7 tips to manage projects effectively

22 November 2013

At some point or another we all find ourselves having to do this thing called project management. Sometimes everything goes well and other times we run into snags. But it helps to get good advice from someone who does project management for a living.

I recently got a chance to sit down with a project manager from one of the top advertising agencies in the world and pick his brain on the most important things to do and keep in mind when you’re managing projects.

1. Don’t forget the human element

You’re not alone on a team. You’re managing the expectations of stakeholders, your boss, and your team. You have to collaborate. There are a lot of tools out there you can use for collaboration to maintain transparency. So how do you do that?

You think to yourself, I’m going to run business requirements on what the team needs and how to collaborate. And in the end, you can find yourself presenting a “fantastic” solution to your team, that seemingly comes through with all of the business requirements and it’s free. But then, all of a sudden you run into limitations and your team stops using it. Communications break down. Then it becomes more of a data repository. Everything gets buried. And the collaboration software you picked up ends up being like the junk drawer you have in your kitchen. The lesson here is to not just solve for business requirements, but to solve for the human element.

2. Communication is king

You need to learn how to communicate within your team. That’s the biggest thing you have to learn overall for every project’s success. A project manager’s primary function is to communicate and bridge the communication between all the different personalities. I read a cool article recently that talked about the orthogonality of software development. There was an analogy made against learning how to fly a helicopter. The idea is that there are two disparate pieces, the rotor up top and the tail rotor. One makes it go up and down. One makes it go sideways. These two disconnected parts are controlled by one cyclic stick. And the pilot’s job is to control both of those disconnected parts to make the helicopter move in the right direction. A project manager has to be that kind of pilot—to bridge the communication throughout their team.

3. Know when to use the right tool from your toolbox

You can learn Scrum. You can apply Kanban. But you have to be adaptable to the team. Once you understand how the team works, you have to be flexible enough to adopt the tools that the team uses as well. Take the time to familiarize yourself with all of the tools available to you to better understand which ones to use at the right time.

4. Always ask questions, never assume

Plenty of project managers needing to get through a project think they don’t need to have a complete level of detail. But this is where you can get into trouble. It’s a fine art. Part of being a good project manager is having that balance of knowing when to be brief and knowing when to ask for details, without being too pushy or overstepping boundaries.

5. Understand that there’s conflict on every project

Most conflict has a simple solution – again it goes back to communication. Sometimes people are just difficult to work with, mostly because you or the other team member has trouble adapting to another team member’s work style. There’s no way to avoid conflict. Here are a few quick tips on how to deal with it:

Take the person aside and listen to them over a walk-and-talk, to the kitchen, outside, or getting coffee.

Take the person aside and walk through a list of items you are dealing with.

The common thread is to take the person aside so it’s not confrontation—it’s less about confronting the problem and more about addressing the cause of the problem.

6. Be the participant observer

In social anthropology, there’s this idea that understanding a culture has two parts. The first is the empirical observation  (i.e. tasks and routines that you observe and record—just plain data), and the second is subjective observation (why, how, when). These qualities are the building blocks of a culture. In order to understand the culture, an anthropologist will embed his or herself in the culture—they will join the tribe and do things the tribe does—eat their food, sing their songs as well as record ethnographies about how the culture came to be.

I’m oversimplifying the process, but the same thing works for project mangers—when you join a team or form a team you are building a culture around the project or joining a culture. It’s like building a mini civilization—does your team build pyramids or a coliseum? What I’m saying is that the project manager has to understand the culture of the team and or has to help create a culture within that team in order for a project to succeed. The culture of your team is what guides the success of the project, and as a project manger, you have you have to understand the culture and embed yourself in the culture, so that you can effectively lead and create structure around the culture of the team or create structure and order for the culture. Once you understand the culture of the team through participation and listening you will understand how to effectively insert your project process to help the team and your project succeed.

7. A few words on project management scope

There’s a stupid saying: rule with an iron fist and a velvet glove. It’s archaic and you will get laughed at for introducing it seven centuries later, but the principle holds. You have to hold your ground on scope, but you have to be flexible. When you take on a project, you’re making a bet that you are confident with. You’re betting against yourself and the team that you can get the job done within the spread. Pete rose would be a great a project manager. The good news is that you’re in control of the game and you’re betting against you and your team, so of course you want to win; however, the way you win is key to your project’s success. It’s not just about winning. It’s about being a team player while you set yourself up for success.

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