A Little Bit of Everything - Project Management

Applying project management techniques to your projects involves combining a unique set of skills and talents. If you enjoy working with people at all levels of the organization, performing a variety of activities, managing and controlling outcomes, and solving problems, you'll love the world of project management. It's a diverse career, as no two projects are ever the same.You might apply the same techniques, but the product is different, the stakeholders are different, and maybe even the company or the country you're working in is different.

Organizations often make the mistake of promoting their top technicians to project managers. The thinking is that if the employee excels at programming, engineering, or research, then they must automatically be good at project management. That is not necessarily true.You may very well be an accomplished programmer with the natural skills to move into project management, but I've witnessed many situations where just the opposite happens. Expert technicians are put into the project management role and flounder. This doesn't have to happen to you, however. After some diligent study on project management techniques and a little practice, your projects will pass with flying colors.

Project management allows you to learn about and potentially gain experience in many different industries. As a project manager, you don't necessarily have to be an expert in the industry you're working in because your expertise is in managing projects. However, most hiring managers look for candidates with some experience or knowledge in the industry. You don't need to be an expert on everything about that industry, but some exposure will give you a leg up when competing against other candidates. If you find yourself working in a brand-new field, remember that you'll rely on the technical experts in that industry to provide you with the information needed that's specific to the project at hand. They'll give you the details regarding the activities you need to plug into the project plan and provide you with activity estimates.

Some of the most important skills you'll need as a project manager are strong oral and written communication skills, good organization skills, general management skills such as budgeting and team building, negotiation and problem-resolution skills, and people skills. Project management is not so much about having one set of skills or knowing one way to do a thing; it's really more about knowing a little bit about a lot of things. Project managers have been characterized as "a mile wide and an inch deep." That sums up the breadth of skills you'll need in order to successfully manage your next project.

Note:Project managers are a mile wide and an inch deep—their skills cover a broad range of general management disciplines.

Communication Is the Key

By far, the most important skills a project manager possesses are communication skills. These encompass good verbal skills as well as good writing skills. As the project manager, you'll be the one generating almost all of the communication that will take place on the project. You'll talk to stakeholders, team members, customers, vendors, senior management, and so on. You'll also create status reports, generate project documents by the truckload, generate reports, write e-mail, and more. The better you are at communicating, the smoother your project will go. Does this mean you won't experience problems along the way or get into tussles with stakeholders or team members? Absolutely not. But it does mean that everyone will know exactly what's expected of them, and everyone will understand what the project status is at any time and what's still to come.

Tip:Communicating the right information to the right people helps assure project success. You can never over-communicate when you follow this rule.

We'll talk about good and bad communication techniques—and many other
communication skills—in more detail in the second half of this chapter.

Organizing Techniques

"Where did I put my keys?" Have you ever asked yourself that question as you're rushing out the door on the way to work or an important meeting? I used to until I put up a hook next to the garage door to hang my keys on the minute I walk in. While this may be a minor example, it illustrates how organization skills will help you when managing projects. If I'm wasting time hunting down my keys every morning, something else isn't getting done (like getting a jump on rush-hour traffic). This applies to project work as well. If I'm always spinning my wheels looking for project documentation that's buried in piles and spread out all over the office, or if I find I spend half the day addressing unimportant issues and e-mail, I'm wasting valuable time that could be spent elsewhere.

So how do you get a handle on all that project information and differentiate between important messages and problems during the course of the day? Some basic organizational techniques will get you off to a good start. Remember back in previous chapter, "Building the Foundation," when we talked about the different ways to assemble project information using project notebooks or the company's intranet? That's one organizational technique you can use right away for all your project documentation. Putting all that paperwork together in one location will keep you organized almost automatically (provided, of course, that you actually put the information in the book or in the proper folders on the server). We'll work on the project notebook, including what gets filed and how it gets filed, throughout the remaining chapters of this book. That will take care of organizing your project documents, but what about time management and all those e-mails and voicemails and the constant interruptions, just to name a few?

Organization is a topic that spans many areas, including time management, priority setting, and information. Let's look at some of the techniques in each of these areas.

Time Management

How many times do you get to the end of your day and wonder, "where does the time go?" You glance over at the clock and it's 5:15, but you feel you haven't accomplished a thing. If this describes you, it's possible that your day is managing you instead of the other way around.

Each of us only has 24 hours to accomplish our tasks for that day. However, it seems some folks can get twice the amount of work done in that amount of time as others. They don't have more time available to them than we do, so how do they do it? They accomplish this with good time management techniques. Time management is a process you use to control the priorities over your time. This might sound pretty basic, and it is. It starts with keeping your calendar up-to-date and maintaining a task list of things to do each day. These two things alone can go a long way toward keeping your day from getting out of control. I find that writing down a list of tasks for the day helps me to prioritize where my time should be spent and helps me know which activities to focus on.

There are several time organizer tools available on the market. At a minimum most include a calendar, task list, notes, and a contact list.You can find these organizers in paper and electronic format. I'm a fan of the electronic version because not only can I keep my appointments, to-do lists, and contacts all in one place, I can also keep a copy of the latest project status report, important project information, and a high-level project plan with me at all times. If someone happens to catch me in a meeting on another topic but has a question about the project, I have the latest information at my fingertips.

Remember our rule from previous chapter though: The tool is useful only if you know how to use it. Sign up for a class to really get the most out of your organizer.

Tip:Use one organizer tool for all your appointment, task, and contact lists. Combine your business and personal information in one organizer, not two, so that you don't end up with scheduling conflicts.

The rule for this chapter is to use only one tool! I knew a project manager who used three separate organizer tools. It drove her crazy because she never knew where she was supposed to be. One organizer was for project-specific appointments, tasks, and notes. Another organizer was for her regular management duties (pop quiz: what kind of organization is this describing?). And she kept yet another one for her personal affairs! You can only imagine what happened when it was her turn to pick up the kids from soccer practice (recorded in organizer number three) as she was rushing to a project meeting scheduled for the same time (recorded in organizer number one). Keep all of your appointments and tasks in one organizer. If you're using an electronic tool such as Microsoft Outlook, you can flag your personal items as such and they'll be hidden from public view if you so choose.

There are dozens of classes and books available for further information on the subject of time management. I really encourage you to take a time management class if you never have, even if you think you're good at it.You're bound to pick up some useful tips and hints that will only make you a better time manager.

Setting Priorities

Prioritizing your time according to the importance and urgency of the item you're dealing with will help you focus on the right things.

Most priorities fall into four zones. I call these zones the fire-fighting zone, the planning zone, the time-waster zone, and the looking-for-a-new-job zone. Let's look at a description of each of these:

Fire-fighting zone

A fire needs to be dealt with now or else the problems will only get worse.You need to drop everything you're doing to go fix the problems springing up around you. You'll likely find issues such as emergencies, unplanned risks, and business or service interruptions occurring in this zone. You want to spend as little of your time as possible in this zone because it's a time killer. You can accomplish that by spending more time in the planning zone.

Planning zone:Think of this more like earthquake retrofitting than fire-fighting; it's important that you create a sound structure, but the structure is not currently under immediate threat. This clearly describes project-planning activities. Planning activities are of high importance (and will keep you out of the fire-fighting zone) but are not urgent.You should include planning time in every day.

Time-waster zone:The alarm is going off, but there is no actual crisis. That might include things like unnecessary meetings, unimportant e-mail and voicemail, junk mail, drop-in visitors discussing their recent trip to Hawaii, and so on. Again, try to stay out of this zone because you're just killing time and not accomplishing anything.

Looking-for-a-new-job zone:No alarms are going off, no crisis is at hand, and there's no motivation to spend time planning. You can probably imagine what this zone includes: things like cube hopping, Internet surfing, showing pictures of your Hawaii trip to anyone passing by, extraneous documentation, frivolous e-mail, and so on.

Using these categories to classify your issues as they arise can help you decide what should be dealt with immediately and what can wait. The process works something like this: Those items that are of high importance and high urgency should be dealt with first; you have to fight the fires. But try to stay out of that zone by concentrating on those things that are of high importance but low urgency (the planning zone). Plan to spend time in this zone by penciling in planning activities on your calendar and to-do list everyday.

If you find yourself spending most of your time in the fire-fighting zone, you probably aren't spending enough time planning and organizing your time. Spending most of your day in the planning zone will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Tip:Avoid spending all of your project time in the fire-fighting zone by using proper planning techniques.

Your two biggest time wasters are those things found in the time-waster and looking-for-a-new-job zones. Limit the amount of time you allow yourself to get caught up with these things, and you'll have more time to plan and fight fires when necessary.

You can use these zones to help make decisions about which project activities to undertake as well as which tasks to complete, e-mail to answer, phone calls to return, meetings to attend, and so on. If the activity is unimportant or frivolous, don't waste your time with it.

Managing Information

I confess, I'm an information junkie. I love learning new things and digging out all the facts. But it's important to know what information really is important in order to sort out the good from the not-so-good. If you don't manage what's coming your way, it can drown you in a sea of useless details.

E-mail

Information comes from a variety of sources, and projects have a way of accumulating information rapidly. E-mail alone could fill a room or two with threering binders. Should you print all those e-mails and file them in the project notebook? Well, that depends. Personal preference has a part to play in the decision as does the priority and importance of the e-mail. If it's an e-mail that has the potential to cause major problems for the project team, or pertains to late shipments, or perhaps shows that a functional manager is being a little less than cooperative, then I'd recommend keeping a printed copy for reference.

Note:Handle every piece of information one time and do something with it immediately— elete it, respond to it, or file it.

One of the best tips I've ever come across for information management is this idea of handling every piece of information (be it e-mail, voicemail, interoffice mail, or regular mail) one time. When I first learned about this tip it applied only to regular mail and interoffice memos because e-mail and voicemail didn't yet exist. But I've found that it's a good tip for all the information that's likely to come across your desk, regular mail, e-mail, voicemail, and so on. So, once you've read the e-mail—act on it. If you need to save it, move it to a project folder. If you need to print it, then print it, file it, and move it to the project folder. If it's not productive information or it's something you don't need, then delete it. The same goes for information you receive on paper. Handle it one time. Read it—then do something with it.

E-mail is a great tool and has some handy features you can put to use on your next project. Most e-mail systems allow you to create personal folders. I recommend setting up a folder for your project and maybe even a set of subfolders within the project folder for e-mail from various sources—maybe folders for vendor communication, team member communication, customer communication, and so on. Use the e-mail system's functionality to help you deal with the volume of e-mail you receive. For example, you might want to create rules that move important e-mail to a specific folder while deleting junk e-mail. Setting up rules to filter junk e-mail and moving it immediately to the Deleted or Trash folder will save you lots of time. You won't be tempted to open the mail just because it's in your inbox, and you won't waste time having to manually delete it either.

Rules are a handy tool because they let you easily move your messages to folders you designate, change the color of incoming messages (I've set all the messages coming from my boss to red so I don't overlook them), or delete those items you don't want to look at. Unfortunately though, rules can't tell you how or when you should respond. That's something you'll have to determine based on the e-mail, the person who sent it, and the content.

You might want to set aside certain times during the day for reading and responding to e-mail. You may decide that every two hours is often enough to check e-mail, and in between those times, you'll work on other productive things. But I'll warn you, this is hard to do. If you're like me, the minute you have a "new mail" notification, you'll jump right to the inbox. This can be a time waster though, because it breaks your concentration on whatever else you're working on (like the project plan or schedule). You stop what you're doing, go read the e-mail, get lost down a rabbit trail, respond and then maybe stew about it, and forget what you were doing before you stopped to read the e-mail. Give it a try and see if setting a schedule to review e-mail every two hours, or some other time increment, works for you.

Voicemail

Voicemail is another potential time killer. There isn't an easy way to filter the voicemail you receive, but you can still practice some of the same principles we've already discussed. Listen to the voicemail one time and then act on it. Either return the call, delegate it, or delete it.

When leaving voicemail messages, speak clearly and slowly and get in the habit of repeating your phone number twice. It's annoying for a listener to have to keep backing up the message or repeating the message to catch the phone number.

Here's another trick I learned from a friend of mine several years ago that is really handy. Many times when I'm at home doing things other than work (yes, you should have a life outside your current project), something will pop into my head about the project I'm working on that I don't want to forget. Maybe it's a call I need to make or someone on the project team I need to catch up with. Call yourself at work and leave yourself a voicemail detailing the thing you want to do tomorrow. (Just don't start asking yourself how you are doing and you'll be all right.) Shhh, don't tell, but I use this in reverse too. If I'm at work and think of something at home I don't want to forget, I call myself at home and leave a message on the recorder.

Tip:Use voicemail as a handy reminder tool. Leave yourself voicemail when you think of something you need to take care of and don't want to forget.

Odds and Ends

We've already introduced the idea of the project notebook. This is a great project management organizational tool. Checklists are another useful tool. This may sound routine, but having a routine is another good way to keep everyone involved in the project on track. Set up your project progress meetings for the same time—the first and third Tuesdays at 10 A.M. for example. Schedule team meetings at consistent times as well. Once everyone attends a time or two, they know what's expected and what type of information you're going to be looking for in the meetings, and they'll come prepared.

I like Albert Einstein's theory on information management. He used to say something like, "Why remember it when I can look it up?' I believe it's been said that he didn't know his own phone number because he could look it up in the phone book. That might be going a little far, but why take a chance on remembering things that you can easily write down or record? Get in the habit of carrying your organizer with you everywhere so that you can jot down ideas or things to do as they occur to you. If you don't have your organizer with you, leave yourself voicemail.

General Management Skills

Project managers wear a lot of hats. This implies that you need to have a basic understanding of general management skills, and that covers a lot of topics. You'll be preparing budgets, coaching teams, negotiating for resources, communicating with vendors and customers, and providing customer service. As such, you need to have some general knowledge of each of these areas.

Budgeting skills are necessary when estimating the resources and materials you'll need for the project. Most stakeholders want to know how much it's going to cost to implement the project, and the project manager is responsible for coming up with the initial estimate. This doesn't mean that you need to be a Certified Public Accountant, but you'll want to have some understanding of how accounting and finance work. Most organizations have accounting departments that are responsible for anything that has to do with money and budgets. You'll work very closely with those folks to come up with initial estimates, set a project budget, and monitor expenditures. If you understand their lingo, it will make your job easier.

As a project manager, you'll sometimes wear the leadership hat and sometimes the manager hat. Leadership skills are different than management skills. Leaders tend to focus more on the big picture, or the strategic direction of the company. They have the ability to inspire others and rally them around a common goal or vision. Once that vision is planted, leaders get things accomplished through others who are committed to the vision, are loyal to the leader, and have a good deal of respect for the leader. Good leaders tend to have a directive approach; in other words, they tell you what the end result is expected to look like and they make certain everyone understands the goal, always keeping them focused and driven toward accomplishing the goal. They impart the vision and let the team members work together to make it happen. You'll find that most good leaders have very strong interpersonal skills.

Managers, on the other hand, are usually task-oriented and concerned with accomplishing the job at hand to the satisfaction of the customer or stakeholders. They focus on things like planning, budgets, and human resource management and are concerned about following established policies and procedures.

Leaders

Create and inspire vision while encouraging and motivating others to fulfill the vision.

Managers

Those who carry out the details of the leader's vision by completing the tasks and activities associated with the vision and by managing the day-to-day operations to the satisfaction of the stakeholders.

Note:Leaders are inspiring and lay out the overall direction of a project. Managers complete tasks, create plans, and monitor performance. Project managers need to exercise both of these skills to survive in the project management world.

You'll need both of these skills in your tool bag at different times throughout the project. In the beginning, you'll rally the team around the project goals and convince them of the merits of the project. Sometimes teams will experience a lull midway through the project or after setbacks that impede the progress of the project. You'll need to whip out those leadership skills again and refocus the team on the initial vision. At other times, you'll use your management skills to develop plans, monitor activities for adherence to the plan, and so forth. The management of the project itself takes on the form of project planning, scheduling activities, assigning work, monitoring tasks, reporting progress to stakeholders, and so on. You'll use these skills throughout the project.

Customer service skills are important because all of your stakeholders, those people who have something at stake in your project, are really your customers. Simple things like using proper phone etiquette, being courteous, and not speaking poorly of the folks you work with are common sense. Nonetheless, it's important to remember that customers are the reason you have this great project management job in the first place. Whether those customers are internal or external to the company shouldn't matter. The end goal is still the same— satisfying their expectations and delivering the project on time and on budget.

People Management Skills

People management is a vast topic. The majority of your workday will be spent interacting with people, so it's important to understand how people tick, what motivates them, and how to keep them focused and on task. Some of the things you learned in grade school apply here, like saying "please" and "thank you," using people's names, and not interrupting while others are talking. Other skills, like motivation, delegation, managing upwards, following through, and equating authority to responsibility, are just as important for you to master.

People management skills are something you'll have to master if this doesn't come naturally to you And when people are involved, there will be conflict. Negotiation techniques belong in your bag of tricks as do problem resolution skills. Each of these will help you deal with conflict and resolve those issues that can become real sticking points on the project.


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