By Roger A. Grimes
In my role as a traveling computer security consultant, I meet with project managers every week. Let’s just say their levels of competence vary greatly.
I can tell you from experience that the best are aggressive practitioners who take their roles seriously. They don’t wait for big problems to emerge to start making decisions and taking action. They evaluate team-member skill levels early on, assess overall project risks on day one, create formal project plans, and make assignments with due dates to help all team members reach their goals.
I’m not a certified project manager, although I think getting a cert from the Project Management Institute is a great way to advance your career. My project management knowledge and appreciation comes from the school of hard knocks, mostly as a participant, but sometimes as a project manager. It’s not easy — good project management takes both skill and the right mindset.
Here are some common factors of project management success:
1. Even small projects should have a project manager
Any project longer than a week with multiple people involved deserves a dedicated project manager. On small projects, management will often have a full-time technical participant double as the project manager. It saves money and resources, but the project often yields a subpar outcome.
2. Start every meeting with goals
Everyone dreads meetings, simply because many are a waste of time and get in the way of real work. I’ve consulted at numerous companies where the time spent in meetings far surpasses the hours spent working on the project. No wonder none of the tasks seem to get done.
You should hold as few all-hands meetings as possible. Each meeting should begin with explicitly stated objectives: Why is the meeting being held? What are the expected outcomes? Someone should take notes and document significant decisions, discovered information, task assignments, deliverables, or points of conflict. Each task should be assigned to a single responsible person, with an expected due date, and documented.
Every person with an assigned task should reaffirm his or her understanding of the task and due date at the end of the meeting. Every meeting should end by asking if there are any questions. All this advice sounds simple on paper, but I’m amazed at how many meetings end up without real, accountable tasks or deliverables.
3. Document, document, document
To amplify that last point: Write it down. Many people lament that only verbal communication is “real” and intentions expressed in conversation get lost in email or notes. That’s a problem, isn’t it? We have nothing to refer back to except what has been documented. There’s nothing wrong with open discussion, but make sure you confirm your understanding via email, memo, wiki, or (if appropriate) internal social media. You’d be surprised how often the understanding of a spoken agreement varies depending on who’s doing the remembering. Careful documentation is your insurance policy. If something goes wrong and you’re not at fault, you’ll have an email trail to back you up.
4. Nothing beats a room full of technicians
On the other hand, to meet certain challenges, nothing beats face time. When confronted with a befuddling technical problem, I like to get all involved technical people, each with his or her own expertise, in the same room. It’s amazing how often an expert in one area can easily see the problem in someone else’s area. We don’t do anything in a vacuum. That little checkmark on the configuration panel that you didn’t fully understand can mean the difference between success and failure. For obvious reasons, face-to-face meetings work better than videoconferencing or audio conference calls. Refer to this classic YouTube video if you have any doubt.
5. Micromanage as needed
This is one place where a project manager can shine. If any team members fall behind on their tasks, the project manager needs to get more involved. Project managers always say they don’t like to micromanage. That’s great for some team members, but others need the hand-holding and constant reminders, and they need to be identified — and assisted — early on.
6. Build in cushion time
I rarely see a project completed on its originally scheduled date. The only way around this is to tell the senior sponsor one due date and tell your entire team a different, earlier one. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes at the idea of an artificial deadline, but it’s one of the only ways I know to ensure your team meets the real deadline.
I’ve seen some project managers put out an artificial deadline, then reveal the required drop-dead date. Don’t do it. As soon as you reveal the true deadline, everyone’s work pace will change to match the real due date, and you’ll probably miss that one as well.
7. Make sure your lead technical person is the best available
Projects are a team activity. Unfortunately, some of the highest-paid technical people I meet either aren’t very good or haven’t completed a single project in production, even if they say they have. Their recommendations or mistakes often reveal that they’re better at theory than practice.
On the flip side, technologists who have the most experience in the field are often cynical and negative. They can be headstrong and fight against success. True story: A senior consultant, helping to implement a product in a fairly common scenario, confidently told me that at least 70 percent of the computers involved in running his company’s software fail on day one, and “there’s nothing I can do.” He was bragging about this. He said the failures were due to a slew of different problems, often because the managed client he was pushing was not configured correctly. Sometimes it was because of network problems, sometimes expired digital certificates — and a ton of other reasons “not related to me.”
First, I couldn’t believe he was admitting this to me and the customer in the middle of the project. Second, I couldn’t believe the customer was paying him good money to help with this implementation. Third, whether or not the problems are within your direct sphere of control, there are things you can do. If you’re the technical person leading projects where more than half the nodes fail, then it’s your problem! You need to take the bull by the horns, figure out what is breaking, and implement processes, procedures, and documentation to fix it. No one should accept big failure rates.
Good management makes it happen
The older I get, the more I realize I can’t do it alone. I know how to secure a computer and a network. But it takes more than technical expertise to work on a companywide project lasting weeks or months. That takes good project management. Insist on it.
This story, “7 indispensable project management tips,” was originally published atInfoWorld.com.
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