Project Management

Project management principles: How to master project management

Project management is one of the most fundamental skills needed by employees in hi-tech. I'd argue that a significant percentage of the tasks completed each day in hi-tech companies could be organized into projects.

The issue is that these projects often don't have clear owners, backing by key stakeholders, or well thought out project plans.

Poor project management is one of the top hidden costs to the business.

In this post I'm going to cover what I consider the most important project management principles. This post will teach you the following:

  • What defines a project?
  • The right questions to ask if you're assigned a new project
  • The tools that can help you plan a project
  • How to keep everyone involved in the project happy
  • When you should shut down a project

Defining our terms

Before jumping into my list of project management principles it will be a good idea to define our terms.

Project - I define a project as a complex set of tasks which usually involves multiple individuals. A project may take one day or one year to complete. Examples of projects include running a conference with thousands of participants, building a multi-widget dashboard, or implementing a new CRM system.

Project Owner - The individual who is ultimately responsible for completing the project.

Project Team - The individuals that spend any of their time working on the project. A team member might spend 1 hour or multiple days working on the project.

Project Beneficiaries - The individuals who directly benefit from the value the project brings. An example is a sales rep who benefits from using the new and improved CRM system you just implemented.

Project Management Principle #1 - Every project has an opportunity cost

One door opens another closes
By choosing one door, you lose out on whatever was behind any of the other doors.

The very first principle that you need to understand is every project as an opportunity cost. A simple way to think about this principle, is that if you and others in the company work on "Project X" then you can't work on "Project Y". The cost of doing "Project X" is the value you would get from the resources going towards "Project Y".

Since every project has an opportunity cost it is critical that before any project is started that the following questions are asked and good answers can be provided.

  • What value will this project bring to the company?
  • Will there be a return on investment from this project? When will we see the return?
  • Is now the right time to work on this project?
  • What other projects could be worked on instead of this project?
  • Who exactly will need to contribute time towards this project?
  • What are the risks associated with this project?

The major decision makers that are relevant should sit in a room and go over these questions. If the majority of stakeholders come to an agreement that the project is worth the resources, and the opportunity costs involved are acceptable, you can then move forward.

Project Management Principle #2 - Don't forget the human element

A good project manager understands that there are human elements involved in any project that need to be managed.

This process starts before the project even starts. Certain stakeholders and project beneficiaries need to be brought into the project. You need to have the people that can either help you or hold you back on your side from the very start. This might involve multiple meetings to discuss the plans of the project and why these individuals should spend their time helping you with the project.

Once the project has started you'll need to constantly juggle task management and people management. This will involve regular updates to keep everyone in the know, sharing both positive and negative news, and much more.

Below are some tips on handling the human element of any project:

  • Understand the people involved - If you're a veteran in the company this will be easy but if not then find opportunities to get closer to the people involved so you can understand their motivations and way of working.
  • Put yourself in their shoes - One of my favorite mental tricks when dealing with people is to put myself in their shoes. This immediately reduces stress and makes you more empathetic. This will make it easier for you to work with high strung, stressed out individuals who aren't pleased with you for whatever reason. This trick will also help you make certain moves to prevent blowups in the future since you'll be looking through the eyes of other individuals.
  • Over communicate - Send regular update emails and have necessary meetings to show momentum and hold the project team accountable.

Project Management Principle #3 - Every project needs a project plan

A project plan is created by the project owner and has one main purpose; to clearly communicate how the project will be completed.

The project plan needs to include timelines, task lists, responsibilities, prerequisites, risks and anything else which will help project team know what is required of them.

The classic Gantt Chart

I've worked on hundreds of projects throughout my career and the best way I've found to visualize a project from a high-level is with a gantt chart.

If you've never heard of a gantt chart before then check out the example in the screenshot below.

Gantt chart example

A gantt chart will clearly communicate the major building blocks of the project over the duration of the project. The gantt chart will also show the different teams or individuals that will be responsible for each building block. In the example above you see how the different responsibilities have been shown in the chart through the use of color. Everyone involved in this project can see where they fit in and how their work moves the project closer to completion.

There are numerous tools that can be used to create gantt charts. I've included my favorite below.

If for whatever reason you aren't a fan of the gantt chart then take a look at the list below of popular product management tools.

If your favorite project management tool isn't included in the list above then please share it with me in the comments section.

Project Management Principle #4 - Know when to quit

I've had my fair share of disastrous projects and sometimes the best decision is to shut the whole thing down and move on. This is a bad place to be in but a far worse option is trying to stick it out and move the project forward when it seems hopeless.

There are a lot of factors which may lead to scrapping the project. These include:

  • A market shift
  • Inability for the company to raise more investment
  • Key project team members being let go
  • The company pivots
  • A timely opportunity becomes available and resources are needed elsewhere
  • Resources are needed for a different project
  • Unforeseeable factors pushed the project over budget

There is a very important financial concept called sunk cost. Every project manager should understand this concept and the biases which come along with being a project owner.

So what's next for you as a project manager?

If you made it this far you would have covered what I consider the most important project management principles. If you can master these principles and use the ideas I've shared in this post during each project, you'll master project management.

A strong project manager is a shining light in the eyes of the leadership and you'll gain more respect and responsibility.