Project Management

8 tips to drastically improve your project management skills

Project management is one of those dark arts which some seem to master with little effort while others can't seem to avoid getting overwhelmed and lost.

I like to think of project management like building a house. It's not enough to know how to do the masonry, you need to master a wide range of skills in order to accomplish the mission. There are key project management principles which need to be understood and implemented.

In this post I'm going to cover 10 tips which I've developed during my career to help you improve your project management skills.

Start by creating a project requirements doc

So you've just been given a complex project to work on for the foreseeable future and you have no idea what to do next.

Start by creating a Google doc, or word document where you are going to put all the necessary information you need to plan the project. A Google doc is preferred since it makes it much easier to collaborate with your colleagues.

You should add the following sections to this doc:

  • Introduction - 2 to 3 lines explaining the purpose of the doc. This will provide context to anyone who comes across it. You should implement this step in all of your Google docs.
  • Motivation - A short paragraph on the motivation behind this project. In other words, why exact is the company investing resources in this project. This will allow you, and whoever else is involved in the project, to understand the drive behind the project.
  • Project Members - In this section you want to list all the individuals involved in the project. This includes the person or people who initiated the project, the individuals responsible for completing the project, the project owner and any other individuals who may be involved. Make sure to list the full names and titles of each individual to eliminate confusion. Lastly, indicate who exactly needs to sign off on the project plan.
  • Deliverable/s - This section should cover in detail what exactly you are delivering. For example, a marketing video for an upcoming product launch, or a reporting dashboard for the CMO. This section shouldn't be more than a few lines long per deliverable.
  • Action Plan - The action plan section is where you cover how exactly you and your team are going to deliver on the deliverables mentioned in the previous section. You need to go into a lot of detail here with responsibilities, task lists, budget, dependencies, etc.
  • Timeline - Now that you have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and how it will get done you can provide a timeline. The project needs to have a clear start date, end date and milestones throughout the timeline of the project. This is especially relevant if the project has a strict deadline like in the case of a new product launch or a marketing campaign scheduled for a specific date.
  • Risks & fallback scenarios - This section is optional and really depends on the type of project you are working on. For projects which can make or break your business, or have inflexible variables like budget, time or location, it might be worth while mapping out some potential risks. There is nothing wrong with having a plan B on paper.
  • Project team's notes - This section is only relevant for the people responsible for completing the project and should come at the end of the document. This section is for all the highly technical or nuanced information relevant for completing the project.

I want to emphasize that you should spend as much time as needed on this step of the process. Investing the time to do this part well will save you from disaster later down the road.

The 20% rule

Since unexpected events happen all the time I like to add an extra 20% to the time estimations of projects. This might seem like a sneaky move but it's very practical and helps to set up more realistic expectations. If things run smoothly then be wary of Parkinson's Law.

As you improve your project management skills and better understand the variables involved in your projects you will naturally improve in your time estimation accuracy. Provide a well thought out time estimation for your project and then add 20%. You'll thank me later.

Get approval and a second opinion before you get started on the project

Okay, you've spent a good week and a half on your project requirements document and you're ready to get started on the project. Before you jump in you should get your manager, mentor or even someone else from your team to go over the document. A fresh pair of eyes will help you improve the language of the doc and help you fill in details you might have missed.

Once you're confident the doc is ready, go a head and share it with the individuals involved and push for approval of your plan. A good tip is to ask the relevant individuals to provide approval by commenting in the doc. This way you have proof and everyone involved in the project can see that approval has been given.

Don't start working on the project until the plan has been approved. This is critical.

Involve project members throughout the project

One of the biggest and most common mistakes I see in project management is the lack of involvement of the different project members. It is our natural inclination as project owners to move full speed a head with our project without getting input from others. This approach will create a lot of problems for you in both the short and long term as the quality of your deliverables and trust of your peers is negatively affected.

By continuously seeking feedback and input from others, you limit all kinds of risks which could add significant costs to the project. It is better to work at a slower pace and include too many people in the process than the opposite. Of course you need to find the right balance since the more people involved the more roadblocks you will have to get through.

A good tip is to map out where you want to involve different members in the project planning phase. This will help set expectations of the different members and help you work in a more organized fashion.

You may need to be assertive when it comes to getting what you need from different project members. Don't let certain individuals block progress of the project and be more direct (but flexible) to get things moving.

One good tip is to block off time with certain individuals for the sole purpose of getting what you need from them to move the project forward. If you find yourself in a position where no matter what you do you can't move things forward, phone up the individual after working hours and explain your predicament. Make sure you aren't being over aggressive and be understanding but at the same time clearly communicate the situation and what needs to happen to address it.

Continuously send updates

I can't overstate how important this tip is, especially for projects which take weeks or months to complete. Once you get started on the project many of the people involved will forget about it. By sending regular updates you not only send a clear message that "I've got this, you don't have to worry" but you're also helping everyone involved by giving them valuable info that they could use themselves.

Imagine a scenario where the VP of Marketing has initiated a big project. 3 weeks go by and no updates have been shared. Now imagine the CEO asks the VP for an update in a face-to-face meeting. The VP has a lot going on and might have forgotten about the project. He will be stuck with no news to share. If you're sending a weekly progress report then the VP will be able to shine by giving relevant, up to date info to the CEO.

A good general tip for your career is to try and make the people above you look better. The more often you do this the more power and protection you'll have.

Break the macro down into the micro

The Great Wall of China was arguably one of the largest projects ever conceived by man. As large of a project that it was, remember that it was still built one brick at a time.

If you look at the scale of your project in macro terms it will overwhelm and discourage you. You need to break down the macro elements of your project into bite size chucks which are easy to understand and tackle.

Even if you have a good grasp of all the components think of your team and others involved in the project.

Below is a visual that shows how you can take a macro goal, producing a video, and how you should break it down into micro goals.

Breaking down the macro into the micro

You should spend very little thinking about level 1 and most of your time thinking about levels 2 and 3. If you're fortunate to have a team helping you out then they should be focusing on level 3, 4 and even level 5.

Gantt charts and to-do lists are your friends

If you've never heard of a Gantt chart then have a look at the image below and then check out this useful post which covers the concept of a Gantt chart.

Example of a Gantt chart

Gantt charts are great because they help you take all the work that needs to get done and put them on a timeline. This helps everyone involved understand the progression of the project over time and where each individual is needed. It also helps you map out the dependencies and possible bottlenecks. Having this information right at the beginning of the project is really helpful since you can start putting steps in place to avoid these delays when they are expected.

Gantt charts are incredibly useful and I highly recommend them but there is a catch. Maintaining a Gantt chart takes work and if you're in an environment which is incredibly disorganized and unpredictable then using a Gantt chart will be more of a burden than a benefit.

If you're looking for a great online Gantt tool then I recommend Team Gantt.

The next friend of the project owner is the to-do list. I'm a big fan of to-do lists and use them everyday.

To-do lists have two secret powers which are subtle but incredibly powerful. The first is it forces the user of the list to stay focused. If you know that you need to check off specific items from a list it reduces the chances of you getting distracted.

The second benefit is it allows you to take those macro deliverables and break them down into small, digestible pieces. The user of a to-do list knows that once the list is completed then a macro goal has been achieved.

My to-do list software of choice is Asana which I used for years at my day job and the tool I use today to manage all my personal and work related tasks. One major benefit of Asana is that as the project owner you can assign tasks to members of your time and everyone has visibility. This adds social pressure for your team to perform which will help drive action.

I've also played with todoist which is a great tool.

Revise your process and optimize

If you want to take project management seriously in your company then you should implement a post launch process. The idea is to analyze the entire timeline of the project from planning to delivery and every step in between to find ways to improve the process for next time.

If you're in an organization where big projects are common then continuously optimizing your project management process will result in a huge improvement in ROI in the long-term. Imagine the days, weeks and even months of wasted time that could be prevented if you're actively working to improve how your company completes projects.

Make sure to include as many of the relevant people in this process as you can. Make sure people are comfortable with giving feedback and come prepared to this forum with questions.

Some examples you can use are:

  • Was the project delivered according to expectations in terms of time?
  • Was the project delivered according to budget? If not why not?
  • Which steps in the process took longer to complete than originally planned and why?
  • Are there steps in the process which we can eliminate all together?
  • Where did we spend too much money? Can these costs be reduced? How can we reduce these costs?


Mastering the art of project management isn't rocket science but it does involve mastering a wide range of skill. I hope this post helped you identify which skills you need to focus on to improve your project management skills.