24 Oct 2019

10 Golden rules for new project managers

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The job of project manager is a challenging one; however, it need not be stressful if you follow these ten golden rules. 

Rule 1: Develop a Strong Business Case

Ensure you have a strong business case for your project, with high-level support from your sponsor. The business case is the justification for the project and should list the expected benefits. The business case is something everyone involved in the project can focus on, and the reason the project is taking place. Projects move us from one state to another by delivering change, products or other required outcomes, with the business case explaining why.

Rule 2: Define Critical Success Factors for Your Project

Define with your customer the critical success factors that will make the project a success. Ensure they are measurable, for example, a 15% cut in the cost of raw materials by the end of 2011. Use these factors at the end of the project to measure your success. Critical success factors are what counts and the ‘must have’ items the project needs to deliver. All other issues are secondary to these as the critical success factors effectively form the contract with your customer.

A favourite question of mine is, In 25 words or fewer, what would you define as the critical success factors for your project?

Rule 3: Create a Good Project Plan

As the saying goes, time spent planning is time well-spent. Ensure you have a project plan with enough detail so that everyone involved understands the project’s direction. A good project plan provides the following benefits:

  • Clearly documented project milestones and deliverables
  • Valid and realistic timescale
  • A way to produce accurate cost estimates
  • Detailed resource plan
  • Early warning system, providing visibility of task slippage
  • A way to keep the project team focused and updated on progress

Lack of planning will lead to problems. Ensure that you build contingency into any estimate. I recommend between 10 and 15 percent. I prefer to be a little pessimistic and deliver early, rather than too optimistic and deliver late. Be careful, though; adding too much contingency and under running an estimate is just as bad as overrunning an estimate.

Rule 4: Manage Expectations

Managing expectations is the number one activity of a project manager. One-way to do this is to break projects down into smaller chunks or sub-projects with frequent milestones and deliverables – commonly known as an ‘agile’ approach. This way you manage expectations by making regular deliveries and letting the customer see work as it progresses. This approach ensures the project delivers to the customers’ expectations by giving them early visibility of what you are building, and allowing them to feedback questions and concerns.

Rule 5: Keep Your Team Motivated

A motivated team will go the extra mile to deliver a project on time, on budget and with the right quality. Keep your team motivated by involving them throughout the project, and planning frequent milestones to help them feel they are making progress. Communication is important here – so let your team know when they are performing well, not just when they are performing poorly.

Rule 6: Communicate and Never Assume Anything

There’s an adage ‘never assume anything’, and this is especially true in project management. Good communication with customers, end-users, your sponsor and, in particular, the project team are necessary for project success.

  • Does everyone in the team understand you?
  • Do they know what you expect of them or have you just assumed they do?
  • Do they communicate well with one another, with the customer and with other departments?

You cannot overstate the importance of good communication, so ensure you are talking to all of your stakeholders continuously. Don’t assume people know what you expect of them.

Rule 7: Say No!

The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary is NO. Never promise anything you know you can’t deliver, this will guarantee problems later. Stay strong no matter how important the person in front of you is – they’ll thank you for it later. If they don’t, perhaps you are in the wrong job. When saying no be firm and prepared to justify the reasons behind your decision.

Rule 8: Avoid Scope Creep

One of the most common reasons projects run over budget and deliver late is scope creep. Customers will often forget you have put in extra work and effort. Ensure that you set expectations at the beginning of the project and clearly define what is in and out of scope. Record it in the project documentation. Don’t assume the customer will read and understand these documents. I recommend that you spend at least an hour with the customer to walk them through the project and ensure that they understand and agree on the scope. Don’t continue without a firm agreement.

Rule 9: Identify Risks to Your Project

Nobody likes to think about risks, especially early in a project. However, avoid risk management at your peril. I recommend that you produce a risk log with an action plan to mitigate each significant risk. Send your risk plan to all the stakeholders of your project and spend the time to talk to them about the risks. Knowing what action you will take, should the worst happen, is a great stress reducer.

Rule 10: Close Your Project

By definition, projects have a finite life. A unclosed project will continue to consume resources. At the end of a project agree with the customer whether you have met the critical success factors. Ask them to sign-off, otherwise fix any areas of deficiency. I like to use a customer acceptance form, which I lodge with the PMO. At this point, you may like to ask your customer to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. They may have valuable information that will help you improve for future projects.

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