6 ways to stay in control when your project isn’t
In celebration of National “I Am In Control Day” we thought it would be fun to explore the dynamics of “control” that we experience as project managers.
National “I Am in Control Day” has a fascinating history. The holiday was commemorated because there was an assassination attempt made on Ronald Reagan, the president of the U.S. on March 30, 1981. On this day, an entire nation felt a loss of control over the future of their nation. Secretary of State Alexander Haig stepped in as a leader until the Vice President was sworn in. As a result of Haig’s leadership in a time of uncertainty, the holiday now encourages people to take control over the things they can in their lives.
In project management, a whole sub-profession of Project Controllers came about for a reason. And, many of the best project managers throughout history have a loving reputation for being “control freaks”. Project timelines often seem completely out of control, especially in organizations managing multiple complex projects in their portfolio, and project managers who can wrangle this are in high demand. While we can’t control some circumstances, there are many other ways to stay in control and on track when there is immense uncertainty. In this article, we will discuss ways the best controllers keep or regain control when faced with project uncertainty.
1. Don’t focus on the negative
Many people make the mistake of focusing on the bad things around us in the face of chaos. It’s important to remain cool, calm and collected while scope and priorities are changing. Getting anxious over things you can’t control will only make the situation worse. One great example of this comes from a tech project I was working on with a client. Our onsite technology development lead was always focusing on the things that weren’t going according to plan. The client was ready to pull the plug on the project, which would have set the project back considerably. Onboarding a new lead technology developer would not have solved the underlying problem. I took my tech lead aside and explained that we had to refrain from “the sky is falling” type of behavior moving forward. He stopped focusing on the negative, began to invest in things he could influence and things got better. I kept the project on budget, on time, and in the end, we had a very satisfied customer.
2. Report with integrity
Another key way to remain in control of the project is to admit when you don’t know something. It’s important to not just appear you are in control but to ensure you are reporting an accurate status of the projects. Many project managers try to save face during meetings when they don’t know the status of a project. It’s okay not to have all of the answers immediately. Inaccurate reporting can save your ego a temporary setback, but it could also cause considerable damage to the project and your reputation in the long term. If you report with integrity, senior management, key stakeholders, and the project team will know that you are the go-to “in control” project manager. Don’t let your desire to know every detail get in the way of building trust.
One easy way to ensure you always have an updated and accurate view of the project status is to use project management software like LiquidPlanner. This software also shows how changing priorities affect project timelines immediately. It’s important to have a standard reporting status dashboard, use it to run the status meetings, and ensure the updates are timely.
3. Use meetings wisely
Meetings are a great tool to ensure the team is aligned on the right priorities when projects are falling behind, and things seem out of control. Proper meeting etiquette ensures the best time management practices for looming deadlines. First, be sure to start the meeting on time to make the best use of everyone’s time. Canceling your recurring meetings may lead key stakeholders to believe your meetings are “optional.” A quick 10 minute status update may help to catch a critical piece of information that was otherwise considered an afterthought to the person sitting across from you. And always follow up meetings with your notes and action items to all participants – or better yet, update your project plan while everyone is gathered together to ensure the next steps are under control.
Project management software like LiquidPlanner can also greatly reduce the number of meetings your team needs to stay in control and on track. Software like this can ensure everyone knows the status of a project without needing to ask for updates. And leadership can change priorities in the app without needing a meeting to communicate the shift in priorities which can help you feel more in control.
4. Estimate each piece of the project
When you start working on a large project, it may be difficult to know where to begin or to adapt to the unexpected if the work hasn’t been estimated properly from the start. Project managers often run against a deadline and don’t know if the team has capacity to meet the deadline. One helpful way to not become overwhelmed by a massive project and to understand the true scope of the work is to break the project into smaller tasks. This process can help you accomplish many things. First, it helps you understand each step that needs to take place to finish the project. This method also helps estimate how long each task will take to complete. Using ranged estimates is the best way to understand the timeline to complete a project. Apply wider ranges to tasks that you haven’t completed before. And smaller ranges to tasks that are familiar to you. Project management software like LiquidPlanner estimates the project completion date with 90% confidence. Applying ranged estimates makes starting a new project much less daunting and helps your team feel in control, as they get to kick off a project with uncertainty accounted for instead of an arbitrary deadline.
5. Ensure a balanced workload
One of the biggest ways project managers feel out of control is an unbalanced workload. One person may have 80 hours of work on their plate each week. While another may only have 20 hours of work to complete each week. The person who consistently has too much work on their plate will get quickly burnt out and may start underperforming. Plus, they will likely become a bottleneck if there are dependencies on their work. Your team may miss project deadlines because the team isn’t using its team member resources effectively. Leadership needs to know how their team’s time is utilized and if there is enough capacity to complete the approved projects in flight. Plus, you can use project management software like LiquidPlanner to automatically balance your team’s workload to prevent these common stressors. Creating a balanced workload is an easy way to ensure your team feels in control of their schedule.
6. Learn your lessons
Mistakes are inevitable in project management. Instead of looking back on failures, think of them as lessons learned. This is a great way to improve performance on your next project. One way to do this is to document performance improvement ideas for the next project. But if you can apply these insights during your project, this is even better. Project managers can schedule short insights sessions throughout the project at key deliverable points to discuss improvements that can be made. That way, you have time to turn a concerned project customer into a happy and more confident customer in project midstream. Reframing mistakes as learning opportunities is a great way to feel more in control for your next project.
The “in control” project lead is the one who will be respected, followed, and will be the necessary go-to information and decision source throughout the engagement. Project management software can help make your team feel more in control and solve many of the common pain points of projects.
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. He has been named the #1 blog to follow in 2022 and the “#1 Provider of Project Management Content in the World” with over 7,000 published articles, eBooks, white papers, and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV.