Sunday, October 13, 2013

Five tips for working backwards in project managment

Illustration from everydaypants
Project management is a tricky job. There are countless variables that need to be anticipated, and many that cannot be controlled. But when you're planning your next project, I've found it's best to think of things in reverse.

Many people start their project at the beginning and map the path they will take to their final result. This method worked well for the linear board games of our childhood, but often we need to push back from the deadline and critically look at the potential pitfalls along the way.

Once thing to note is that when you physically walk backwards, there is a tendency to lean in either direction (forwards or further backwards) and look over your shoulder. You watch each step and carefully place your foot, swinging your arms awkwardly. In the project management scenario, you want to setup a situation where you do not need to lean forwards or backwards and where you are confidently meeting shoe to ground along both smooth and rough terrain.

Here are five tried-and-true tips to working backwards on your next big project:
  1. Count, literally. Working backwards is all about counting the months, weeks, days, hours and minutes. Experience will teach you exactly how this should be executed in your company. The more people and stakeholders involved, the trickier this will get. If you are a visual person, map it visually. But don't forget to setup an automated online tracking system that acts as a personal assistant to the individual project. I've never regretted the small annoyance of a consistent reminder.
  2. Consolidate your meetings. One of the biggest issues every project manager faces is other people's schedules. We often take for granted how little project participants have in common when it comes to schedule - especially when you're talking internationally. The best thing you can do is identify the layers of stakeholders at the beginning: Who needs to be involved in what for the project to move forward? And, what is the open-source contingency plan (one everyone agree on) if an important stakeholder is unable to attend a meeting? Get everyone on the same page at the beginning and you'll find there is greater flexibility when a clash of schedules does occur. I also recommend having a consistent platform for your meetings that records and/or screen captures all discussions. This not only helps for decision-making references for your internal team, but it also gives you a way to share meeting content with people that are unable to participate, yet need to feel included in every step.
  3. Know your people. Is one of your teammate's wife about to have a baby? Is there a vacation on the horizon for your lead designer? Will one of your stakeholders become M.I.A. when attending a three-day conference in Las Vegas? You need to know your team (really well) or you risk delaying the project. I'm not saying you need to make your relationship extend beyond the professional environment, but help your team realize potential "hold ups" before they happen. People are some of the biggest variables that you encounter during your project timeline. You can clutch your deliverables happily and check your calendar with wistful joy all you want, but if you can't connect with every core team member on some level, then you are in a project management danger zone.
  4. Prepare well for scope creep. Again, like #1, this takes experience. At my company I know that core team members deal with daily functions and out-of-the-blue requests, which leaves limited time for project development. Again, break this down to the hour: How many hours per week will this person have? How does that compare to the time it will take to prepare their project deliverables? Are there any red flags that need to be dealt with now (like limited staff hours)?
  5. Have many plans. Contingency plans are always a good idea for failure and success. We learn this in business 101. But it gets complicated when you are faced with many types of potential contingencies - from budget to resources to time. Don't overdo your planning, but at least have your top "cascading contingency" project plans in place. This way you can activate your "Plan of Action" once the contingency indicators (or red flags) start falling into place. 
It is exciting to start a project and look towards the deadline like a glorious trophy. But most of the time it's best to envision the end (which isn't always only completion of the project, but that's a topic for another day) and work backwards from there.

It may be an unsteady journey at first, but when you get the hang of it, you'll find yourself on the right pace for success (and you'll have great project management hamstrings).

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