OK, I can’t resolve all project problems within a short article, but I have 7 top tips for project success that I’ve spoken about hundreds of times when training thousands of Project Managers, so here they are. This is not a guarantee but following these 7 steps can dramatically improve the chances of project success.

1) What’s the Scope?

The number 1 reason projects don’t succeed is scope creep or lack of scope definition. What the heck is it you & the project team are supposed to be doing? Often the Project Manager is engaged whilst the scope is still being defined, and that must become job #1.

Work with the Project Sponsor & other key stakeholders to drive the creation of a written, agreed scope. Get this scope approved. It’s just as useful to list things that are outside of the scope that others will assume are in.

2) Preparation

The first step to success is preparation and it is amazing how many projects fail due to poor preparation, Henry Ford was once quoted as saying that “getting ready is the secret to success” – this may sound obvious but all too often the Project Manager is pressured into starting before they are truly ready. Senior management can sometimes confuse action with progress, you can be very busy but achieving very little if you are going in totally the wrong direction so get ready first then start.

If you start before you are ready you can often encounter unexpected problems, invariably these problems will delay and disrupt progress. Fixing such problems not only entail delay but there can also be pressure to resume progress and as a result, you may not implement the most cost-effective solution because of time pressure. How many times have you heard “fix it, we’ll worry about the budget later on”.

3) Planning

At this point, you look to make sense of the information you have gathered in the Preparation step and establish a degree of order and direction. Engaging the project team in this as soon as is possible is recommended. Your team members will feel valued and engaged, they are making a contribution to the plan and will align its success to their own. Your Team are a valuable asset, they may alert you to risks you are oblivious too or solutions you would never have thought of.

A project plan is likely to emerge over time, it may be that you plan only the immediate phase or stage in fine detail with subsequent stages allocated a proportionate window of time. “Time-boxing” your schedule is a recognised name for this approach.

Good planning is an art more than a science. Don’t get bogged down trying to mirror every piece of project minutia in a project schedule. As a rule of thumb; a project that takes months should have tasks that take days.

You might give tasks a “confidence factor” (low, medium, high) agreed with those involved to show how confident you all are in the estimated time. Those tasks with low confidence deserve closer attention from the team and the PM.

Remember – plan the work, then work the plan.

When planning there are 7 questions you should ask:

  1. What’s to be done?
  2. Why does it need to be done? When does it need to be done by?
  3. Who will do it?
  4. What will they need?
  5. What will it all cost?
  6. What happens IF?

These questions can serve to validate the need for the project and determine its scope and whether the timescales are realistic. Sometimes projects will have hidden as well as evident objectives, as the project manager you need to be aware of the true nature of the project as you will be its figurehead and representative during the project lifecycle. We can also identify resource requirements and the cost of delivering the project, does the business case still stack up once a more realistic budget derived from a detailed project plan exists?

The final question serves to focus us upon risk – any project will represent opportunity and with opportunity comes risk. We should consider things that COULD impact our project, most of our identified risks will never come to pass but that does not absolve us from considering their potential to occur and to impact on our project outcomes.

4) Establish a Progress Cycle

You must establish a regular progress cycle, often weekly or fortnightly. This is where the core project team sits down and review progress from the previous period, then set the course for the current period.

This progress meeting should be short & sharp and provide absolute clarity about who is responsible for what and the agreed deadlines.

I often recommend having this meeting standing up, possibly around the ‘project’ if your project relates to a physical entity. Meetings held standing up take half as much time like those where everyone sits down, eats biscuits and go off-topic.

The progress cycle provides momentum and structure to your project.

4) Communicate

Poor or ineffective communication is regularly cited as the most common cause of project failure. Despite it being an everyday activity communication is a complex subject with plenty of elements that if poorly considered could result in problems.

Factors that can undermine clear and concise communication can include:

  • Age of the participants in communication
  • Cultural Background
  • Educational Attainment
  • Experience
  • Seniority
  • Attitude
  • Environment
  • Medium

Can you consider any other factors that could impact on communication? As you can appreciate there is plenty that could go wrong. Add in the proliferation of both communication channels and the likelihood of documentation evolving over time and it can be easy for people to either not receive information or to be working with out-of-date information.

In order for communication to be successful, it needs to be planned just as much as the project schedule. Who will you be communicating with, in what format and with what frequency – all these considerations should form part of a communications plan.

You should also consider ways to ensure that information is distributed to the relevant recipients in a timely fashion. Maintaining a register of information distribution by its specifications, standards, designs or drawings as well as correspondence should ensure everyone is kept up to date and working with the right information.

5) Ensure Clear Task Ownership

Clarity of task ownership is everything. If you have a task that doesn’t have a defined deadline or a clear named owner, then it’s not going to happen. Ensure task owners accept responsibility for completion of the work within the deadline, to the right level of quality and of course cost.

Owners should be prepared to give updates on progress during the progress cycle meeting.

6) Monitor and Control

I deliberately combine these two steps as one because they should be a continuous discipline once your project is up and running. I have met quite a few people over the years who invest a lot of time and effort in producing a project plan to present to management in order to obtain “buy-in” for their project. Once approval is obtained the project plan has done its job, nothing could be further from the truth.

The project plan can be regarded as being like a map, we know where we are and where we want to be – the project plan sets out how we envisage getting to our destination. Would you embark upon an unfamiliar journey without some form of reference or guide?

Ideally, the project plan is maintained and updated to reflect progress so far and to provide a forecast to completion. Updating a plan can be regarded as burdensome but it is a good habit to acquire – “little and often” should be the mantra, if you defer updating the plan it can become a chore and you will also lose the facility to take corrective action sooner rather than later.

How are we doing and when will we be finished are questions that can be addressed by an updated project plan.

In addition, an updated plan can be a live document in which you can capture relevant information “at the time” – the facility to append notes to tasks or to connect documents to the project provide the project manager with a variety of ways to record and capture valuable information.

7) Review

The final step to success is the review process, comparing outcomes with what was planned and most importantly understanding the differences between what we planned and what actually happened.

To my mind, this step is almost as important as communication in terms of influencing project success. You may question how something at the very end can be so valuable and important. You may never have heard of Georges Santayana but I bet you have heard a phrase he coined.

If we do not learn from history we are condemned to repeat it.

How often do you find yourself in familiar but unpleasant circumstances muttering the time-honoured phrase, “if only…”

The review process gives us the opportunity to learn from experience and to apply that knowledge to future projects.

People frequently skip this most vital steps for one of the following 3 reasons.

  1. We are so busy making headway we don’t have time to look back.
  2. There was a plan but we never updated it so we have no meaningful data to use for analysis or comparisons.
  3. We all know the project was a disaster let’s just deny it ever happened.

None of these excuses is acceptable, project management is strongly focused on continuous improvement. To learn from experience we must be able to evaluate performance in a disciplined and consistent fashion. We can only do this if we have recorded reliable data to compare outcomes with estimates.

The review process can provide powerful insights into areas for improvement and equally areas where we are performing to a high standard, how can such good practise be employed elsewhere to benefit our organisation and how it performs. These and other questions can only be addressed if we spend the time to learn from our completed projects which in turn require us to have exercised the discipline of updating our projects with progress from beginning through to the end.

I hope that these 7 steps to success either validate your own approach, provide you with pointers for improvement or in extremis provide you with a framework upon which to build your future project success – happy planning!