Think Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible; rescuing people, making careful decisions, searching for information…oh, and walking up the side of a very tall building.  OK, not quite the theatrics of a Hollywood blockbuster, but Project Managers are expected to be heroes…...in my many years of experience, we often end up rescuing projects, so here are my top tips for success:

Get project sponsorship

The Executive Board, Managing Director and CEO – the people at the top are critical if any project is to flourish. You need the backing of senior stakeholders, you simply can’t push through change otherwise. Senior stakeholders need to set a clear direction – What’s the brief? Who is the sponsor? Who is the decision maker? These are key pieces of information needed to meet the project’s objectives.

Top Tip! Get agreement on key information – only when you have your mandate, are you ready to begin a project.

Cost building

Don’t be afraid of talking about cost. It is business. Cost discussed at the start of a project sets a clear direction of the project scope. If you know your role as Project Manager is to reduce cost, stay within a budget or improve sales, then this information will be a healthy measure of whether the project outcomes were a success. 

Top Tip! Always prepare for cost building, reducing, budgeting at the sponsorship stage.

Plan your meetings 

Planning is necessary; even for meetings. If you are hosting a workshop or a meeting, you are expected to have thought about the meeting outcomes and the purpose of the meeting. Plan your presentations, have a clear agenda and make sure you bring plenty of meaningful project information to each meeting. Everyone is expecting you to lead the way.

Top Tip! ‘Lesson plan’ your meetings. Send your agendas and papers in advance. It’s a great way to ‘set the scene’ and give others line of sight so they can prepare.

Timelines

Start with building the timeline. Identify the dates that are fixed and then you can plan backwards (for example, a conference date, or when product launch). The timeline drives the number of tasks that need completing by critical dates, and helps you nudge people at the right time. Remember, you own the timeline so you must know the critical dates in your journey.

Top Tip! You don’t need fancy software to monitor the timeline.  Use what works best for you and the company.

Project structures 

The company hierarchy outside of a project will be different to the structure inside a project. The structure inside a project allows the Project Manager to escalate issues and risks, and act as a decision maker. The project team reports to the Project Manager.

Senior stakeholders must sign off on this at the project sponsorship stage. Without this approval the project will never move in the direction it needs to.

Top Tip! If you want to be informal, then set up a list of project guidelines. Some projects however, need a more formal approach; Terms of Reference set out clearly what the responsibility is for the group and who is accountable, including you!

Identify the decision makers

When I worked in local government, the CEO was an avid promoter of projects. It was also known that the CEO would be the ultimate decision maker – in the project room.  Getting hold of the CEO outside the project room was another story. The truth is the CEO is not close enough to the project every day in the same way you are, so decision making does need to be delegated.

Top Tip! Decision making needs to be discussed at the early stages of the project being signed off. A good Project Manager will know when to take a decision to the CEO and when to resolve at a local level.

Design a project plan

You don’t need to use complicated terminology to create the project plan. Write what you have to do, who is going to deliver and by when. You can add a status column to monitor the risk levels depending on the nature of your project.

This list can be as long as it needs to, but write it all down. You can combine activities into groups afterwards, or even ask the experts in the project group to help do this. By creating the project plan, you will be able to manage each stage of the project and guide the project group through the various tasks to get to the end of a stage before activating the next.

Motivating the project group

To your project team, some projects will seem like a Mission Impossible. Motivating a group to take on additional responsibilities when they are already flooded in their day jobs is a tough gig.  A good Project Manager will motivate and inspire throughout the project, encouraging his or her team to finish their tasks so that the next stage can be activated.

Top Tip! Show the project team of the project plan activity; this helps them to visualise the project journey, as well as achievements so far.

Change Management vs Project Management

I’ve left this point until last for good reason. Not all projects involve change, but in the many projects I have led, change has been inevitable. If you are leading a project where the outcome will be to do things differently, for example, introducing a new piece of software or changing a process, then you will be guiding people through change. Projects often encourage people to think differently.

Top Tip! Ask about how change management will be supported at the sponsorship stage, you need top-level buy-in to influence a change in culture.