How to Manage a Project

Project Management


Five keys to Success

So, what is a project? In practice, the distinction between what is "normal work" and "project work" can be quite grey. Many activities that we classify as just normal work can be called projects. Typically, the characteristics of a project are as follows:

  • A start and a finish.
  • A time frame for completion.
  • A unique event.
  • An involvement of several people on an ad-hoc basis
  • A limited set of resources
  • A sequencing of activities and phases

In recent years the formal use of projects as a style of working has escalated in all organisations, both private and public sector. In the future, for many people much, if not all, of their work is likely to be carried out in the form of projects.

However, unless projects are tackled with thought and care, they can go amiss. Typically, in terms of either not delivering what was required, delivering late, delivering at a higher cost in money or resources than was envisaged, or simply by causing too much disruption in the process.

Project Management as a Discipline

Over the past fifty years or so, project management has evolved as a pragmatic and structured approach to bringing some order to such situations. It can partially succeed in this but no one would claim that it is a universal panacea. It depends on the managers and staff applying the approaches - poor managers plus project management approaches only delivers poor project management.

It is a pragmatic approach, developed over time by drawing together a variety of approaches and methods from other areas - the point at which these started to form into a discipline was probably during the project for the development of Polaris missiles in the nineteen sixties.

The essence is best summarised in the following five main features - five keys to success.

  1. Objectives
  2. Stages
  3. Organisation
  4. Planning & Control
  5. Leadership & Management

1.    Objectives

It is the project objectives which perhaps more than anything else "define" a project and make it concrete - what is the project there to achieve and by when?

The difficulty is often that everyone involved or affected by the project has their own ideas and interpretation of what those objectives should be, and even when agreement has been reached, as time moves on the ideas and interpretations diverge again.

Establishing and maintaining clarity and agreement on this, and then communicating it well - that is the first of the keys to success in projects.

2.    Stages

All projects progress naturally through phases - e.g. a research and exploration phase, a decision phase, a planning and organising phase, an implementation phase, and then a closure phase. (This also applies to many of our personal projects - buying a car or a house, arranging a holiday).

The second key to successful project management is to not try to tackle the project as one great whole, but to "chunk" it down in appropriate stages (chunks), making each stage a "mini-project", and each end-of-stage a milestone. The stages that we use in this guidance are Project Proposal, Scoping and Planning, Set Up, Implementation, and Establish and Close; thus:

Five stages of a project

3.    Organisation

Because projects often operate outside of the normal hierarchy, often also crossing boundaries, the Project Manager needs to establish organisational foundations for it - a project "chain of command". Typically, there are two issues:

4.    Planning & Control

All projects, be they a new building or a cultural change project, are always moving into uncharted territory. The project manger has a choice - to cross fingers and hope, or to plan. Project management opts for the latter. In it planning is done throughout the whole project on three levels:-

5.    Leadership & Management

The four items covered so far all create the foundations for managing the project but are not of themselves sufficient. You can have done all that but the project still goes amiss. They still need the fifth and most important key of all - the management and leadership of the Project Manager to make them work.

In almost all projects these are simply the normal management skills that managers employ in their normal work - team development, negotiating, influencing, etc. applied to three strands: progressing the project, gaining the support of "others" and maintaining that , and keeping the "team" connected, committed, and energised.

three balls of change

Where the "team" may be a formal team or simply a group of people providing occasional support, and "others" covers both the formal and informal "stakeholders" of the project.

In Conclusion

Does a focus on these five keys guarantee success - no of course not, no one can promise that. What it can guarantee is that such a focus reduces the chances of things going wrong and it will lead to fewer crises and time wasted on unnecessary remedial actions.