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Project Management as Sunscreen: How to Avoid Getting Burned

~ By Michelle LaBrosse

Sun protection cream in a sea shell with sand

When the summer sun beats down, there's always someone in the family who reminds you to put on your sunscreen. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to easily avoid getting burned at work? There is. It's called project management.

Grab a bottle of water and put on your baseball cap and think about project management as SPF 50 for business.

Here's seven ways that project management can help you avoid getting burned at work:

1. Set Expectations with a Project Agreement

Don't skip the project agreement because you're pressed for time, or you think the project is too inconsequential. It's often the small projects that can unexpectedly erupt and catch us off-guard because we were thinking: "This is going to be an easy one." Project agreements help to eliminate unnecessary conflict because objectives, expectations, timelines, and roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. If some team members are working virtually, it's important to update the project agreement regularly, and post it to the collaborative work environment or email it to the team.

2. Get Clear Contracts in Place with Vendors and Partners

Make sure you have clarified all contracts with any vendors, consultants or partners before you kick off the project. Don't make assumptions about skill levels and reliability if you've never worked together before. Go over deadlines and deliverables to make sure the entire team is clear about their responsibilities. While it's commonplace today to work with outside consultants, problems often arise when we work with someone for the first time. A good rule of thumb is to set your first deadline early on, so you can assess where every one on the team is and make any necessary corrections quickly.

3. Schedule Regular Communication

It's important to have a regular time for reporting both progress and potential pitfalls to the team. This keeps people on track and gives everyone the discipline of a team check-in. It is ideal if there is a standing time every week or every month - depending on your project milestones. Remember to build in time for feedback and coaching.

4. Set Rules of Responsiveness

It's important to define what the rules of responsiveness are for your culture. This is especially true when the team is new, or you've added new people on board. How quickly are people expected to return an email, an instant message, or a phone call? What is your protocol when people are out of the office or on vacation? If you're in a customer-service environment, it's important to have clear expectations regarding how to respond to all customer inquiries.

5. Don't Bury the Lead

Have you ever missed a deadline or important information because you didn't read beyond the first paragraph? Train your team to use email effectively, and lead with what is most important. Also, encourage people to use the old-fashioned phone when something isn't getting done via email. The human voice is a powerful tool in the world of email.

6. Create Standards that Build a Cohesive Culture

What are your standards of quality? How do you define excellence? What does your brand mean to each employee? Making sure everyone knows the answers to those three questions is important in reaching your goals and getting the results you want.

7. Take Hiring Seriously

We've all made bad hires, and often it's because we didn't do any due diligence. We had a project, and we needed it done, and we jumped. Take the time to drill down on the skills, past work performance, and references of both candidates and contractors. During the interview, make sure you're listening more than you're talking. People will reveal themselves if they are given the opportunity. Develop questions that require thinking so you can get a sense of how this person would approach a problem. Don't ask questions that people expect such as: "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" Instead try: "Tell me about a work experience where you failed and how you handled it?"

So, if you're working on a team where the temperature is rising, make sure you use your project management skills to protect yourself and keep your project on track. And just like your sunscreen, don't be afraid to apply your project management know how liberally.


Michelle LaBrosse PMP, is the founder and Chief Cheetah of Cheetah Learning. An international expert on accelerated learning and project management, she has grown Cheetah Learning into the market leader for project management training and professional development. In 2006, The Project Management Institute (PMI) selected Michelle as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World, and only one of two women selected from the training and education industry. Michelle is a graduate of the Harvard Business School's Owner & President Management program for entrepreneurs, and is the author of Cheetah Project Management and Cheetah Negotiations. Cheetah Learning is a virtual company and has 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide.


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