You can take any number of approaches to project management (critical path, Prince II, agile, lean…). But success may well rely as much on your team adopting some basic principles as it does on the methodology you choose.
Reflecting on several years managing large editorial projects, I’ve seen the same issues come up over and again. And they aren’t often to do with the length of your stages, the number of milestones you agree on, or the comprehensiveness of your project plan. They’re to do with the human factor, which, if ignored, leads to stalled projects, blown budgets and poor outcomes.
From the project outset, it’s worth drawing your project team together to agree a set of principles, so you share the same approach.
The six principles below are ones I believe can help you overcome some of those timeless project issues.
1. Make the decision
The decisions you make will rarely be a perfect fit, but decision paralysis can mean game over. Once you get your head round this, it frees you up to ask the important question – which decision is the best fit?
Project structures provide great cover for people who’ve decided they don’t want to be held accountable, and if everyone decides to avoid decisions (especially the ones that involve risk), you’ve condemned your project from the start.
When you agree to make decisions, especially on the difficult issues, you keep your project moving forward, you take responsibility for your project and you invest in it.
Discuss your decisions by all means, ask for other’s opinions, weigh up the alternatives, but make the decision.
Accepting you’re going to make mistakes opens up space in which the important work can take place, the riskier work that’s going to lead to you developing the product people will love as opposed to one they will tolerate. =
2. Accept you’re going to make mistakes
Understand and accept you’re going to make mistakes. Accepting mistakes as inevitable doesn’t absolve you of your duty of care. But it does help you gain the confidence to make decisions, and to find more effective approaches to adopt when the choices you’ve made turn out not to be the right ones.
Accepting you’re going to make mistakes, and that your team is too, opens up space in which the important work can take place, the riskier work that’s going to lead to you developing the product people will love as opposed to one they will tolerate. It clears the way for you to create something you’re going to be proud to put out there, that you’re proud to put your name to.
And once you’ve made a mistake, admit it. The fear of admitting a mistake is almost always worse than talking it over.
3. Know your priorities
It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of big projects, to get bogged down in a mire of competing priorities. But at any given time, everyone involved in your project needs to be clear about the next step they are going to take to move the project forward. And here’s a tip – as with any decision you make, there are usually several ways to set your priorities. The key thing is that you do it.
This is where strong project leadership comes in – if you’re leading a project, be clear about the priorities. The priorities can, and probably will, change over the course of a project and you need to be flexibile, but there’s no room for ambiguity on this one. Know the most important thing you need to do next.
4. Ask the simple question
The majority of people, for whatever reason, will not ask the simple questions, the basic ones, the fundamental ones.
If it’s in your head, in all likelihood, the simple question is buzzing around the room and everyone else is ignoring it. If something’s not clear, be the one to ask.
The simple question is usually the vital one, and if no one brings it up, in all probability it will lead to more ambiguity, more mistakes, more cost, and a product that’s not as effective, as desirable, as beautiful, as it should be.
5. Remember the people in the project
All projects consist of people (though looking at most project documentation you’d be forgiven for losing sight of that). And complex projects are complex, in part at least, because of the number of people involved.
Each one has their own stresses and their own priorities (which – like it or not – they may well see as being at odds with yours). Spending time to work out where your goals align with those of the people around you is almost always worth it. And if you look for it, finding common ground and shared aims isn’t as difficult as it looks.
Remembering the people in the equation means remembering they are people and not functions of your project. It means knowing when to phone someone or sit down with them to discuss a problem over a coffee rather than emailing. It means acknowledging their stresses and priorities, and acknowledging when what you are asking of them is going to add to the pressures already on them. Sometimes that in itself is enough.
The projects that succeed are ones in which the team agrees to be solution focused as opposed to problem focused.
6. Insist on a positive approach
How we feel about the project has a fundamental impact on its success. That sounds obvious. And it should be unnecessary to say. But, out of all the above, it’s probably the most important to make clear.
A positive approach doesn’t change the challenges, but it does change the way we view the challenges, the way in which we respond to them, and the success with which we overcome them. As with accepting mistakes, accepting there will be setbacks along the way, and agreeing to take a positive approach to those setbacks is key.
The projects that succeed are ones in which the team agrees to be solution focused as opposed to problem focused, and to believe in the important work they are doing. Successful projects are the ones in which everyone is a champion for the important work they are doing together, and in which each member of the team supports every other member to maintain that positive approach, to remind them why this work is important. And why they should care.