A very practical guide to start managing your projects
To manage projects from start to finish can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not a certified project management professional. Does “hammock activity”, “prince2” or “critical path” ring any bells? No? Then this practical guide is for you (no vague or abstract stuff included). Actually there are many people who lead and manage all sorts of projects and they aren’t even called “project managers”.
It also happens sometimes to find ourselves in a project manager position with very little or no experience in managing projects. If that’s your situation, this practical guide is meant to help you get the engine started and at least make sure your project is on – what you believe to be – the right track. We’ll take a look at every detail (and see how Paymo can help along).
You (really) need a plan to manage projects
Every project has a planning part, but in this case I’m referring at the big picture and not a specific part of the project. The first thing you need to do is understand and visualize the final product by asking some important questions:
- why is it important to be finalized by “date X”? (Eg. if you build a stadium for summer Olympics it’s critical to be done by the time the competition begins)
- what’s the limit of what the project is expected to accomplish? (Eg. if you develop a website, you need to know if it’s going to work only on desktop or both on desktop and mobile devices)
- is there a fixed or a flexible budget? If you don’t know this from the beginning there’s a big risk that a project can’t be finalized due to the lack of funds.
- if you’re at a point where you have to prioritize these aspects (time, cost, quality) what’s the most important aspect of these?
“In theory, the client is your friend”
As a sign of wisdom, there should always be some sort of “written agreement” between the parties involved in a project. You HAVE TO make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Not only does writing an agreement help avoid miscommunication before the beginning of a project, but if a problem does arise at some point, the agreement helps identify each party’s responsibilities regarding scope, budget and other issues. There are a lot of reasons why this step is so “underrated”:
- lack of experience in managing projects. When you’re inexperienced you might think that this is only paperwork. They say “the longer you are in business, the better your contracts will become”. You might believe that every project you take is going to be amazing and only rely on clients’ verbal promises.
- the client is somebody you’ve already done business with;
- you’ve done work for this client before;
- the project seems pretty straightforward and/or you underestimate the potential risks and the problems that these might cause.
When you meet with the client, grab a pen&paper (or create a Google Docs document or Paymo note) and write down as many things as detailed as possible. After you came to an agreement (which usually happens after a few meetings – for example you need to evaluate first all the tasks in order to make an accurate budget estimation), sign the document and (don’t forget to) attach it to the project.
Create a detailed to-do list
The first question you need to answer is “what do we need to do?” You might be lucky and work on a project very similar to what you’ve already done, or not so lucky and get involved in something you haven’t done before. No need to talk too much about the first scenario, the question is “what do you do if the project is something relatively new?”
Well, no matter how new it is, you surely have some experience in that area (it’s extremely “brave” to manage projects you don’t have a clue about).
As counterintuitive as it might sound, you should start with the end. You already visualized the final product and think about WHAT it needs to be done to create it.
One good technique is to view the project as a combination of smaller projects. Separate the pieces that are logical to stand alone (and make sure you don’t leave anything important out).
For example, if you’re a web design agency and you need to create a website there are several “mini-projects” you can write down:
- functional specifications;
- graphic design;
- back-end development;
- front-end development;
- functional testing;
At this point you probably should bring the WHO into equation, aka your team, the people who are going to take care of the work that needs to be done. They’ll help you break this mini-projects into even smaller ones or individual tasks. How far you should go with this technique? It depends a lot on the complexity of a project and the experience of those involved. The more detailed the list, the higher the chances to come up with a better time/cost estimate.
Group and structure the tasks
By now you probably have the “what” and the people responsible for the work in a structured list. You need to double-check that nothing important has been left out. There will always be new tasks that appear as the project moves forward and things that you didn’t think about (especially when you’re inexperienced). That’s not necessarily a big deal, but it’s important to keep it in mind when you’re estimating time and cost.
The way you group the tasks depends on your style, the complexity of the project and the program you’re using. A common approach is to group the logically connected tasks into tasks lists. Some apps also allow you to break a task into “sub-tasks”, which can be tracked independently. A high granularity level gives you more control, but it can complicate things too. As a general rule, the more complex a project is, the more granularity you need when defining the structure (it will help you create a more accurate estimate).
The fun part begins: estimate time and cost for each task
Probably the hardest part in project management (or, let’s say “the most controversial”). Why? Because it can cause the biggest headaches to everyone involved.
Let’s start with a fact: you’ll be wrong in your estimates. The less experienced you and your team are, the higher the chance that your estimates will be wrong. The fun part is when you have to come up with reasons why your estimates were (so) wrong… The good thing though is that you’ll get better at estimating as you learn more (and you gain insights from previous projects).
Based on your experience there are 3 types of tasks: tasks you’ve done before; tasks you haven’t done but you know pretty well what it needs to be done and tasks you haven’t done and you need to research to find out more about them. For the first type you already know how much time it will take (especially when you use time tracking tools). For the second type you generate an estimate based on your experience/intuition and multiply it by 1.5-2, and for the last type you multiply the estimate by 2-3. Does this sound too much? You’ll have the answer when the project has been completed.
There are also other ways to generate an estimate: you can talk to a consultant/expert or a project manager friend who’s already done something similar. There’s always the possibility to have no estimate as well if you have no idea of how long it will take (but the projects need to be done nonetheless).
One reminder here: a good practice is to decide on a budget with the client only after you’ve written down and evaluated all the tasks (especially for projects you’ve never done before).
In part 2 of this guide, I’ll talk about risks, monitoring and adjusting the plan along with reviewing and learning from what happened (good or bad).
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