December 9, 2013

Effective Project Management: Three Critical Activities

Having never managed a project, I was thrilled when the Executive Director asked if I wanted to be the project manager for the website initiative. As a team member, I had watched project managers explain a project and worked with them to determine the required work and assign tasks to individuals. I was accustomed to meeting weekly to discuss a project’s progress and resolve any issues and requested changes. Project management seemed easy and straightforward. What else did I need to know?

As soon as the project started, I was in trouble. Project management was definitely not as easy and straightforward as it seemed; in reality, planning and managing a project was hard work with many touch points. The Executive Director, board members, and volunteers expected me to have all of the answers to every question and know how to resolve every conflict. Because I was struggling, a few of the board members and volunteers started providing advice—including offering different tools and templates based on their project experience. One board member even donated a copy of Microsoft Project recommending I use the tool to plan and manage the project. I tried, but I found I was spending all my time trying to figure out how to use Microsoft Project. Forget about determining the required work. Meanwhile, my list of to-does just kept getting longer. Not only was I confused, I was frustrated and overwhelmed.

HELP! The Executive Director and I agreed—I needed assistance. We decided the best solution for our nonprofit was finding an experienced project manager whom I could call periodically, a person who could guide me, but not replace me. I called her “Coach.”

Coach listened patiently as I explained the dilemma and then started to ask questions. There were a number of the questions I could not answer, but she kept probing. Finally, Coach said “Set Microsoft Project aside, at least for now. Tools such as Microsoft Project and templates are enablers to assist a project manager and team but you need to understand a few basic concepts for the tool to be effective. All the advice you are receiving is making this project more complicated for you than it should be. Additionally, you should think about implementing processes and controls that are as simple as possible and ensure that what you are implementing fits your nonprofit’s culture. Simply put, you need to walk before you run.”

Coach went on to explain that anyone embarking on planning and managing a project for the first time should focus on three critical activities:

  1. Define the outcome: Start by defining the product, service, or result—the outcome—and understand the importance of the outcome to the nonprofit. Focus on understanding the wants, needs, and expectations of the project as well as exclusions. Document the project definition by writing it down. Think of the document as a contract because this is what the team is agreeing to deliver—it is the reference document explaining the project’s goal, requirements, and acceptance criteria. Different nonprofits call the project definition different names such as a project charter, scope document, or project initiation document. Do not get hung up on the name of the document, rather, focus on its’ content.
  2. Plan what needs to done to accomplish the outcome: Use the project definition as the starting point for creating a plan to create the outcome—the deliverable or result. Some nonprofits hear the word plan and immediately think of a formal document that takes forever to create or think they must use a project-planning tool such as Microsoft Project, a tool no one may know how to use. As a result, the nonprofit skips this step and “wings it” hoping the project is successful. People forget a plan is a method or an approach for doing something; it can be recorded as an excel spreadsheet, a flip chart with a flowchart, or a diagram with notes. It is as formal or informal as needed by the project and the nonprofit. Creating a plan is not hard but it does take time to create a realistic plan that outlines the project work (scope), determines the schedule (time), and budget (cost). It is not uncommon to overlook potential work or over- or underestimated the amount of time required to complete a task, particularly when team members have dual responsibilities or some of the team members are volunteers. No plan is perfect and plans change all the time.
  3. Work the plan: Execute the plan by monitoring and controlling the work with the aid of a “status report.” Working the plan means focusing on the work required for a particular task and striving to complete the task by the planned date (on-time) at the planned cost (on-budget.) Adjust the plan as appropriate. How formal or informal the monitoring and controlling is depends on the nonprofit’s culture as well as the project culture. The “status report” is a tool that assists with the monitoring and controlling. Although the status report should be a formal written document, it needs to fit with the culture and it should not be an administrative burden. It is a working document supporting the project manager and team. The status report could be as simple as notes on the plan documents. What is important is the team communicates and collaborates. They work together to complete the work, resolve issues, identify potential risks, and address change requests.

The more we talked, the more I came to understand there is not one right way to plan and manage a project. I recognized that I would make mistakes and it is acceptable to say “I don’t know.” I learned that not all the tools and templates people recommend are right for every project. The most important thing—I understood and appreciated the fact that managing a project is not as easy as it appears. There will be obstacles and challenges but if I focused on three critical activities and ensured the processes and controls fit the nonprofit’s culture, the likelihood for project success improved.

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Laura Dallas Burford, MA, PMP
Laura Burford has domestic and international project management experience, working with organizations of various sizes, industries, and organizational structures. This includes experience with big four consulting organizations; as a managing director at a start-up international technology consulting organization; and currently as the owner of LAD Enterprizes, a management and information technology company. Laura has presented business, technical, and project management seminars, written articles for trade magazines, and worked with Millersville University’s Nonprofit Resources Network (NRN), and the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF) to create a project management seminar. She is the author of Project Management for Flat Organizations (2012, J. Ross Publishing, Inc.), a Winner of the 2013 Small Business Book Awards. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.