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Simple project management

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Simple project management

Julian Lomas

Is there such a thing as simple project management?

In truth the answer depends on the project you are managing but in my experience there is a strong tendency to over complicate project management and even, dare I say it, to make it deliberately bewildering to keep professional project managers in business!

I’ve been helping clients manage projects for over a decade now and the vast majority of my clients are small to medium sized organisations with limited resources to invest in change programmes. Over the years, I have had to learn to make the project management “overhead” as light as possible so that those delivering the projects can clearly see that the benefits outweigh the costs.

This has been thrown into particularly sharp relief by a significant and complex project I managed recently for a medium sized charity client. With only 10 weeks to mobilise a new service across a large geographical area during the summer holiday season I had to make sure the project was completed to time, budget and quality without staff spending disproportionate time on planning and reporting. A delicate balance perhaps but, as it turns out, one that really helped focus my mind on what really matters in project management.

The essence of project management

In my view project management is essentially about two key factors:

  • Making sure everyone involved knows what they should be doing and when.

  • Making sure that the right people are connected so that they know how what they are doing relates to what others are doing.

The project manager’s job is to enable, support and empower not to enforce, hector and create bureaucracy and paperwork for the sake of it. Of course, a paper trail is important in some cases, but the trick is to keep that in proportion to the risks and benefits of the project.

In the case of the recent project, my approach centred on two key principles:

  1. To make myself a resource rather than an overhead. Essentially this involved doing the paperwork myself based on input from the team in whatever was the simplest format for them to provide it (email, phone call, scribbles on paper, or anything else). All I needed was a simple, clear plan agreed at the outset (but not in so much detail it was overwhelming) and, after that, just information, information and more information.

  2. To keep lines of communication as short as possible to avoid misunderstandings arising from “Chinese” whispers. Again this involved more talking and less written material. Phone calls and, particularly early on, face to face meetings were the mainstay of the project. I can’t over-emphasise the value of this personal contact both in minimising the “burden” of project management and for building and maintaining productive and supportive relationships with, and amongst, the team.

Project management tools

There are countless project management tools out there in a myriad of formats. It’s easy to be blinded by clever demonstrations of flashy new technology and think it will solve all your problems. In my experience, unless everyone (and I mean everyone) in the team is confident to use a particular tool then it won’t be worth investing in it.

Simple lists and charts are often the way to go, using formats that work for the culture of your organisation. If you aren’t comfortable with online collaboration tools then don’t use them. If Gantt charts or other diagrammatic project management tools aren’t your thing, don’t use them.

My approach recently was just to use to do lists that said what needed to be started or finished each week and who was responsible for doing it. The value of this is that it was simple, easy for everyone to understand and, as the lists got shorter through the project, it gave everyone a sense that we were nearing a successful conclusion.

Relationships matter

Getting the right people involved at the right time is absolutely essential, particularly making sure that the people who will use/deliver the “product” are engaged from the start so that they get what they need to do their job when the project hands over to business as usual. This could be the people who will use any IT systems involved, the managers and providers of the services that are being set up or the people who will run the premises that will be used for the services. They may be within your organisation or outside, but they need to be involved from the beginning.

Project managers will talk about “Project Sponsors”, “Senior Users”, “Stakeholders” and more, to label/categorise the different people who should be involved. That can be helpful (and the subject of another blog perhaps) but my purpose here is to say that the technical language isn’t the point. The point is to make make sure you involve the person in overall charge of the service/product, the people who will use it, and the key people who will be affected by it. If you do that, you won’t go far wrong.

Throughout any project, from planning to handover into business as usual, building and maintaining good relationships across the team is vital. The value of face to face interaction, particularly early on, cannot be over-stated. The personal touch matters; saying “thank you” and “well done” is vital. And having a celebration at the end of the project really matters, perhaps incorporating a chance to reflect on what went well or not, but also just because people need to celebrate and enjoy what they have achieved.

So my message here is that, while complex project management approaches are sometimes needed, for small to medium sized organisations delivering small to medium sized projects the key to effective project management is to keep it simple and make it a resource not a burden. If you would like to find out more about how to do this or would like our help and advice to do so, please contact us at julian@almondtreeconsulting.co.uk to arrange free initial telephone discussion.