Tips for project success

Everyone manages one project or another in their career. Whether it's a full Project Management Institute defined project or even a career move, here are a few tips on what you can do to maximize your potential for success. 

Whether you're a veteran PM or a budding coordinator - I hope you find this as a refresher or some good basics to a successful project. - This is not a project outline but rather some pro-tips and personal/professional development.

 
Plan

PLAN, Plan, Plan

then plan some more

 
 
Failing to plan is planning to fail
— Benjamin Franklin
 

The first stage in any project is planning. Whether it's planning to get the right people "Who do we need that even knows how to do this?"
Or you have your team and you're ready to start planning each intricate step in the process, you need a plan.
Sometimes planning takes longer than the action items on the project. The longer you plan, the more clarity you have of the project. 

Keep in mind that there are diminishing returns in long term planning. There will be a point where the planning starts to deteriorate the project's likelihood of beginning and/or timetable of finishing by deadlines.

The other side of planning is that you know your *stuff. Being knowledgeable about every aspect of a project is a project manager's key weapon in the event of any confusion. You don't have to say "Let me think about that and get back to you", you can say "Yes, you need to have the glaziers hang these windows first. We talked about the upstairs atrium tile going in before the downstairs lobby was completed due to contractor scheduling. The tile can't go in until the windows are in."

Here's the real deal. Even if you've done this "exact" project before, chances are, theres at least ONE thing new or different about it. Don't underestimate the value of planning with everyone involved in order to ensure your stakeholders are fully aware of what you already know. Even if it's more of a brief, the communication could be invaluable.

I mean which sounds better to you?

 
Risk

Assess Risk

Eliminate or Mitigate

Every project has risks. These risks may not be risks to physical health, maybe financial risks, possibly relationship risks, risks of losing time and missing deadlines (Which results in financial punitive actions sometimes), and all types of risks. Think of as many risks as you can, then have the group walk through the process and ask "What if" in every step of the way (during the risk assessment - you shouldn't be doing this DURING the project as much)

Once you've identified the risks, now you need to pair it with a severity and a frequency. Severity identifies the impact in the event that something along the lines of the identified risk happens, and Frequency indicates how likely it is to happen, statistically.

Think of a Beach Visit and a Risk of Shark Attacks - Probably Low Frequency, High Severity. In the unlikely event of a shark attack it could include severe injury or death. Maybe the risk goes up if the frequency on the beach you are visiting has been high this summer. 

Now you have to determine how to mitigate or eliminate that. 

Sometimes you can't get rid of all the risk involved, but you might be able to mitigate it by implementing some other thing. Traffic construction workers cannot shut down the entire road sometimes, and even then they want the heavy machinery operator to see them too, so they still use high visibility clothing so that everyone can see exactly where they are.

Sometimes identifying a risk is enough to say "Well, let's just not do that at all." and that's just a risk aversion technique. As great as this sounds, a bank still has to give risky loans every once in a while - you can't go through life in a bubble. The most important take away from the mitigation and the avoidance is to ensure it's not creating additional risks or additional burden by doing these mitigation acts.

As a boy I grew up shooting firearms at the range, on the land, at targets both paper and sometimes cans and glass bottles. When I got into the Army we used body armor. That helmet kept sliding down on my head because the back of the body armor was pushing it from behind when I laid down to shoot prone. Then, I found I couldn't properly seat the buttstock of the rifle into my shoulder because the body armor was designed in a way that didn't quite allow for that. I adapted and overcame, but it was a risk mitigation technique that was burdensome in more than a few ways.

 

 

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Set Performance Expectations

Don't be Jesus, Don't allow someone else to either

 

First of all, during your planning stage, you should make sure all of the players are aware of the tasks assigned to them and of course able to complete the job. The second thing is to understand that nobody working on any project is "Jesus" come to save the day. There may be some special skills involved, but understand that there's a minimum work requirement and, on the other hand, a maximum that crosses the line into burnout and insanity.

Recently a close friend lost his job. When we discussed the reasons behind the termination we decided that it was the expectation that he would be the savior of the business, tasked with both General Managing, and outside sales, on a shoestring budget. Instead of being a General Manager working on the business and ensuring proper functioning, he was working in the business. The owners were not satisfied with his sales, although he couldn't possibly be an outside salesperson and run the operations of the company at maximum productivity. I discussed with him that it sounded to me like they expected a lot out of a mortal (even if he thinks he's a demi-God). 

Now this isn't a "project" per-se but the need to set proper scope (regarding your work) is still there. Set a reasonable expectations and think really hard on it when asked to budge. Have your filters, if the expectations are to change, know what is acceptable and at what cost before the question arises.

Make sure everyone understands you're fully capable and maybe even more so, but ensure there's a line on the other side as well. It will save everyone the heart ache in the long run. 

 

 
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Be Flexible

(Rigidly Flexible)

 
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth
— Mike Tyson
 

EVERY PLAN CHANGES. The more you plan for a failure of your plan or a change (during the planning stages) you'll be ready. If you're not ready for a little change you're doing it wrong. 

The hardest flexibility for me [ personally] is depending on someone to do something and they just fail completely. I've tried expecting a misunderstanding and mitigating with explicit instructions. Doesn't work sometimes. It's frustrating when things don't go as planned. It's human nature though and I have to remember that ultimately I am responsible for the project's success. I ultimately hired the wrong person, or the right person but didn't ultimately communicate, or yadda yadda yadda - I am at fault, I need to correct the problem. 

Sometimes the client just changes their mind out of the blue, or the weather dictates that you'll be delayed after your specialist flew in from across the country. It's going to hurt, but this is where those mitigation tips might come in handy.

At the end of the day - Expect to have some pain in any project. These are always going to be the unknown unknowns and cannot be planned for. What you CAN plan for, is to be understanding and a (in this case) very responsive and reactive change agent, to get back on the right track.

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Calm Down

Nothing is that serious

 

Quality control should be part of the gig. Make sure you're looking for deviations from the path, and don't be surprised when you find them. You should always strive to normalize any deviations. 

Make sure that during your planning process, you build in time to check on the project in it's different areas and are able to fully allocate time to monitoring and controlling this project. Some project managers are slammed with 20, 30, or even 50 projects that they monitor over time. Placing events in your project schedule and taking up YOUR time to monitor these projects closely, allows you to know how to schedule new things that arise. Having something on the schedule for me allows me to say, "I can meet with you on Tuesday, but my Monday is slammed". 

 Plan to plan ahead on these things and you'll be thankful.

 
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Nip it in the bud

Solve problems now - rather than later

That problem, it's not going away - in fact it's going to get bigger.

In the West Texas Panhandle - and a lot of places in the south - we say "nip it in the bud". It's a pruning term used to indicate that you need to sheer off a plant at the budding stage before it grows out. It's something I did when pruning vineyards in the High Plains AVA for wine grapes that got sent to Lubbock. It's a valuable lesson that can be amplified and applied at the fortune 500 level. A Bull Cane is a long vine that bears no fruit and takes up nutrients and moisture from the grapes that need it. Cutting/pruning the bull cane out before the season allows for great grapes (that go on to make great wine).

Determine what the problem actually is, don't just look at the symptom and go after that. Then determine the best way to solve it and jump on it with force. You definitely don't want a problem to creep up later down the line.

Sometimes problems aren't even worth solving. Identify what constitutes a "real problem" during your planning stage.

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Avoid Scope Creep

Don't be afraid to tell someone "it's outside of scope"

 

The contract and the scope is established for a reason. Your job as a manager, program manager, or project manager (or even secretary) is to manage the resources you have, and if necessary acquire additional resources. If the manager tacks on another job to a secretarial position without a pay increase and without taking away another duty, the administrative assistant should be able to unsertand

This can be expanded to a large scale. The manufacturing process considers overproduction a waste. Gilded Toilets instead of Porcelain when the client changes their mind incurs additional cost to the manufacturer. It should only be executed with a change order to the project. 

For a construction project, most construction companies understand change orders, but for a layman, change orders are anything outside of scope that requires additional resources, such as time and money, to complete. It's often difficult to call someone out for scope creep when you're not in an industry that typically has a plan to mitigate those instances. It's extremely typical to say "yeah, I'll need a change order sent in for that request" in the construction and manufacturing world. In the corporate "appease my boss Susan so she doesn't fire me" world, it is just a matter of having a conversation. Usually (unless you have a toxic work environment) this is a very understandable request.

I spoke to someone that was trying to calculate the threshold of change orders that could be placed into the bid as padding so that there was an allowance on most of the projects. The client had created a tradition of asking for things that were not huge but were enough to make a difference. The bids will now be increase by X percent to allow for that change. The company still makes their profit, and the client still gets all of their changes without the hassle of negotiation on a change order. Of course anything outside of that threshold can be considered for a change order request, and if there's no changes, the final invoice may be less than originally bid.

 
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Ask Specifically For Negative Feedback

(During your PIR meeting)

After every project you should be holding a Project In Review meeting, or as some call them a "Post Mortem" or Military terminology of "After Action Review (AAR)". Whatever you and yours may refer to them as, these meetings are VITAL to the learning of information for the team. 

Recently I spoke to someone that had a project review process to file important lessons from the project, but did not have a meeting about those issues. This was great if you've got the time to do research but not great if you want the entire team on the same page and brainstorm ideas about how they feel the team could do it better next time. Who knows, your lowest on the totem today may be top level management in 10 years, put them in the room, they'll surprise you with little bits of brilliance.

The second thing I want you to do is very specifically ask for 3 "sustains" and 3 "improves" from each and every person in the room. Your team should prepare answers alone without groupthink, prior to the meeting. You should discuss those things that seem to warrant discussion so you put a story into everyone's mind.

Next time this event happens 3 years from now, and the new guy today, Chad, has been promoted and is leading a new team, he can remember "This has happened before. We decided to do XYZ last time and we feel it would work out better than what we did last time. I'll look up the PIR notes from that project and we'll make sure this new team is equipped to handle the situation with the old knowledge from last time".

If you would like to learn more about how the Military conducts After Action Reviews you will find a copy of TC 25-20 - A LEADER'S GUIDE TO
AFTER-ACTION REVIEWS  Here

 

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Cory Myres is a Process Consultant and Leadership Advisor from Lubbock, TX

Cory Myres - Lubbock Consulting

Cory Myres is a serial entrepreneur and wine connoisseur. A Lubbock Texas Native, he enlisted in the US Army shortly after graduating from Coronado High School. After a tour in Afghanistan, with the famed 101st Airborne Division he returned to Lubbock Texas to attend Texas Tech University. As a Red Raider he studied Architecture, Civil Engineering, Statistics, Economics and Graduated from the Rawls College of Business Administration with a Bachelors of Business Administration in Management with a focus on Entrepreneurship. From then he went on to become certified in Six Sigma as a Black Belt, and Project Management Professional in order to found his business consulting firm, Lubbock Consulting.