Project Management - I was just assigned my first project... now what

For things to happen spontaneously they need to be planned well in advance. Terry Quanborough
Terry Quanborough

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Congratulations on your assignment. At this stage you are possibly overwhelmed after the initial adrenalin rush. There is so much to consider and this article provides a few prompts to ensure that you start on the right track and get some traction!

Get a Mentor/Coach

Do not be too proud to ask for guidance. Request a more senior project manager, who has a good reputation, to be your mentor and when they agree use them as a sounding board throughout the project life cycle.

Project Announcement

Does anyone else in your organisation know that you have been assigned this project? If you came from a technical background, do they know that you are now the project manager and not the technical person? Will everyone be cooperative? Will stakeholders make themselves available to you?

Get this project announced via a project charter or mandate and if your sponsor does not know how to write one, then write it for them to distribute. It gives you the opportunity to position the project your way and should always include high-level project background, justification, deliverables, assumptions, constraints, predicted timescale and budget expectations... although detailed planning is yet to be yet done.

The Charter should also announce you, your terms of reference, authority level, escalation path, etc. If an Account Manager or Business Relationship Manager is assigned to your internal or external client, it is worthwhile to ensure that the Charter states that you manage the project and all project-level decisions. This may stop interference!

The Charter will open doors as you conduct the project.

Governance

If you don’t have a Sponsor or Project Steering Committee (PSC), get one set up and use your mentor to assist.

Ensure you have access to your Sponsor and your PSC otherwise you have a recipe for disaster. In some cases, the tyranny of distance does not allow, but perhaps you need a Sponsor and PSC in closer proximity. It may be ‘career limiting’ to suggest changes but you could give it a try, depending upon your specific organisation environment and politics.

Are the PSC members likely to be aloof or are you able to socialise with them individually e.g. coffee, lunch? Try this and you may be surprised at the reaction. It is also a way of qualifying them as stakeholders and their support for the project and you! It is another reason to get ‘in their face’ on certain project issues.

Formally or informally get yourself on the PSC rather than just the person reporting to them. Remember the middle word is 'steerings and they should be assisting you steer the project to a successful completion. You are all in this together!

Ensure the PSC know their roles and responsibilities as members and if they do not, then either you define them or get your sponsor/mentor to define them. When you write your Project Plan, ensure that the project hierarchy has PSC at the top. This stops any question of PM ego but also highlights that the PSC have a significant project role to play.

If the PSC fail to meet or they cancel meetings, this should be escalated whilst recognising that the Sponsor may be complicit. If you have a Project Management Office (PMO), why not get them to deal with this violation of agreed quality assurance and project compliance?

Build your knowledge

Many project managers stumble headlong into their projects without detailed background reading. Ask what documents exist and get them all; e.g. Business Case, Proposal, Contract, High-Level Requirements and Estimates, Estimating Package. This will help you get a rough idea of the risks and help identify the stakeholders, in conjunction with your sponsor. It is good practice to ask how the project budget and project duration were derived. At this point don’t get demoralised as you may feel you are in ‘information overload.’ Use the latest edition of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), as a framework guide to remind you on what to consider within the various process groups.

If you are not trained in the project methodology that you must use on this project, then you must get trained. Remember that the PMBOK® Guide is a Project Management Framework and not a methodology.

Stakeholders Management

Projects consist of people, processes and other items such as technology. All are important but people are the major factor that can contribute to project success or failure; thus, identifying your stakeholders and determining communications with them is vital to your image, effectiveness and on-going stakeholder perception of you and your project. Get this wrong and it’s all uphill.

Setting and managing stakeholders' expectations is a critical item. Remember that stakeholders may include clients (internal or external), the sponsor and steering committee, your direct management, functional/resource managers, project team, vendors and regulatory authorities. A good tip is to add family and friends to your stakeholder list as a reminder to maintain a balanced work/social life as a tired project manager is usually ineffective.

Do not forget to think about stakeholders who may be involved after your projects transition into a production/working environment. These may include business continuity, disaster recovery, operations, help desk, maintenance and support, as these are also people who must be engaged early in your project planning. Communicate and engage with them to ensure smooth transition and not the ‘we did not know this project existed’ syndrome where obstacles are then placed in your way.

Develop a stakeholder list (register) and analyse each stakeholder in terms of their expectations, concerns and influences. You can then plan and document your stakeholder management strategies for each stakeholder. Due to the delicate nature of this document it is recommended that it be kept relatively confidential.

Develop a communication plan (separate document or part of project plan) and talk with stakeholders about their preferred communications (level, frequency, media etc.). Plan meetings in advance (agendas) and do not leave out any stakeholders otherwise they may go feral! If you have committed to do things for stakeholders, follow through in a professional and timely manner, e.g. minutes, documents, general information.

Ensure that the various stakeholders also know their roles and responsibilities to the project.

Ensure that all stakeholders understand the Change Control process and its benefits to the project.

Give no surprises to stakeholders, but bad news is okay and should not be censored by you or others. A good project manager will have discussed (conditioned) stakeholders prior to documenting issues and problems to them. It is dangerous to send Project Status Reports by email if there is anything contentious or that may be misconstrued!

Where possible, why not consider printing the Status Report and personally delivering it and explain any items that may cause them concern? This shows professionalism and gives you another reason for meeting PSC members. "Oh, I nearly forgot, while I’m here, will you give me support on this issue at the next meeting?"

If you have a virtual team, you must attempt to get everyone to attend the kick-off meeting. Although this may cost the project; they get to meet each other, the sponsor, you and other stakeholders. Failure to do this may cost the project a lot more in the long run, due to lack of perceived identity, ownership, urgency and management.

Keep your project team informed and give them a copy of your Status Report that will be sent to PSC. If time permits you may let them proof read it before you officially publish.

Do not cancel project team meetings unless absolutely necessary as it is vital to maintain vision, focus, teaming, momentum and to portray urgency throughout the project.

Planning

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail and this should not be an option, otherwise your project management career may be very short!

If you make assumptions during planning, document them e.g. "Project approvals and sign-offs will be given by the PSC within a maximum of 5 working days and this will be scheduled into the project. Any overrun will be treated as a change."

If you have a 12-month project try and have at least 12 milestones as clients, management and your team will see regular success (deliverables) resulting in a motivated project environment. If necessary ‘manufacture’ some milestones and don’t forget to celebrate some of the main milestone achievements.

If your project team is identified or in place before planning commences, get them involved in the planning process e.g. Work Breakdown Structure, Estimating, Risk Management, and Project Team Ground Rules.

Are there checklists within your organisation that are available to assist you? e.g. Project Set-Up, Risk Identification

Determine and obtain approval of deliverables acceptance criteria upfront... do not leave it until testing or commissioning as it is far too late.

If you have a Quality Department or a PMO who will audit/review your project, engage with them early and then throughout the project life cycle.

Will you approve timesheets and invoices prior to the costs hitting your project? If not, how can you be held responsible for the budget if you have no control? Get this fixed. If you are not in control of this, who is?

Peer Review

Now that you are a Project Manager do not be too proud to get peers (PM’s and others) to check your work e.g. plans before you submit for approval. Peers will give you objective feedback that will improve the quality of your submission and improve the chances of prompt approval.

If a ‘value-add’ Project Management Office (PMO) exists, use their review services.

General Guidelines

  • Do not panic but maintain a sense of urgency at all times
  • Do not be afraid to spend more time upfront in planning, as you will reap the rewards later
  • Ensure you have a rigorous Change Control process. No ‘freebies’ to be nice!
  • When scheduling, ensure you:
    • estimate honestly (not just to fit a forced unrealistic end date)
    • know the difference between effort and duration
    • consider learning curves in your time estimates
    • determine whether a ‘productivity/efficiency factor’ is used i.e. we are not necessarily project productive 100% of the time we are at work e.g. reading email, departmental meetings, general interruptions, unplanned phone calls, reorganisations, office move, downsize announcements etc.
    • consider contingency in both your time and cost estimates plus the analysed risks within the risk register
    • determine and understand the critical path within the schedule
  • Review your stakeholder analysis and risk register regularly
  • Keep on the front foot and look for potential problems and take preventive actions (Proactive v Reactive)
  • Stay close to your stakeholders (Remember that a quiet stakeholder is not always a happy stakeholder, be they clients, management, project team, suppliers or business users)
  • At all times protect your project team
  • Communicate openly and honestly with your project team and listen to their ideas
  • Always be positive and supportive in front of project team members as negative vibes from you will manifest itself in lower morale and reduced project performance
  • Manage and develop your project team and ensure they will accept negative as well as positive feedback
  • Ask your project team for feedback on how you are doing and when you make mistakes, be professional and admit it – remember that "people who do not make mistakes do nothing!"
  • Focus on a deliverables mindset and not activity
  • Do not become a control freak as this shows distrust of your project team, but your team should be aware of project status and how their work and delayed tasks impact the overall project
  • Do not ‘bend the truth’ to your team e.g. telling them you have allowed 4 days for the activity when you have actually allowed 5 days. At the kick-off meeting attended by project team, sponsor and functional managers you stated how the team ground rules included honesty openness and integrity and these are documented!
  • Celebrate milestones
  • View your Status Report (weekly or monthly) as a powerful tool not as a chore, and ensure that it is delivered on time and is accurate and complete
  • Add the names of Sponsor and PSC to your monthly report plus ‘date of last PSC meeting’ as this may ensure they meet as per agreed policy or project agreement
  • If you have a PMO use them as a support structure that can add value to your project
  • Do not be accessible 24 × 7 as you need your down time in order to be effective
  • Projects can be stressful; take time out for personal pastimes e.g. family, sport, music

Close

Activities include but are not limited to documenting lessons learned, handing over the project to the operational owner, archiving project records, providing team performance feedback, disbanding the project team, celebrating etc.

Remember that for things to happen spontaneously they need to be planned well in advance!

Good luck and “may the force be with you”. It is time!

PMBOK is the registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

First published . Last updated 11/04/2019. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Terry Quanborough

Terry Quanborough has worked in the Information Technology industry for over 30 years, initially based in England, then New Zealand and Australia.

He has held Senior Executive positions in global Professional and Consulting Services organisations, with primary focus on Systems Integration and Program / Project Management including project governance. His career has included 25 years with major multinational IT corporations such as Digital Equipment Corporation and Compaq Computer Corporation, where he held several senior positions within the Asia Pacific Executive Team.

Terry has undertaken business assignments in most countries within Asia plus Mauritius, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and UK.

He was Asia Pacific Director, Program Management Office for a multi-national organisation with specific responsibility for the strategy and health of the project portfolio across the region, plus project management competency and the project methods, processes, standards and tools. He was also the custodian/co-developer of the methodology and the project management training and development program. In addition, he drove the PMI® certification program for program and project managers and introduced the concept, then managed and delivered Project Management Universities across Asia Pacific. This model was subsequently rolled out on a worldwide basis.

Prior to that role, Terry was Manager, Australia Professional Services, a Project and Consulting Practice with a large base of client-facing project managers and consultants deployed throughout Australia. He was responsible for revenue, margin and client satisfaction.

Terry is a speaker at international project management conferences and seminars, and has written several Project Management related papers. He is a founder member of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) Sydney Chapter and served as a Board Director for 5 years and is a recipient of the PMI® Australia Chapters' “Distinguished Contribution Award”.

On a voluntary basis, Terry participates as leader or on-site visit team member for the PMI® Global Accreditation Centre for Project Management (GAC). The GAC supports the accreditation of University project management programs on a world-wide basis.

Terry specialises in Project Management and Consulting Services that include Project Reviews & Governance and also Program / Project Offices set-up and/or review with associated processes, methods and governance structures, sometimes using a build-operate-transfer model. He also conducts both public and in-house project management training programs.

Education and Professional Affiliations

  • Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI) - United Kingdom
  • Graduate of the Melbourne Business School Executive Program, University of Melbourne, Australia
  • Graduate Diploma in Management Studies (DMS), Nottingham Trent University, England
  • Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI®)
  • Certified Project Management Professional (PMP®)
  • Diploma in Project Management (BSB51407)
  • Chartered Member of the British Computer Society – The Chartered Institute for IT (MBCS)
  • Chartered IT Professional (CITP)
  • IT Professionals New Zealand (MITP)

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