Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Project Management 101

Recently, I've been the "project manager" on two significant projects at the company I work for.

Can I just say I'm glad they are basically over!  We launched one of them today and while it wasn't perfect (what is?!) overall it was pretty smooth.  I can finally sleep without dreaming about our products and our website crashing!  Even though I was mentally prepared for the long hours and the challenges ahead... I was one stressed out chica for two weeks straight!

I see project management as a blank canvas.  Choosing the colors, paint brush, inspiration-- they all have to work together to make it a beautiful masterpiece.  Okay, so that was a lame analogy.  I know.  But in theory coordinating multiple pieces of an end result takes faith and trust in other people.  There's no way I could implement a new phone system or website on my own.  There's no way my wedding would have come together on my own!  Heck, even planning a birthday party sometimes takes skill and coordination!

Disclaimer:  I don't claim to be an expert at managing projects.  These are just some of the tips I've learned over time, especially recently with the things I've dealt with at my job.

Never assume...  EVER.  Did I say never assume?  I meant NEVER.  EVER.  ASSUME...!!!

One of the projects I knitted together recently was coordinating the switch of one web host to another.  This meant copying every single URL, image, landing page, blah blah blah from our current host to our new web host.  I wasn't the one copying over any of it, I was simply managing the moving pieces.  Work with one vendor, then our corporate team, then our new web team...  The thing is I don't speak web lingo.  Drop that file where?  HTML code whaaaaat?  Link this source to fdalkfdsalfmjdk is what it all meant to me.  I assumed one group knew what the other group knew because I sure as heck didn't know.  Wrong.  Don't ever assume someone knows what's going on.  Keep people informed and ask questions about the things you're unsure of.  Get everyone in a room so there's no "I thought... He said... She said..."  

Clearly communicate roles.

Who is ultimately in charge?  Who approves things?  Who is the liaison with vendors, who is the one implementing?  Defining roles from the beginning ensures there's no confusion on who is accountable to what.  This has proven to be a huge success factor to getting the people involved in the project on board and supportive as they understand their role and commitment level.

Establish a budget and a schedule.

Knowing how much the project should cost and what the implementation/planning schedule is critical to a successful launch.  To some companies, if you implemented flawlessly and on time but were over budget it's a failure.  To others, the timeline is more critical.  Make sure you understand what the costs are going to be and plan accordingly when creating your budget.  Picking a number out of thin air won't do you any good; do your research and figure out a number that makes sense for the schedule and the pieces that need to be knit together.  Also, understand your schedule and when you are ahead or behind.  You won't understand the impact of your decisions unless you can tie them to how they will affect the schedule of the project.

Keep an up-to-date issues list.

Many projects require testing prior to implementation.  Keeping an issues list will help you keep track of what you've already looked at and the result, and therefore aid you in knowing what action to take next.  Keep your vendors, team and management aware of any significant issues and the progress you're making.  Designate one team member to update it so you don't have multiple people duplicating issues or adding or deleting things.  This also helps to eliminate millions of little emails flying back and forth. 

"Can I give you some advice?"  When your boss asks you this, say yes. :) "Of course," I told him.

"If you keep sending our web developers one off emails it may be difficult for them to keep track of everything you're asking them to do.  It may be hard for you to keep track as well.  You might want to think about consolidating and making a more defined list that you can check off."  He grins.  "But it's your project, it's just advice!"

Um, yeah.  I consolidated.  Keeping the issues list up-to-date with the current status of the project will be key as you move forward in each stage of your impelementation.

Establish an implementation strategy.

As you are moving closer to the date you go live with your project (or event, or product for that matter) understand how you are going to implement it.  Write it down.  Collaborate with your team and management (keeping in mind to maintain clear roles and responsibilities!) to define how you are going to get this done.  This part of project management goes hand in hand with laying out an appropriate schedule.  Are you going to have a daily conference call to track the progress?  Or are you going to manage it by email or spreadsheets?  However you decide, be certain you and your team understand how the implementation should go which means planning way ahead before the actual live date.  What testing needs to be completed, at what point can you expose part of the project to management or others within your organization to gain feedback, etc...  Define a strategy for how you plan to get your product, event and/or project on the road with smooth sailing.  On implementation day the last thing you need is for someone to say "I can't..."  You should be thinking of those things now and also preparing to ensure everyone can.

Debrief, then move on.

After you've finished the project, take some time to sit down with your team and debrief.  Talk about what went well, what could have gone smoother, some ideas for next time and evaluate each piece.  Without a legitimate debrief it's hard to go back and remember what exactly was done successfully.  The next time you go to plan a launch of an event, product or project (mine was a phone system and a website) you'll have a clear idea of what was completed before, the victories as well as the pain points to avoid for next time.

All in all, project management is fun.  I enjoy knitting together moving pieces to create something better than what was there before.  But it is stressful.  I think it was the only time I wished the week would go by slower.  I wanted more time to get it right.  It doesn't have to be perfect though.  Or maybe it does.  Thankfully I work with a very forgiving team!  Distinguishing between what's critical to going live and what are pleasantries that would be nice to have is important.  Don't aim for perfection.  Someone will always find a flaw in your work!  Have fun, drink lots of starbucks and breathe.  If you've followed the steps above, you'll be on your way to a successful project!

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