How to manage a project without project management training?

How to manage a project without project management training?

A recurring and strange theme in my career has been project management. Many times I have been asked to lead projects, of all sizes… small service launches to multi-million dollar multi-vendor pursuits. I never really had any project management training other than a module in my software engineering degree, yet I think I was pretty successful in getting the job done, albeit imperfectly.

This article came to life as I was in a team meeting, I had asked a team member to lead a small project and he said he didn’t have the right training… I quipped “why would you need to be trained on something you are perfectly capable of doing already…” Of course he was after the esteemed PMP certification… and why not, if he is to do a function for a corporation why not achieve the right credentials, and while I do have my gripe on how corporations often fall short in getting their resources certified – it’s a separate topic altogether. What happened next was we carried on the mtg over lunch and the team asked how I managed projects, without project management training?

First off, lets define “project”… if I gave my kid 5 dollars and told him to buy an apple from the store and he had the option of taking the bus or train, and had to come back in an hour – a successful project would require him to pick his resources, do it within a budget and come back with my bloody apple. Anything short is a failed project.

Of course let’s also be clear that I am not talking about building the national highway system, but that’s the point I was making to the team – project management isn’t that hard if you focus on a few key things, and hold a few principles closely. So how does someone without project management training manage a project… that’s what we talked about in 45 mins over lunch, and I am going to re-create here as best I can remember:

Step 0: Charm School

More than anything else, a project is a team effort, strong relationships is the key. As much as you want to define Roles and Responsibilities, it’s never going to be perfect and you never know where you are going to need help… and not everything can be a change request… so don’t be a fiery dick! Be nice, connect often. Take an interest in how everyone else is doing, cause inadvertently or not – everyone else’s schedule could affect you.

Don’t escalate blindly, get overly aggressive and think that it’s a winning formula to frighten everyone to work… it may work for a bullshit little project but when you get to the big stuff, you really want to work with. So, be nice.

Step 1: What’s the deliverable?

A contract will typically define a cube as 6 connected squares. Your customer may define it as a steel box of 6 sides with 6 different colors that glows in the dark. It’s really important to identify what success looks like in the eyes of your customer.

Sometimes in the simplest projects – it’s unwritten. There was a customer who told me that he had no time for the project he was assigned, all he needed was a monthly report showing progress that he could take to his management, and that I work with all the other vendors independently – I asked for a template he wanted to see the information in, and to introduce us to the other vendors… realizing I’d be spending a fair bit of time in meetings and I needed someone to build a fancy report every month, I added the effort into the contract so that it’s billable and bingo, project was a breeze.

Never work with half-baked requirements, even if you get scolded 10 times trying to collect it… you have to literally taste what the end product needs to be before you start any work! I remember spending over a month in 8 mtgs with a customer who kept trying to explain what she wanted, each time we met I brought all sorts of pictures/templates/past-examples… until we finally struck a chord… I then sent a 3 page email with explicit details on what I would be delivering and pressured her for another 2 weeks to acknowledge. I got escalated to my management for being “inflexible” J Better inflexible in requirements gathering than incompetent when the product turns out wrong.

Step 2: Who’s it for?

Stakeholders: who influences everyone, who’s voice counts, who signs off, who can make things happen. People talk about communication plan, a smart project manager makes an engagement plan – weekly tea with X, weekly beer with Y, weekly lunch with Z, weekly emails to A,B,C.

Chances are you have your contracted scope-of-work which was informed to you by a customer leader, who’s part of a small team that’s similarly engaged other vendors with the hope that all of you work together to make it a success with little intervention on their part. Knowing who to work with, and how to work with them is vital. Everyone’s got touchpoints and everyone is lobbying the customer to believe that they have everything ready – it’s everyone else that’s slow.

Keeping your head buried in your project plan, turning up only when there is a committee meeting, isn’t wise. Build the right relationships early, keep them engaged throughout.

Step 3: When is it due?

Knowing what you need to deliver, to who, and how they want it – helps you identify your resourcing and financial needs, which is completed with one more detail – when you do you need to deliver all of it.

Anyone who has hired an interior designer (ID) in Singapore will tell you that time is an illusion to the average ID, they plan a project with a slack in their heads of several weeks assuming it’s an accepted norm. Very often they don’t get return business, their reputation goes down the drain and they open a new company with a new name and start over. The key reasons for this 1) they collect and try to work with half-baked requirements, making an effort to understand as they go along 2) their don’t understand the concept of dependencies and never do plan to complete ahead of schedule

Never plan a project to miss a deadline. I’d recommend have 2 project plans, one which is reported and one with dependencies only for you to track. It is easy to get lost in the details, if you have a thousand line excel plan I bet everyone has seen and discussed it again and again and again are bored stiff, but that’s for the people working on your set schedule to know what they need to do and by when – what about the external influences?

As the person-in-charge, you need to identify those key “needs” and “risks”. For example, if you were going to build a server room, chances are you’d have your orders placed, all those backend teams ready to support the move, all your onsite people ready to setup onsite… but… those construction guys, what do they need to provide –

What When If Missed Mitigation
The room needs to be ready for us to start moving in 1 Mar Need alternative storage Communicate to construction team, room is needed by 1 Mar with power and electricity. Our deadline is 7 Mar. If 1 Mar is missed, get a drop-dead date and let customers know if we will be late as a result.
Power needs to be turned on 7 Mar Setup is delayed
Air Conditioning needs to be ready 7 Mar Setup is delayed
Connectivity needs to be ready 7 Mar Setup is delayed

Smart managers think ahead, plan early, and communicate new recommendations quickly.

People think of escalation as a bad thing, it is part of the bureaucracy – its way to get attention on a risk and help to move ahead. I’d recommend doing a joint mtg and escalating the concern jointly from the mtg, instead of you highlighting and condemning the rest.

 Step 4: Your resources, people and tools and money… and my project plan!

Chances are you figured I’d be writing the most in this section… but strangely, unless you are in business for yourself and working on your own project – this part is quite straightforward. There is a super high chance, that there is already a project management organization who has set the standards in reporting and processes to get resourcing, finances etc. So then it becomes a function of reading and learning.

My advise – learn from past implementations. Ask them for a couple of similar projects successfully completed before, share with you the project plan and connect you with the project manager and ask these 3 magic questions:

  1. How do I start?
  2. What were the challenges you faced?
  3. Any learnings you can share?

And really if you think about it, the challenge is not a lot more if your company doesn’t have a PMO, you just need to find the folks who done it before and grab advise to get you off the ground.

If you can, try to find someone who’s delivered the project you’re working on before. Keep this fellow handy, you may need to go back time and again for advise to circumvent issues.

Most importantly – the plan. Nothing beats having a completed project’s plan as a reference point. Believe me, building a project plan piece by piece is a great way to learn everything, but its all so much smoother and faster if you had reference material.

If you really don’t have a plan that you can reference, I’d recommend to just break the project into many small categories and start talking to people about each one, to get an idea on what/who/how/when… you wont have all the answers but it will give you enough detail to put together a high level plan… 

Thoughts What Who How When
Servers Wintel, networking devices List of server owners – ask Mike

List of N/W devices – ask Bryan

Servers are cabled first, then built, OS… 4 hrs Facility needs to have raised floor, power, aircon, connectivity
Applications Application List Apps owners, ask John Can be done remotely Apps go in after DB…
Databases Oracle team Alex Can be done remotely DB is put in after the server is built..

Step 5: The Short/Mid/Long Term

The Short Term

Solidify – your goal in the short term should be to elicit clear requirements, build a solid plan, socialize.

This is the best phase to build relationships, when everything is still moving smoothly.  Reporting is key – always send out progress updates to demonstrate you are on top of things.

The Mid Term

Calibration – the requirements may change, some of your dependencies may not be ready, you may face schedule and budget overruns. Always pre-empt the stuff that can go wrong, and what you need to do about it. Run through your project plan with your team again and again, new considerations will pop out, talk to the other vendors – catch the hint of a miss early. Protect your interest, don’t just let the world happen to you.

The Long Term

Commercialize – through every project you build a reputation, it does matter what people say and it does matter that people want to acknowledge your work. Sure there will be disagreements, misses and issues to deal with, whether its peaceful and deal with together – depends on you. At the end of your project, how much of a success it is, depends on how its articulated. I’d imagine that a 2-page journey summary, with photographs, positive comments from the vendors you partnered with, good feedback from your customer (throughout the project) – would be a lot more impactful to your management, a better showcase of your collaborative talent than just “ok, done, what’s next”.

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