Congratulations! You’ve been promoted to manage your very first project. You’ve demonstrated that you’re a good worker bee— you can make campaigns, prepare reports, and do whatever else you’ve been assigned.
But managing a project is a completely different matter. Now, instead of dutifully doing what you’re told, you have to figure out what the client wants, build project plans, coordinate between multiple people, and make sure things happen on time and in the right way. Being new in the position and perhaps even young (which makes it harder), you’re afraid that your co-workers and client might not respect you or that you don’t have authority.
Relax—use these simple techniques and it will be hard to fail.
First, get organized. If you are not organized yourself, there’s no way you can begin to think about tracking all the things that your teammates are doing. Are you using basecamp to track who is doing what? Every task should have a description, be assigned to a person, and have a due date. These 3 items are the building blocks of project management—who is doing it, what they’re doing, when is it due.
Use it for anything you could potentially forget about—people you have to call, stuff you need to read, even personal errands. You don’t need Microsoft Project Central or any fancy software—even the Tasks feature in Gmail is sufficient. Even a simple spiral notebook works just fine.
When you’re organized, you don’t have to worry about that one thing you know you were told a few weeks ago, but lost track of. Terrible feeling to be lost and behind—it’s like drowning. So don’t let yourself get there. Check your email twice per day and quickly take care of things by doing one of the following—do it, delete it, or delegate it.
There’s no other option. Don’t read it and then mark it unread. Don’t skim over things with the thinking that you’ll come back to it later. You gain massive efficiency by taking care of things just once—the first time. Plus, when you take care of things right away, they don’t fester into bigger problems that result in all sorts of drama later. I can’t tell you how many people I see complain about being busy or having too many emails, when all they’re really doing is just moving sand from one pile to another, getting nothing done.
Second, create a specific statement of the goal. If you’re lucky enough to have just one project to manage, this is easy. The client may want a website to do X in Y amount of time for Z dollars. Then you break down X into minute little measurable tasks that you assign out to people. Perhaps there is a Statement of Work you can reference where most of the work is already done for you.
In either case, you should check back with the client to affirm the requirements, if for no other reason that to show them that you care and to start building a relationship. Many first time project managers fail by hiding from the start, letting their project go down in flames while they bite their lips in silence. Perhaps they are afraid of looking stupid or whatever reason, but the net result of these good intentions is failure, all the same.
Establishing with the client that you are the lead—the person they can go to for anything—is critical to get you off on the right foot. It then takes the burden off your boss, who likely doesn’t want to step in and do your job for you. Your boss is busy doing other things and if they’re a good boss, will only want to step in if you are in trouble. If the client feels the need to relay requirements or other project communication with your boss, then they are saying you have failed to do your job. So you want to establish the requirements early and make it clear you are responsible.
Third, communicate actively with your project stakeholders. We like to use the RACI model, which stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.
You are the R— meaning that you’re Responsible for the project success. Completely. The buck stops with you, even if so-and-so didn’t reply to your email or give you access to that particular system. It’s your job to stay on top of dependencies, as opposed to having a great set of excuses later when someone else fails in silence. There is only one R, else you have too many cooks in the kitchen.A is Accountable, which covers multiple people that are accountable for doing particular tasks. Sometimes you are the R and the A for smaller projects. But more often, you delegate tasks to engineers and designers who are on the hook for various things. And these folks will forget to do their things, do them improperly, provide excuses why it was someone else’s responsibility, and so forth. You are there to resolve these issues before they become visible to the client—you want to monitor this BEFORE you have slipped the schedule irreparably, and before the big emergency. A great project manager can see problems in advance, then escalate as needed.C is consulted, which means that you might need the expertise, advice, or permission of others to proceed. The C role is dangerous here, since a lot of people will want to be involved in your project, especially if it’s high profile and involves social media—something that everyone feels they are an expert in. To prevent meeting madness, where you’re unable to hold meetings because of too many people wanting to attend, make it super clear who is doing what in the Accountable section—the list of tasks.You’ll come across many corporate folks who will say they are responsible in some vague sort of way, upon which you politely explain your role, who else is accountable for certain tasks, and then ask them what exactly they would like to do in this project. If you’re suave, you can pacify these backseat drivers. If you’re too blunt, you’ll offend these people, even if it’s clear that they have no specific useful skills to the project or add any type of value.I is Informed. These are folks who you should keep updated, usually AFTER you have made a decision and have taken action. Only the Consulted people need to be asked in advance of a decision. Because most corporate folks attribute their value in direct proportion to how many meetings they attend (if you’re busy, then you must be in high demand and very important), you’ll have to fight to keep most folks in the I bucket versus somewhere else.The easiest way to ward off these folks is to publish meeting minutes. That way, they’re not afraid of missing something juicy from not having attended—they can merely read the summary. Ask yourself how many project managers are guilty of not publishing the meeting minutes? They’re the ones who are struggling and haven’t even gotten around to placing people in the RACI roles. Ironically, their excuse is that they’re too busy. The reason they’re too busy is that they’re wasting time doing nonsensical things to actually have time to produce things of value.There you have it. Nothing magical. But it sure works like magic. When you make it clear that you have a goal, specified the team and specific tasks needed to get to your goal, the waters will part. The cubicle dwellers will respect that you have a mission. Those who want to know what’s going on don’t have to call a meeting to waste the precious time of your team—they can just log into basecamp or read the latest meeting minutes.If the big boss decides to derail you because of the latest fire drill, you can confidently say “yes” to any of her requests, because you at the same time mention the impact to the work schedule you’re already on.If the client decides to change his mind and increase the scope of the project (they would never do that!), then you can say “yes”—AND the impact is $X and Y days to the timeline. You never say “yes, but”, which is arguing with them. You say “yes, and”. Let them trade off between time, money, and scope—pick two, as they say.If you follow these three steps I this orders— to get organized, be clear on your goals, and run the RACI project management model—you’re well-protected from every angle. People will marvel and how well you manage and what a good job you do. By making the model clear, everyone knows what is expected, so there’s little room to hide. The typical corporate cubicle monsters who are looking for a big company to hide in will know they are not welcome. And you’ll be spending less time dealing with the same old excuses, and more time doing things that you enjoy.
How do you fare against this model? Are there certain techniques that work well for you? Perhaps you have a horror story to share (names kept anonymous to protect the guilty)?