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Five ways to keep your project on course

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Starting out in project management can be daunting, James Lea reveals five tips to deliver a successful project that stays on track.

Start with a well-defined project

A project with vague objectives and indeterminate outputs is never going to stay on track. If you don’t know where your project starts or finishes, you have no chance of measuring progress. It’s best to tackle the hard, risky things early on and agree the scope of the project carefully, using the correct language. You must also define the project environment carefully and recognise that risk originates from within the project organisation, as well as from outside it.

When you join a project, ask the question: “What is our per cent complete?” The answer will quickly tell you how well defined the project is, and the level of understanding and control around its delivery. Your next question can be: “How do we control change?” The answer will tell you whether the project chooses to be in control of its own destiny. Finally, ask: “What is our plan to get from here to there?” If these important questions cannot be resolved to your satisfaction, ask your sponsor: “Do we have a project?”

Manage and exploit data effectively

You must provide your teams with information that leads to the right decisions. In high-performing organisations, information is collected primarily for the benefit of teams, because those who are closest to the action have the greatest chance to act on that insight and improve performance. The best expression of that delivery data is through the project plan and schedule.

Put teams centre stage with data. Ask them what works and what doesn’t – and focus on the data they need. In the future, teams will make greater use of new artificial intelligence tools and will be allowed to take greater individual ownership for delivery, and this in turn will drive innovation.

Data does not just mean numbers, but also relationships that convey information. When estimating and pricing, use models that estimate outcomes based on hard-won historical data. By adopting this empirical approach, you will find useful correlations everywhere. Exploit these correlations, for the past is a guide to the future.

Communicate effectively with everyone

That means everyone within the project’s sphere of influence. Tell the stories using data, but don’t overwhelm. Imagine your sponsor wants to understand progress against the plan. How would you communicate this in a way that gains its buy-in? Remember that people can easily visualise flow and intercepts, scale and variation. Tap into these concepts and present them visually – show the data so that it can be interpreted easily and correctly.

My favourite communication tool is a milestone trend chart. This shows the evolution of a time forecast and provides a powerful focal point for conversations around timely delivery. Earned value management is another excellent tool for understanding and communicating progress – I use it on projects of all sizes to great effect.

Understand the broader delivery context

Be mindful of how the customer will use the delivered product or system and use this understanding to optimise the approach and delivery.

Keep asking: “What are the benefits? Why does this matter? What will the client do with it?” The goals of a project will change during delivery, and by understanding the extent to which this happens, you can adopt the best delivery methodology. Keep your project on track by recognising how its outputs will be used – and use this feedback to adapt and optimise your approach.

Empathise with the client and give them certainty

The client trusts you to understand and deliver against its requirements, even if it can’t articulate them in your language. You must educate and inform each other throughout the lifetime of the project. Communicate and take the time to understand each other’s business.

How messages are delivered is important: sometimes confidence and reassurance are all that’s needed. You must take the lead with the client. Plan for uncertainty; label the unknown. By bringing all these principles together, you can build high-performing teams that deliver well-scoped projects that stay on track throughout, actively responding to change. I encourage you to apply these principles to keep your projects on track from beginning to end.

Read the full article about how to keep your project on course (🔒) in the Project journal archives, free for APM Members.

Image: Hunia Studio/


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  1. Andrew Heap
    Andrew Heap 07 February 2020, 07:56 AM

    Great article James. I'll be sharing it with my team in my weekly "HAGW" message.