In case you missed it last month, we started a monthly advice column that addresses the hard and tricky business of managing projects. Our advice-giver is one of the best PM coaches and consultants in the biz: Elizabeth Harrin, known for The Girl’s Guide to Project Management blog. This week, she takes on the struggles of balancing project demands, mismanaging project scope and what to do when a project is stalled.
Dear Elizabeth: Being new as a project manager in addition to being part of a startup, it’s difficult to balance what just needs to get done vs what needs to be planned out vs all the other hats I need to wear. I’m wondering what your daily or weekly routine is to keep everyone and projects on track. – Bianca
Dear Bianca: Excellent question! You sound very busy. But I’m afraid there’s no secret formula for balancing your time. You simply have to apply your professional judgment every day and prioritize the most important things.
But—since you asked, here’s how I do it.
I break my time into chunks and might spend half a day each week on the “just need to get done” tasks. It’s focused time where I can plow through emails, filing, my action log and whatever else falls into that category. If possible, I group similar tasks together as they’re faster to do in a batch.
The “what needs to be planned” work is something that I need to focus on without distractions. To do this, I’ll book a meeting with myself and often go somewhere that isn’t my normal desk. That’s partly so that people can’t find me, but also because a change of scene helps me think. It also means I don’t have the distractions of invoices on my desk or the phone ringing. I prefer to do planning either early in the morning before the day really starts or after dinner with a glass of wine.
Like you, I have other hats to wear at work and at home. One central list of tasks helps because it lets me see what I have on the go and also what other people have signed up to do. I can filter the list on resource name so that I have an at-a-glance view of what I need to get and from whom. Using a project management software tool is another way to track everything going on, and probably a better option than an ordinary task list. A PM tool lets you add in dates to your filters so you can see what deadlines are coming up.
Dear Elizabeth: Last week my team had one of those “didn’t see it coming” moments, where we miscalculated scope and found ourselves in need of more time and resources to deliver the original project. How do we present this to our board, and let them know it won’t happen again? – Tail-Between-Legs PM
Dear Tail: Oops! Well, you’re not the first to have had that happen—and you’re right to go to your board with it.
First, you need to be confident that your miscalculation won’t happen again. The best way to do this is to review your calculations a second time (at least). In addition, make sure you’ve incorporated extra resources and time needs based on all recent data into your project plan—and that you’ve triple-checked your assumptions.
While you’re doing that, let your project sponsor and board know that it’s coming. No one likes surprises on projects.
When you’re confident that you have a new plan complete with: detailed risk management plans in case something similar happens again; an explicit contingency buffer, and preferably an estimate expressed as a range you’re ready to write it up. Then, run it by someone who doesn’t know much about your project. When you’re ready, present the plan honestly to your board in a meeting, preferably face-to-face. Answer questions and back up your decisions. Ask them to approve the change to the timeframe and the additional resources.
If they do, great. If they don’t, you’ll have to work together to come up with a suitable alternative which might be taking work out of scope, reducing quality or splitting the project into multiple phases. They might have other ideas, including canceling the project totally if the “moment” was so huge that your new plan is commercially unfeasible. Be ready for that!
It’s fine to go back and ask for more because things happen on projects and situations change. Most managers will have lived through similar moments and they know that. What’s not OK is going back to ask for more time week after week, month after month. That’s a fast way to lose credibility.
Dear Elizabeth: I’m managing a project that has come to a screeching halt as the stakeholders argue over some new features we may or may not add. There’s other work for the team to do, but not a lot. In the meantime, how do I keep my team motivated and also ready to jump back in when we get the green light? – Sweating it out in Seattle
Dear Sweating: Ah, the joys of working with stakeholders who are in conflict! It’s common knowledge that project teams work best when they know why they’re doing their work and understand how it links to a bigger picture. Work is more rewarding that way. If the stakeholders don’t even know what they want then it’s hard to see how your contribution is making a difference to any strategic goal.
Be honest with your team. They’ll find out the real reasons for the delay anyway, so there’s no sense in hiding it from them. Ask their advice about priority tasks for the meantime. Try to get involved in the conflict resolution, perhaps through designing mockups or facilitating workshops.
Let them work on other initiatives if they have time, but keep a regular project management structure where you are still meeting them regularly and updating them. Flag the resource issue to your stakeholders and point out that you can’t keep the resources indefinitely. A delay in clarifying requirements could mean an even greater delay to the project when the decision is made, as at that point your team members could be off working on other things and you might not be able to get them back.
These slower workload times are great opportunities for training and professional development. Start asking: What courses could your team members do? Could they work shadow or self-study if money is tight? Try to frame this slow period as a fantastic opportunity to polish the deliverables they have already produced and line up for a running start on the next set once the decision is made. Research those new tools they’ve been talking about and get a head start on your 2017 strategic planning. This is your team’s chance to get involved in tasks that they’ve not been able to work on before!
Have questions for Elizabeth? Let us know in the comments.
Wait, there’s more! If you want practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.