Learn the ropes of project management

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am

WHO WOULD WANT to be a project manager? With impossible deadlines, crippling budgets, people to organise and things going wrong - the job is enough to drive anyone crazy.

However, if you are serious about your career, project management is a skill you cannot afford to ignore. Organisations are project-oriented and often rely on temporarily assembled teams rather than permanent ones to deliver results. Sooner or later, you will have to lead a new initiative. So it is better to prepare now and shine when the opportunity arrives, rather than be taken by surprise and struggle when a project comes your way.

Fortunately, project management skills are quite easy to grasp and plenty of help is available to get you started.

Build your confidence by familiarising yourself with the four stages of the project management process - defining, planning, implementing and completing - and the skills that will increase your efficiency at each stage. It would be unrealistic to expect to be perfect at everything. You may be good at generating ideas and defining the scope of a project, but may lack the discipline to implement a project efficiently. Look for support and resources to help you deal with the stages that come less naturally to you.

The first step is to make sure you have the go-ahead for the project. This may not be as obvious as it seems. It is surprising how often employees invest time and effort in a project, only to find that the idea has been shelved. You should also be clear about who is responsible for leading the project and then pull in everyone who who has a critical role.

Next, it is important to define what you hope to achieve. The scope and impact of a project has to be visualised clearly if it is to succeed. Do not underestimate the importance of this stage. Accurate definition and design will ensure support from others and allow work to progress in a logical fashion.

You will also need to consider the feasibility of the methods and techniques selected, and the people who need to be involved. It is important to look at the widest range of options while designing a project and, therefore, bring others into the thinking process. You could also conduct research or a pilot study to define needs more clearly.

The next stage is planning. Start by looking at the broad objectives and then break these down systematically until you have an outline of the key activities needed to meet specific milestones. Assign a person to take responsibility for each item and set deadlines. You should try to quantify deliverables at each stage, as this will make it easier to monitor progress.

When dealing with small projects, you may be able to keep track of these steps on a spreadsheet. However, complex projects with many interdependent stages can benefit from project planning tools such as Gantt charts. These bar charts display the time relationships between different steps in a project, showing the sequence of activities and even those that can be done at the same time.

Anticipate potential obstacles at each stage. This will help you to be ready with solutions to problems, and also consider alternative approaches should the worst-case scenario occur. With a clear idea of what can go wrong, create a buffer in terms of time and budget.

Once every step of the project is clearly defined, look closely at the costs involved and allocate a budget for each deliverable. If these add up to more than the original budget, you will need to lobby for more money, look for ways to cut costs, or renegotiate the expectations from the project. Do not expect to cut costs along the way - that will never happen. Most project managers allow at least a 10 per cent increase in expenditure to cope with unexpected problems.

The planning stage is a useful time to consider how to get others to accept your plans. It is no use getting to the key stage of a project only to find that your colleagues dislike the idea and do not want to get involved. There should be a period of consultation before the project plans are finalised so that others feel involved.

Success is now a matter of implementation. Key players should have a clear idea of what they need to achieve and by when. Regular meetings or review mechanisms should be in place to ensure that things are going according to plan and to update everyone on developments. The project manager should be responsible for co-ordinating meetings and ensuring updates.

No matter how thoroughly you plan for implementation, unexpected problems will crop up. So it is important to have the resources in place to deal quickly with tricky issues. For example, you could give key individuals the authority to make decisions so that urgent problems can be dealt with on the spot.

The project manager's role is vital in keeping each team member focused on the common goal and ensuring that standards are maintained.

Do not panic if things should fall behind schedule. Ask yourself if the pace of work can be increased, or whether the project requires more resources. Sometimes, it is just a matter of motivating everyone to deliver as promised. It also helps to give regular feedback to the team so they know how they are performing against the project objectives.

Finally, make sure you complete the project in a thorough manner. Do not assume that the project is done simply because you have achieved the project objectives. Instead, ensure that whoever commissioned the project is happy with the results. In this way, you will increase your chances of getting budgets for future projects.

Finally, make sure you evaluate the key outcomes of the project and their impact on the business. This will help you understand whether further work is needed and also allow you to learn from the process.

Do not forget to debrief those involved, let them know how their work helped and thank them for their effort.

Article sponsored by Gemini Personnel, the trusted name in personnel


The project management pay-off: Becoming a skilled project manager requires effort and significant investment of time and resources at the beginning of the project process. However, the returns on this investment could be handsome, as the following list shows.

Projects completed on time and at lower cost: This alone is sure to get the attention of your boss and enhance your reputation as a project manager.

Projects to have greater impact: When you define exactly what you want to achieve, and put systems in place to monitor progress, you are much more likely to create the kind of results the business needs.

Increased buy-in for new initiatives: When others are involved in systematically defining, planning, and implementing a project, you will get much greater buy-in. And that means a much greater chance of success.

Greater long-term efficiency: Once you have defined a clear project management process, you can use it time after time. So if you invest your effort now, you will reap rewards in the future too.