Project management can appear very formal to an outsider.
That’s because project management maps out a specific, seemingly inflexible, process for initiating, monitoring and closing a project, all according to an established methodology. And if you’re an entrepreneur or working at a startup, the rigidity of these project management systems can feel constraining. Still, the need to have a framework around which to focus your team and resources is critical to any business success.
However strict and formal project management might appear, it can be adapted to fit your situation. There are many different methods, approaches and project management software, depending on your industry and type of project. Plus, there are new ideas coming into the fold all the time, including hybrid methodologies that get the best of both worlds.
So, how can entrepreneurs and teams get the most out of project management, regardless of their startup environment or business life cycle?
Start with a Vision
First, to use project management effectively, you must begin your project with a vision. You need to have some clear idea or goal that your team can focus on. To get somewhere, anywhere, there must be a destination. This destination must have a specific outcome that impacts your organization or those you serve.
Startups and entrepreneurs often try to do a million things at once with limited staff, so crafting a vision is essential for ensuring project success. Well, how do you establish your vision?
You need to spend a bit of time and energy thinking through what you want to achieve and what impact you want to have. It isn’t enough to say something like, “We want to grow our business.”
To give projects a sense of purpose and focus, you’d need to take this general idea and sharpen it. You’d say something like, “We want to grow our business by 10% this quarter by creating a new service line for our existing customers.”
This is a pretty simple example, but it drills down from a vague idea to a specific set of goals. This applies to any type of business, because all projects need to have focus, regardless of the industry.
Make a Plan
Once you have your goal or your outcome in place, the second step in implementing project management is to create a plan. A pothole for projects is not following the plan you made to complete the project.
However, sticking too closely to your plan can lead to another problem: a project plan that locks like handcuffs around the team, not allowing the team to have any flexibility in the way that they tackle the job or approach their roles.
As an entrepreneur or startup, you must be comfortable with change. Change happens, and when you’re blazing a new trail, being able to pivot is key to success. Whatever plan you create today is only a starting point for where you are going to go in the future.
But you still need to have a plan that starts with the end in mind. Where are you going? When do you need to get there? What kind of resources do you have or need? What other factors are involved in getting this project completed?
So, the plan is important but can change. To schedule your plan, make a project timeline with milestones, or major phases of the project, to break down the steps or tasks you’ll have to take to complete in order to finish the project in the time allotted.
The greatest gift you can give your team is the gift of flexibility in reaching the goals and milestones. As stated above, in too many instances, we can create plans that are rigid, which pin us to one path.
Flexibility is important for your team, because if they are working hard and intelligently, the solutions and actions that they take might not be obvious and should be allowed to evolve with experience.
Execute the Project
Now it’s time to move the project to the execution stage. This means turning your team loose on the project.
Often when people and organizations are not hitting peak performance, they skip the first two steps and jump right into this stage of project management. The problem with that is that they fail to ask themselves, “Why?”
For example, if you want to mock up a new feature, have you asked yourself: “Why do I want the new feature? Why do I want to create a new product? Why am I doing a mock up and not something else?”
Don’t Waste Resources
An inefficient organization (and startups can’t afford to be inefficient) can spend a lot of time expending resources on things that never should have received valuable resources in the first place. That’s probably the number-one takeaway from project management: do the due diligence of asking yourself the where, what, why, when and how before beginning any project.
As far as the actual execution stage of the project, if you’ve created a thorough plan and worked backwards from a deadline to create a realistic schedule and task list, everything should be in place to start and proceed on track. Of course, you’ll want to monitor and report on the project progress to make sure you’re hitting your benchmarks.
How will you measure your success against your milestones and schedule? Ask yourself these questions: “Are the plans and milestones still relevant to achieving the goal or outcome? Are we on, ahead or behind schedule? Is the outcome still relevant to our business or are we just completing what we started?”
You should be constantly asking yourself and your team these questions until you have hit your goal. In addition to asking such questions, you should be monitoring KPIs and other metrics throughout the project. A project dashboard can be a huge help when it comes to tracking metrics on a daily basis.
Know When to Fold ’em
One roadblock that startups and entrepreneurs encounter is the unwillingness to recognize and accept sunk costs. By this I mean, if your goal or outcome isn’t relevant anymore, but you’re so far into the project that you won’t let go. You think it might have a negative impact on the team.
The best thing to do is to quit things that need to be abandoned. Knowing when to quit is a bit of an art. If you struggle with it, read Seth Godin’s book The Dip. He writes about knowing when to quit and when to stay the course.
Wrap It Up
Finally, you should wrap up the project. At this point, you should have achieved your outcome and have something significant to show for your time and resources.
Archive Your Documents
Collect the lessons learned in a framework that you can use for future projects. Note things that worked and things that didn’t. Spend time thinking about schedules and resource usage, making notes of what you expected and what actually happened.
You might want to collect your communications schedules, reports and other documents that you can use to create templates for future projects.
Lessons Learned for Future Projects
Creating a resource that helps you accelerate the kickoff of future projects is the key to ending a project well. Depending on your nature and your organization, these documents collected may be complex, or they may be loose.
Again, the important thing is to make sure you have collected things to look for and things to avoid so that you don’t have to relearn everything every time you start a project.
I think if you can think of your projects as four simple phases, it will make it easier for you to use project management principles and this will allow you to not only make project management something you can add quickly, but effectively as well.
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