Most likely, you didn’t think that you would spend hours planning projects, gathering resources, engaging teams, monitoring and assuring progress and reporting on results. But guess what? Whether you’re a procurement manager or CEO, in actuality, you’re probably a project manager and you don’t even know it. You are the "Accidental Project Manager.” Are you the person who does the following?
- Organize the team or the process, because no one else does.
- Manage multiple to-do lists.
- Keep three or more deadlines a week in mind
- Faithfully cross tasks off a list as they are accomplished.
- Move sticky notes on your desk or dashboard like a wigiboard
- Missed a deadline because of others not completing their tasks on time.
- Been given the excuse of, "You didn't tell us about that," when you know you did.
- Find yourself getting confused about which task relates to which project.
Now that you've been mildly disturbed by the self diagnosis of what may sound like a horribly tedious disease termed project management, you can be comforted by the fact that there are thousands of people going through the same experience and there’s a range of treatment options out there. Relief can be yours if you are willing to confront the challenge head on. Say it with me - I am (insert your name here), and I am an accidental project manager.
In all seriousness, the fact that there is an entire field of professionals and several organizations (i.e., PMI - Project Management Institute, among others) dedicated expressly to project management, provides the everyday accidental project manager with a treasure trove of best practices as well as a host of tools aimed at lighting the pathway to success for any initiative. Even if you only manage an occasional, short-term initiative, by taking your cues from the pros, you can anticipate obstacles and reap the benefits that come from formalizing your approach to project management. The bottom line - you can make it so that your projects get completed on time and under budget if you take the right approach, and in the end, this means accolades for you and more profit for your business.
What Accidental Project Managers Face
The first obstacle Accidental Project Managers face in achieving project success is finding a way to get everyone on the same page. Within an organization, roles are often highly distributed - that is, multiple people may have a small part in ensuring a particular task is completed. Equally often, a bottleneck in completing one task may hold up dozens of others working on the same project.
The need to be on the same page can also be evident internally when working across departmental lines, such as when the marketing team needs assistance from the technicians to implement a new Web initiative, or the manufacturing design team needs quick turnaround from the modeling production department. Forget for a moment about ensuring timely completion of tasks. Without the right mechanisms in place, it can be a struggle to even collect status updates from in other departments. For a project manager, even an accidental one, this can mean things grind to a halt quickly.
Those potential obstacles are functions of the mechanics and ability of the organization as a whole to adapt to dynamic factors, but equally challenging are those presented by the personalities present within organizations.
Another factor can be information hoarders - those who don't share intelligence quickly or effectively. Sometimes, an individual's working style is such that he or she prefers not to share news on progress as part of an effort to control the process or perception of performance. Sometimes there's a belief that those in other departments will not understand details specific to another's role in the project. Other times, priorities shifted by leaders aren't communicated swiftly to those managing the day-to-day tasks of the business. Regardless of cause, instilling a culture where information is shared, not protected, is vital to project success.
Still another obstacle is the resistance to adoption of new processes. Often, this starts with the executive team, the group most likely to be set in their ways regarding planning. Sometimes, the idea of a structured, strategic approach to project planning sounds like a lot of hard work. Team members can get nervous about accountability, don't want to switch from old-school paper methods, or are of the mind, "We've always done it this way." The accidental project manager must convince these individuals that the time it will take to create and develop new methods and processes will be dwarfed by profits earned as a result of the efficiencies those new processes will bring.
Benefits of Formalizing Project Management
Why formalize your approach to project management? Think P5 - proper planning prevents poor performance. For most projects, the main measure of performance is project speed. Project speed leads to efficiency and greater profit.
First of all, well-organized, clearly depicted work schedules get you the chance to manage a project to begin with - by helping you win it! At project scoping and bid stages, contractors that present a calendar, Gantt chart or other visual tool that explicitly lays out the project schedule instill a greater sense of confidence in those making the decision of who to hire.
Once underway, faster completion of one portion of a project can often mean a contract bonus for the contractors involved. And projects finished on time more often lead to repeat work and more referrals.
Even if there are no direct monetary incentives for project speed, if deadlines and objectives are created through a collaborative process from the outset and good communication on status remains in place, fewer project revisions are necessary. As a result, the project managers, as well as staff and contractors, are spending less time in project-update meetings, freeing up their time to work on the actual task at hand.
Another primary benefit of formalized project management is that it instills greater accountability of each individual participating in an initiative. Team members realize their position within the workflow of a project and get a sense for how their performance impacts other tasks, deadlines and, ultimately, individuals. Formalization usually leads to status updates, spurring a more take-charge approach by each stakeholder who realizes that he or she is more accountable due to project transparency. Many times, team members feel more comfortable knowing precisely what is expected of them. The process of entering information into a more structured system both clarifies their responsibilities and reinforces the belief that their success will be recognized.
Measurability is another key advantage of formalized project management. Not only can team members track their progress against stated goals, but they can also improve ongoing estimations of project lifecycles. Some common metrics include:
- The project is delivered on the original delivery date of the scheduled project.
- Project cost is under the original budget.
- Fewer instances of overruns compared with planned allocations for any particular resource (e.g., the plumber doesn't have to come out twice to do the same thing due to other bottlenecks).
- Number of subprojects running simultaneously.
A final benefit of adding structure to the way you manage projects is that it helps your organization develop a formalized and dynamically evolving business process. After developing an initial template, projects get off to a start more quickly, as project-specific obstacles can be anticipated more effectively. Capacities are better understood, helping your company avoid biting off more than it can chew at any particular time. Deliverables become more clearly defined with each iteration of the project plan, which is continuously refined based on each of the organization's experiences.
Five Must-Have Best Practices
- Before beginning a project, engage all the stakeholders necessary to develop and agree upon organizational structure and workflows.
- Create a visual map of production processes to increase efficiency and improve strategic decision-making.
- Provide clear objectives and an overall benchmark for project success.
- Create a single visualization of all project details, tasks and their interdependence that includes a mechanism for tracking status in as close to real-time as possible.
- Hold regular, formalized status reviews.
Today, the number-one arrow that an accidental project manager can put in his or her quiver to achieve these best practices is sound technology. Long gone are the days when the only option was pencil and paper, and quickly fading are the days where coordinating dozens of home-brewed spreadsheets are the best option. Project-focused software enables organizations to create and adopt a new process that will increase overall productivity, improve response time when changes are required and provide immediate information on the impact of changes.
Keep in mind it's not just the tools designed for the folks who launch the space shuttle that can bring this value. Even popular tools such as Microsoft Project are overkill for the average accidental project manager. Instead of trying to train yourself and your entire staff on a complicated software tool with many confusing features your organization is unlikely to use, look for software that cuts to the quick and has a simple, no-nonsense interface. If it's easy to use, the chance that people working on your projects will adopt it skyrocket, and your projects will reap the benefits.
As well as seeking an easy-to-learn project management solution, choose one that can work well with your existing tools, which may include spreadsheets such as Excel, calendar programs like Outlook or iCal, presentation programs such as PowerPoint and Keynote or accounting packages such as QuickBooks and Microsoft Dynamics. The best project management software can even interact with other applications aimed at the same goals. Choosing a program that can open and modify Microsoft Project files, for example, can go a long way in ensuring that an accidental project manager can work seamlessly with other organizations that use more complex programs to manage projects hour by hour, day by day.
Finally, when possible, seek out software that can work across platforms. For example, often one contractor uses Macs while another uses PCs. A cross-platform software suite can bridge this gap and enable Windows and Mac users to collaborate on projects and seamlessly share vital information.
Although most people don't realize it, nearly everyone takes on a project management role at some point or another in their daily, professional or even personal lives. Regardless of setting, these accidental project managers deal with the same obstacles - from turf wars to information hoarding to resistance to change. By gleaning best practices from the purposeful project managers - those whose roles focus solely on managing projects, even the occasional project manager can bring new efficiencies to an organization. And that means greater profit. And through methods that promote accountability, thoughtfully planned workflow and collaboration, you can bring order to the chaos of information being thrown your way, reducing your own stress levels and giving you more time for the part of the job you had envisioned when you first entered your field.
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Dennis Bilowus is President and CEO of AEC Software. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.