Managing projects from start to finish can be a daunting task. This happens 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, many people who manage all sorts of projects and aren’t even called “project managers”.
You can also find yourself in a project manager position with very little or no experience in using project management methods, methodologies, and frameworks or managing projects. If that’s your situation, this practical guide is meant to help you get the engine started. Also, it will help you make sure your project is on – what you believe to be – the right track. We’ll take a look at every detail. You’ll also see how Paymo can help – I encourage you to create a free trial and use it as you move forward through this guide.
You (really) need a plan to manage projects
Every project has a planning part. However, in this case, I refer to the big picture and not a specific part. The first thing you need to do is understand and visualize the final product by asking some important questions:
- Why is it important to finish by “date X”? (Eg. if you’re building a stadium for the Olympics, it’ needs to be complete by the time the competition begins)
- What’s the limit of what the project is expected to accomplish? (Eg. if you’re developing a website, you need to know if it’s going to work only on desktop or for mobile devices as well)
- 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”
There should always be a “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, but if a problem does arise, 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 this is only paperwork. They say “the longer you are in business, the better your contracts will become”. You might believe that every project is going to be amazing and only rely on clients’ verbal promises.
- the client is somebody you’ve already done business with;
- the project seems pretty straightforward or you underestimate the potential risks.
When you meet with the client, grab a pen and paper (or create a Google Docs document or Paymo note) and write down as many things as possible in detail. After you came to an agreement, sign the document and attach it to the project. Agreements usually happen after a few meetings. For example, you’ll need to evaluate all tasks first in order to make an accurate budget estimation.
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. But, you might not be 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?”
No matter how new it is, you surely have some experience in that area. It’s an extremely “brave” act to manage projects you don’t have a clue about.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, you should start with the end. You’ve already visualized the final product. This means you can now think about WHAT needs to be done to create it.
One good technique is to view the project as a combination of smaller projects. Separate the logical pieces 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 should probably bring the WHO into the equation. That is your team, the people who are going to take care of the work that needs to be done. They’ll help you break these mini-projects into smaller ones or individual tasks. How far should you go with this technique? It depends 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 are.
Group and structure the tasks
By now you probably have the “what” and the people responsible for the work. You need to check if nothing important has been left out. There will always be new tasks as the project moves forward, especially when you’re inexperienced. That’s not necessarily a big deal. Yet, it’s important to keep it in mind when you’re estimating time and cost.
The way you group tasks depends on your style, the complexity of a project, and the program you’re using. A common approach is to group the logically connected tasks into tasks lists. Some apps allow you to break a task into “sub-tasks”. These can be tracked independently. A high granularity level gives you more control, but it can complicate things. As a general rule, the more complex a project is, the more granularity you need when defining the structure. This will help you create more accurate estimates.
The fun part begins: estimate time and cost for each task
Probably the hardest part of project management (or “the most controversial”). Why? Because it can cause the biggest headaches for those 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 is that you’ll get better at estimating as you learn and gain insights from previous projects.
Based on your experience there are three types of tasks: tasks you’ve done before, tasks you haven’t done but you know 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’ll take (especially if you use time tracking tools). In the case of the second type, you generate an estimate based on your experience and multiply it by 1.5-2. For the last type, you multiply the estimate by 2-3. Does this sound too much? You’ll have the answer once you complete the project.
There are also other ways to generate an estimate. You can talk to a consultant or a project manager friend who’s already done something similar. There’s always the possibility to come up without an estimate if you have no idea of how long it will take. You need to finish the projects nonetheless.
One reminder: 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 the second part of this guide, we look at how you can manage risks and changes, monitor and adjust your plan, and what it takes to successfully close your project. Read Part 2. Meanwhile, you can take a look at this project management dictionary to get you started.