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10 Golden Rules for New Project Managers

~ By Duncan Haughey

Head filled with words, plan, think, strategy

Today dozens of new project managers will start their first project, a daunting prospect. Here are my tips for surviving life as a project manager.

Rule 1: Develop a Strong Business Case

Ensure you have a strong business case for your project, with high-level support from your sponsor. The business case is the justification for the project and should list the expected benefits. The business case is something everyone involved in the project can focus on, and the reason the project is taking place. Projects move us from one state to another by delivering change, products or other required outcomes, with the business case explaining why.

Rachel Agheyisi, an economist and Executive Director of Report Content Writer says, A good story is memorable. A case study is essentially a success story. A well-written business success story is arguably one of the most effective ways to create a visual image of achievable results in the mind of a prospective client.

Ensure you have a good business case study for your project.

Rule 2: Define Critical Success Factors for Your Project

Define with your customer the critical success factors that will make the project a success. Ensure they are measurable, for example, a 15% cut in the cost of raw materials by the end of 2011. Use these factors at the end of the project to measure your success. Critical success factors are what counts and the 'must have' items the project needs to deliver. All other issues are secondary to these as the critical success factors effectively form the contract with your customer.

A favourite question of mine is, In 25 words or fewer, what would you define as the critical success factors for your project?

Rule 3: Create a Good Project Plan

As the saying goes, time spent planning is time well-spent. Ensure you have a project plan with enough detail so that everyone involved understands the project's direction. A good project plan provides the following benefits:

  • Clearly documented project milestones and deliverables
  • Valid and realistic timescale
  • A way to produce accurate cost estimates
  • Detailed resource plan
  • Early warning system, providing visibility of task slippage
  • A way to keep the project team focused and updated on progress

Lack of planning will lead to problems. Ensure that you build contingency into any estimate. I recommend between 10 and 15 percent. I prefer to be a little pessimistic and deliver early, rather than too optimistic and deliver late. Be careful, though; adding too much contingency and under running an estimate is just as bad as overrunning an estimate.

Number 10 on Rick Klemm's 'Top Ten Things Overheard on a Failing Software Project', Project plan? This project is too simple to spend time creating a project plan!

A serious mistake no project manager worth his salt would make.

Rule 4: Manage Expectations

Managing expectations is the number one activity of a project manager. One-way to do this is to break projects down into smaller chunks or sub-projects with frequent milestones and deliverables - commonly known as an 'agile' approach. This way you manage expectations by making regular deliveries and letting the customer see work as it progresses. This approach ensures the project delivers to the customers' expectations by giving them early visibility of what you are building, and allowing them to feedback questions and concerns.

To quote actor Bruce Bennett, All clients' needs and expectations are vastly different.

Don't assume you know your customers' needs, even if you have run similar projects - take the time to find out what they are.

Rule 5: Keep Your Team Motivated

A motivated team will go the extra mile to deliver a project on time, on budget and with the right quality. Keep your team motivated by involving them throughout the project, and planning frequent milestones to help them feel they are making progress. Communication is important here - so let your team know when they are performing well, not just when they are performing poorly.

Lee Iacocca, best-known for his revival of the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s said, Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can't be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people.

Keeping your team motivated pays dividends.

Rule 6: Communicate and Never Assume Anything

There's an adage 'never assume anything', and this is especially true in project management. Good communication with customers, end-users, your sponsor and, in particular, the project team are necessary for project success.

  • Does everyone in the team understand you?
  • Do they know what you expect of them or have you just assumed they do?
  • Do they communicate well with one another, with the customer and with other departments?

You cannot overstate the importance of good communication, so ensure you are talking to all of your stakeholders continuously. Don't assume people know what you expect of them.

Make sure you avoid number 9 on Rick Klemm's 'Top Ten Things Overheard on a Failing Software Project', Since I didn't hear otherwise; I ASSUMED all was going well.

This is a clear sign a project manager is failing to communicate effectively.

Rule 7: Say No!

The most valuable and least used word in a project manager's vocabulary is NO. Never promise anything you know you can't deliver, this will guarantee problems later. Stay strong no matter how important the person in front of you is - they'll thank you for it later. If they don't, perhaps you are in the wrong job. When saying no be firm and prepared to justify the reasons behind your decision.

Samuel Dash, widely known for his role as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee said, Learn to say no in situations where saying no can be difficult, where it could mean getting fired. Say no anyway, because it could lead you to greater opportunities.

Rule 8: Avoid Scope Creep

One of the most common reasons projects run over budget and deliver late is scope creep. Customers will often forget you have put in extra work and effort. Ensure that you set expectations at the beginning of the project and clearly define what is in and out of scope. Record it in the project documentation. Don't assume the customer will read and understand these documents. I recommend that you spend at least an hour with the customer to walk them through the project and ensure that they understand and agree on the scope. Don't continue without a firm agreement.

At number 5 on Rick Klemm's 'Top Ten Things Overheard on a Failing Software Project', This one small change shouldn't affect anything.

Small changes mount up and create overruns on both budget and schedule. Avoid!

Rule 9: Identify Risks to Your Project

Nobody likes to think about risks, especially early in a project. However, avoid risk management at your peril. I recommend that you produce a risk log with an action plan to mitigate each significant risk. Send your risk plan to all the stakeholders of your project and spend the time to talk to them about the risks. Knowing what action you will take, should the worst happen, is a great stress reducer.

Bart Jutte, founder and consultant at Concilio, says, The benefits of risk management in projects are huge. You can gain a lot of money if you deal with uncertain project events in a proactive manner.

Don't let risks sneak up and derail your project.

Rule 10: Close Your Project

By definition, projects have a finite life. A unclosed project will continue to consume resources. At the end of a project agree with the customer whether you have met the critical success factors. Ask them to sign-off, otherwise fix any areas of deficiency. I like to use a customer acceptance form, which I lodge with the PMO. At this point, you may like to ask your customer to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. They may have valuable information that will help you improve for future projects.

Manjeet Singh, in his 'Quick Guide to Project Management', says During the closing process, you formally accept the deliverables and shut down the project or its phases. You will also review the project and its results with your team and other stakeholders of the project. At the end of the project, you will produce a formal project closure document, and a project evaluation report.

In Conclusion

The job of project manager is a challenging one; however, it need not be stressful if you follow these ten golden rules. Good luck in surviving life as a project manager!


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