requirements document or user story, or it could be a more abstract artifact, such as a decision or a staffing assignment. The project manager should take the abstract out of the artifact. If the work plan task requires a decision, then the artifact could be “email from the decision maker to the steering committee confirming the decision.” Workplans are real, your artifacts should be as well. In the wise words of Phillipe Kruchten, a software engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, “If it is not written down, it does not exist.”
- Workplan entries should be documented as “this artifact is delivered from name to name by date, and name accepts the artifact.”
Break Down the Deliverables – While it’s easier to describe large key deliverables in a work plan, this practice leaves room for confusion within your team on project deadlines. First, it’s important to set a rule of thumb for your team regarding how long work plan deliverables should take to complete. For example, the rule of thumb is that no single workplan task should take longer than two weeks to complete.
If any tasks or deliverables take longer, then they should be broken into smaller deliverables or interim milestones. This takes more effort from the project manager and the task owners up-front when setting up the plan, but it sets clear milestones for the entire team, and allows earlier identification of delays in important tasks.
Set Time to Review Work Plans – It is crucial to set time aside as project manager to review and update all work plans and issue logs. Without the project manager's proper oversight, teams can get caught in day-to-day firefighting and issue management, leading to missed deadlines for workplans and management tools. Project managers need to set aside time on their personal calendar to look ahead weeks, or possibly months, and consider how the team's current actions (or lack thereof) will affect future deadlines.
Discipline 2: Task Management
Aside from the overarching work plan, a project manager can take several steps to organize the team for future tasks.
Refine Note-Taking Strategies – While everyone’s note-taking styles differ, it is recommended that a team takes notes similarly across meetings, so the material is easily understood by all parties. The project manager should ask, “What needs to be done so all stakeholders can interpret key follow-ups and deliverables by reading the notes?” At minimum, it is important to include the attendees, topics covered, and all key tasks assigned (with owners and due dates), and decisions made. The project manager must communicate to all stakeholders and ensure that key decisions are turned into artifacts.
Be Unambiguous – A project manager must strive for clarity. Team members should ask clarifying questions, but a project manager must ensure that there is no confusion within key decisions and responsibilities assigned for all tasks. The project manager needs to ask clarifying questions when necessary and refine specifics before sending updates to key stakeholders. For example, sometimes the hardest question to ask is: “We need to get this done — who is ‘we’ and when is the deadline?” This question will often be greeted by silence. Let it linger, and if nobody answers, the project manager needs to be empowered to suggest names and dates until an agreement is reached.
Establish a Cadence – The project manager determines which tasks require regular meetings or email follow-ups until they reach completion. Often, it is the project manager’s responsibility to get key stakeholders together to discuss the progress of ongoing tasks. After these discussions, the project manager needs to follow up with the entire team with consistency that can be expected by all parties. Furthermore, the project manager must consider the cadence for all activities: How long before the meeting does the agenda go out? How long after the meeting are the notes published?
Successful task management is anchored in the work plan management principles noted above – tasks should contain names, dates, and artifacts, should be right-sized, and the project manager should follow-up until completion.
Discipline 3: Risk and Issue Management
The recording and monitoring of roadblocks may be the most strenuous challenge any team faces on the path to completing a project. However, there are several ways the project manager can ease this burden.
Be Proactive – In addition to managing the team’s project work plan, the project manager should also review and revise the Risks, Actions, Issues, Decisions (RAID) log and other key project documentation frequently, and establish regular meetings to discuss progress.
Having an up-to-date RAID log doesn’t help if the team isn’t proactively harvesting actions to mitigate risks, complete actions, deal with issues, and make decisions. RAID logs are constantly changing, so never assume the team can keep track of everything — the project manager is the harvester. Be proactive, follow up with team members on tasks they are responsible for well before they are due, and help the team prioritize activities alongside other project goals.
Keep Track of Dependencies and Actively Manage Blockers – Project plans should be full of connection points or dependencies between tasks. RAID logs and meeting notes should be full of blockers, or things preventing tasks from being completed. Blockers can turn into excuses not to complete tasks. To overcome this obstacle, project managers need to apply the workplan and task management disciplines — assign to a name, give a target date, and make the resolution an unambiguous artifact.
Remind Your Team of Progress – Successfully driving risk mitigation and issue resolution will boost morale for the team. Deliverable deadlines are often stressful but overcoming roadblocks is rewarding. The project manager should celebrate large and small wins with their team, and track incremental progress and material wins so the key stakeholders are updated on the team's progress and achievements.
When we combine good Workplan Management, Task Management, and Risk and Issue Management, we build a strong foundation for a PM to succeed, and thereby, for their team to succeed.