The basics of project management

The first thing you should know about project management is that it doesn't need to be complicated. Don't be fooled by thick books or year-long certification courses. The basics of project management – the important stuff – are pretty easy and mostly common sense.

Look at what you need to do. Break it down. As a project manager you're probably not going to have to do all the work yourself, you just need to make sure that it gets done, is done right and is done on time. Ask yourself what tools you need to ensure that this happens. These will nearly always include a proper plan, good people, clear expectations, good communication, a timeframe, deadlines and a budget.

If you really take the time to look at it all, you'll no doubt see that, with a little thought, what seems like a huge project can actually be pretty manageable. I think one of the biggest problems with many project managers is that they tend to overcomplicate things, or they force you into an overly rigid or complicated process. This makes everyone's job harder.

The idea is to work on the project, not for the project. So where do we start? How about at the beginning? Kick off each project correctly by making sure you fully understand it. Learn everything you can so that you can discuss it in the detail it deserves with your team.

Depending on the task in hand, I like to use a checklist when doing discovery for a new project.

  • What are the project's goals?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Is there a hard deadline?
  • What are the roles?
  • Have expectations been clearly set for everyone involved in the project?
  • Have the processes for changes and dealing with problems been communicated to all team members? (This is an important one.)

The idea is to gather, then disseminate, as much information as possible. Don't be stingy with information: make sure everyone knows what's expected of them. Setting expectations (and resetting them as the situation calls for it) is key and should be done at the start of the project. We don't know how many times we've seen a project go off the deep end because someone didn't understand their role on it.

That should never happen. If someone doesn't know what they're doing, they should feel like they can ask before the project gets going. It's a good idea to check in with everyone involved to make sure they're all clear on what's going on.

Once you've set the stage, you'll likely focus on communication and keeping everyone organised.

Communication

A good project manager communicates often and clearly, and is available and accessible if someone has questions. This means answering your phone and checking your email regularly and being open to different communication styles.

Your developers, for example, might prefer email to the phone and that's okay most of the time. But some conversations are better done in person, no matter how you or your teammates prefer to communicate. If something isn't getting through via email, schedule a face-to-face to talk it all out.

Always err on the side of overcommunication. It's possible to communicate too much and cause unwanted distraction, but in my experience that's better than communicating too little. If you ever get the feeling that someone doesn't understand their role or what they're supposed to be doing, stop and schedule a chat to work it out.

Another good practice is to work on your writing skills. All of your documentation should be easy to follow. Keep it simple and use plain language. If you're working on your communication and doing a good job there, you'll be 90 per cent of the way towards being a great project manager. Much of the rest, when it comes to the day-to-day, is related to organisation.

You'll want to make sure you're on top of schedules, to-dos and milestones. It's important not to overmanage your team, though. Keep watching everything, help out when needed, but don't become a pest. There's nothing more distracting to a designer or developer than an overzealous project manager sitting at their desk asking, "Are you done yet?" over and over.

Keep an eye on things and speak up when anything seems to be going a bit out of control. Most projects that I work on generally go pretty smoothly, as long as there are no communication issues.

There are times when problems will arise and when they do, you'll need to be ready to jump in and get your hands dirty. However, if you've made sure that you've set the proper expectations and communicated everything properly, it should be within your power to resolve those problems.

So, to sum it all up:

  • Take the time to really understand the project
  • Ensure you set expectations
  • Everyone should have a solid understanding of their role and the way forward should be clearly mapped out
  • Communicate often and adapt to your team's communication and work styles

All this really needs is a bit of effort and understanding. When in doubt, overcommunicate. Keep on top of milestones and schedules, but don't pester your team.

Dealing with complicated issues

So far we've painted a pretty rosy picture of the process. Set proper explications, keep lines of communication open and keep an eye on the project and everything will be fine!

Well, ideally, yes, but sometimes we come across problems that lie far outside of our control. So, what do we do when things break down?

First, you need to understand the problem. If you've been communicating and have a good relationship with everyone involved, it shouldn't be too much of an issue to delve down to the root of the issue. When it comes to websites, the most common place that projects break down is when something hasn't been scoped properly or expectations don't match up.

This doesn't have to be a nightmare. Simply open the lines of communication, discuss the issue openly and frankly and reset expectations. Move forward based on new information, regardless of what the actual problem is. It comes back to communication: if you're communicating clearly, you'll have a better chance of resolving your issues.

You'll also want to go back to your (hopefully) clearly described process for dealing with changes. If your team has done a good job and understands what to do when there's a problem, it comes down to formulating a new plan, resetting the resultant expectations and getting back to work.

Finishing up

The last five per cent of your project is always the hardest. Often you'll have a few small, outstanding issues lingering. The best way to wrap up is to set your team a hard deadline and stick to it. Always keep in mind that the project as a whole is more important than the tasks and details that make it up.

Also, with website work, the end product is never really 100 per cent finished and you can always go back and make fixes and changes should you need to. Project management isn't easy – it's a whole lot of work – but it's important.

All it takes is effort, a bit of know-how, good communication and organisation skills, and a willingness to see things through. If you've got that, you've got the makings of a fine project manager.

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Keith Robinson has been working on the web for more than 13 years. He started his career with Microsoft and is founder, principal and creative director of Blue Flavor.

First published in .net Issue 190

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