10 Golden Rules of Project Management

By Cynthia Snyder

As you begin to use Project 2016, the common sayings (or aphorisms, axioms, and precepts) here can help you recall basic project-management principles. Tack them on your office wall so that you can review them throughout the workday.

Roll with it

Rolling wave planning is an excellent way to simplify the management of a project. Plan no further into the future than you can reasonably see — and don’t plan in more detail than makes sense. When a project is first chartered, you only have milestone dates. As you begin to understand more about the project, you can define the project life cycle and the key deliverables to be created in each of its phases.

Build the project in phases. Start with the initial phases, and fill in detailed tasks, sequences, resources, and durations. Leave the later phases at a high level of detail; that way, you’ll have less work to redo on later tasks that simply can’t be anticipated at the beginning of the project. You’ll also have less need to manipulate the baseline of those later tasks: If tasks are too far in the future, their time requirements won’t match up with the resources you originally set aside for them.

When it’s early in the game, avoid delving into detail on tasks that are far in the future. Project can help you with rolling wave planning when you use these features of the program:

  • Network Diagram view: Helps you visualize project phases graphically
  • Timeline: Shows milestones, deliverables, and phases at a high level
  • Task expansion and collapse: Lets you hide or display project phases

Put your ducks in a row

Before you start creating the project, do your homework. If you don’t have all the information you need when you sit down at the computer to work with Project, you’ll continually stop, midplan, and run off to find the information — not an efficient way to work.

Before you sit down to build a project schedule, think about the following project information:

  • Reality check of basic expectations: Based on your experience in managing similar projects over time, determine whether the deliverables, budget, and preliminary schedule are within reason. Decide whether to discuss changes to the scope and budget to avoid a project that’s unrealistic from the start.
  • Resource information: If the resource is human, record the resource’s full name, contact information, skills, cost, schedule, timing conflicts, manager’s name, and manager’s contact information. For equipment or facilities, find its availability and cost.
  • Team structure: Determine whether one team member records everyone else’s progress or all resources do their own tracking. Decide who updates the schedule after changes are made, who receives copies of which reports, and who has access to the master schedule online.
  • Management expectations: Ask whether management expects to see regularly scheduled basic reports or another type of report instead. Ask how, and from whom, to get budget approval at various phases in the project planning, and ask whether any cross-enterprise interests will require reports or approval from multiple sources.
  • Company policies: These documents may spell out working hours and overtime policies, holiday calendars, charges for overhead costs or project markups, and the sharing (or not) of information with clients and vendors.

After you contemplate the issues in this list, you’re ready to sit down and start entering information into a Project project. (Do you hear an echo in here?)

Expect the unexpected

You know he’s out there — Murphy and his darn law stipulating that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Most projects, especially lengthier and more complex projects, aren’t completed on time or on budget. Your job as the project manager is to plan as accurately as you can and then make prudent adjustments whenever someone throws a wrench into the works — and Project gives you lots of tools to do it. But beyond all the automated features of Project, you can anticipate change by simply planning for it.

The critical path determines the project duration. Every wise project manager builds contingency reserve time and funds into his or her projects. When a project wraps up a week late and $5,000 over budget, only the project manager knows that it was four weeks later and $25,000 costlier than originally scheduled, with no contingency reserve.

Add contingency reserve before major deliverables or the end of a phase to account for unexpected events. You can even add a Contingency task and resource it with Murphy.

Use the cost resource type (rather than a work or material resource) to add a set amount of contingency reserve to a task or phase.

Don’t put off until tomorrow . . .

Though Project management software can simplify many aspects of your work life, most people using Project for the first time become overwhelmed by the amount of time they spend entering and updating data. These tasks can certainly be cumbersome, but the reward from mastering the automated updating and reporting capabilities in Project more than makes up for any labor they endure up front.

Whenever possible, import tasks from Outlook or Excel into Project to help speed data entry in the planning phase.

Track as often as you can — at least once a week. If you don’t tend to the task of tracking progress on a project, you may wind up behind the proverbial eight ball. This strategy not only saves you from having to enter a mountain of tracking data, but also lets you — and your team — see the status of the project at any time. That way, you can promptly spot disaster approaching and make preventive adjustments.

Delegate, delegate, delegate

Avoid the urge to attempt to do everything on a project yourself. Although creating and maintaining the Project file on your own might seem to give you more control over the result, flying solo in a larger project is nearly impossible (and possibly a full-time job). Of course, you can’t allow dozens of people to make changes to the plan, because you would risk losing track of who did what and when. However, following these few simple practices can convert a few fingers in the project pie from harmful to helpful:

  • Designate one person to handle all data. This person’s mission is to enter all tracking data into the master file.
  • Break the project into a few subprojects, and assign people whom you trust to act as managers of those subprojects. Let them handle their own tracking and adjustments, and then assemble these projects into a master project so that you can monitor overall status.
  • Set uniform procedures for the team up front. Don’t let one team member report time on an interoffice memo sheet, another send you his progress by email, and others record their work hours in the time sheet willy-nilly. Work out a strategy that uses Project features to communicate consistently.

You can track progress at a high level, such as 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, and 100 percent complete.

Document it

Most people have heard the project management warning “Cover your assumptions,” and Project helps you do it easily. Use these features to document the details of the project:

  • Notes area: Use it for both tasks and resources to make a record of background information, changes, or special issues.
  • Reports: Customize them to incorporate all pertinent information and help document trends and changes.
  • Visual Reports: Use this new feature to paint the picture of the project status for visually oriented stakeholders.

Save multiple versions of the project, especially if you change the baseline in later versions. This way, you have a record of every step in the project planning to refer to when questions arise down the road.

Keep the team in the loop

Follow these methods of keeping communication channels open:

  • Use Project features that integrate with Outlook or other email programs. Use them to send Project files or other types of communications.
  • Update the communications management plan. Document who needs what information, when, and how often.
  • Review progress with team members by meeting regularly in person, over the phone, or via meeting software. Ensure that all team members have the latest version of the Project schedule to refer to during these meetings.
  • Display the work breakdown structure (WBS) code on reports. Then you can easily refer to specific tasks in large projects without confusion.

Measure success

When you begin the project, you should have an idea of what constitutes success, and you should know how to measure that success. You’ve heard this one: “You can have the deliverable on time, on budget, or done right. Choose two.” Success can involve attaining many goals, such as

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Management satisfaction
  • Meeting budget constraints
  • Being on time

To determine how you’ll measure success, ask these questions:

  • Will success in budgeting mean not exceeding the original estimates by more than 10 percent?
  • Will the project be considered on time if you work on it the estimated number of weeks minus a two-month period when you were on hold for a union strike, or is the total working time less important than meeting a specific deadline?
  • How will you measure customer satisfaction?
  • Does a successful product launch include high sales figures after the launch, or was the project successful merely because you moved it out the door?

Place milestones in the project that reflect the achievement of each type of success. When you reach one, you can pat your team on the back. Knowing what success looks like helps you motivate your team to get there.

Maintain a flexible strategy

Stuff happens. There’s never been a project that didn’t require accommodations for surprises along the way. The mark of a good project manager is that she’s alert to these changes and makes adjustments to deal with them quickly.

Making adjustments to accommodate bad news isn’t easy; in fact, it can be truly difficult to deliver bad news. However, avoiding a problem in the project and hoping that it will simply disappear has a nasty habit of snowballing into an even worse problem. The following tools can help you stay alert to changes and make adjustments:

  • The work contour option can help you change the contour of the work to front-load, back-load, or otherwise change the spread of work over the duration of the task.
  • Use the Task Inspector to see what’s driving a task. You can look for options such as adding resources, revising task dependency relationships, and using reserve.
  • Turn on critical path formatting to see the critical path of the project and track how much slack remains. Adjusting tasks to efficiently use up their slack can keep you on schedule in a crisis.

Learn from your mistakes

One great gift that Project offers is the capability to look back after completing a project so that you can learn from your mistakes. You can review the original schedule, and every version after it, to see how well you estimated time and money, and then figure out how to do it better.

By using records of the project, you can spot trends to find out, for example, where you always seem to miss on timing, or why you always allow much too little time for market research and much too much time for questions and answers. Perhaps you always forget to budget for temporary help during rush periods, or you overstaff early on, when you need only a few people.

Use the wealth of information in Project schedules to educate yourself on your own strengths and weaknesses as a project planner and manager and to improve your skills with each project you take on.