Project management

Wondering what a crime writing mystic would know about project management? 

Relax. I spent twenty years working on projects in banking and public administration before turning my attention to writing about crime and the deep and meaningful, and I continue to use project management skills to complete my writing projects.

Project management is not all that complicated, even if some projects are – and we’ll leave those multi-million dollar projects to the specialists who are required to know a lot more about their industry in addition to having project management skills.

Fortunately, project management principles can be applied to projects of any size – writing a book, organising a workshop, selling a house, buying a new car, redesigning your backyard, developing a training course, starting a new business. Tasks I call everyday projects. 

In fact, you don’t even need a formal project to use project management principles.

Project management is simply a way of applying self-discipline to your work habits. 

It’s about taking the time to clarify and clearly articulate what you’re setting out to do, and planning how you’ll do it, before launching into the doing part. It’s the alternative to going straight into solution mode whenever you’re asked to solve a problem.

Project Management principles

Let’s consider the four basic principles of project management you can apply to any task you’re asked to complete.

Principle 1: project scope – what am I being asked to do?

This principle is about defining the work and the parameters within which it is expected to be completed. 

The essentail step is to articulate and document the definition of the task, the desired outcome, monetary and time restrictions, and measures for determining your success.

The next step is to get agreement on your understanding of the scope of the task from the task’s owner before you start work, especially if you received verbal instructions. This is the only way to ensure you’ll be working towards the desired outcome in full knowledge of the restrictions applied by the task’s owner.

One way of doing this is to create a Project on a Page document – an A4 containing a description of the task to be completed, start and due dates, budget details, and agreed measures of success.

If you’re the task owner, you may be tempted to skip this step. Don’t – unless you want a lesson in scope creep.

Scope creep is what happens when you don’t set firm project boundaries – you keep tweaking the task and expanding the scope of the work and run the risk of never completing the project.

Principle 2: planning – how will I do it?

This principle is about taking time to analyse the task and work out the most efficient way of getting it done. 

The essential step is breaking the task down into specific activities. The next step is to estimate the time required to complete each activity and determine the sequence those activities must be completed in to arrive at the desired outcome by your due date. Take into consideration cost and time restrictions, special requirements, and things that could go wrong or prevent you from finishing on time. This last bit, known as risk management, is often overlooked with dire consequences, so make sure you give it due consideration.

Put your plan in writing and draw up a timeline. In project speak, this is called creating a work breakdown schedule. One methodology that helps you visualise activities and arrange them in workflow sequences is using Post-it notes on a wall or whiteboard. 

Remember to include planning as an activity with a time allocation.

Planning with Post-it notes

For most everyday projects, the most sophisticated project management tool you’ll need after Post-it notes is a spreadsheet. List each activity with a start and end date and set up a column to report the status of each activity. Useful status values are: not started; in progress; waiting on someone; completed.

Principle 3: execution – doing the activities.

This principle is about turning your plan into a series of actions.

This is doing what you planned to do and keeping track of your progress. Execution includes handing over the outcome and confirming you have delivered what was requested.

If you are required to report progress against your plan, keep track of project activities in the spreadsheet you set up during the planning phase.

Principle 4: close – it’s done.

This principle is about knowing when to stop work on the project.

When you receive confirmation you have delivered the required outcome, it’s time to stop. Note any lessons learned from completing the task, and start on your next task. 

Note: This principle also comes into play when task owners change their mind and when it becomes obvious a required outcome cannot be delivered within the agreed cost and time restrictions.

Benefit of project management

The major productivity benefit of project management comes from taking the time to think about what you’re about to do and planning how you’ll do it, before doing it.

Many projects fail because people launch into solution mode before they fully understand the task.

When you rush into a project, you run the risk of committing to one course of action before realising there are other and better ways you could be doing it. Sometimes, you even end up working on a solution to the wrong problem.

Making sure you understand the problem, before you start thinking about possible solutions, is probably the most important part of project management.

Peter Mulraney is the author of Everyday Project Management, an easy to read introduction to project management for untrained project managers and anyone wanting to use project management principles to improve their personal productivity. 

Featured image credit: Daniel Faro | DTS