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Key Project Management Skills – Six Steps to Avoid the Pitfalls of Major Projects (Large or Small)

Major governmental projects such as HS2 always seem to be hitting the headlines thanks to fears of budget and time overruns. This summer the National Audit Office (NAO) published advice on how to manage the risk of spiralling costs in large projects, based on its own learning.

However, it’s not just national initiatives budgeted in their millions that should be considered as major projects. For an SME, a major project can be much smaller in financial terms but still have a potentially greater impact on business both during and after its implementation – so budget shouldn’t be confused with project scale.

Where can projects go wrong?

According to UK Construction Online, the Scottish Parliament building is a “colossal” example of a project that went far beyond its expected budget, with costs rising from predictions of “as little as £10 million” to an eventual total of £414 million – one of the greatest cost overruns in the global construction industry.

The project did of course face some unusual challenges that hopefully most small business owners or indeed project management professionals won’t come up against – including the death of both the architect and the project’s chief political champion, the resignation of two project managers, and delays caused by a major dispute over the historic preservation of a property on the site.

However, UK Construction Online also states that in the three years to 2015, fewer than one in three projects came within 10 percent of their original plan, showing that all projects must face at least some challenges – some of which are down to the inaction of managers and other members of the workforce or ineffective time management.

These can include the lack of a solid foundation for the work – when project managers fail to create a proper costed plan or fail to adhere to recognised cost management principles, there is a risk of mistakes, disputes and confusion. These issues are faced by effective project managers across all industries, not just construction, and in projects of all types, be they a change to internal infrastructure such as IT equipment, introduction of a new product or service, a business expansion or a company rebranding.

Six steps to better project management

There are a number of elements that all successful project managers should focus on, no matter how large or small the project:

  1.   Agree what it is you’re trying to do – everyone involved including senior managers should sign off on the scope of what you want to achieve and why. Be clear about who is responsible for each element of the project and the overall delivery. Beware project ‘creep’ – once work is underway it may be tempting for you or your senior managers to tag on additional tasks as you go, but this will draw resource away from the original plan and potentially jeopardise your project success.
  2.   Confirm the resources you have – whether that’s staffing, office space, time, equipment, money etc. Check whether the team members involved will be dedicated to the project or whether they will be answerable to more than one leader. Remember to work in some slack to cover for unexpected issues such as staff sickness or severe weather – basically anything that could interfere with your plans – and also to cover for the usual business disruptions such as bank holidays. Remember that you may need to balance the requirements of budget and timings, for example if you start to run behind, you might have to weigh up whether meeting your deadlines is more important than the budget if you need to bring in extra staff with the required technical skills to deliver on time.
  3.   Consider the pressure points for your staff – there may be times when your existing key skill staff struggle to deliver on the day job while the project is in progress. For example if you need to run a staff or public consultation you may want to look at outside support for your communications and call handling teams so they can focus on the engagement, or if you need to take on a number of additional staff you may want to look at outsourcing some part of your HR or recruitment function. Taking on external support in this way will mean your experienced staff can focus where they are needed most – focusing entirely on either the project itself or keeping the day-to-day work going.
  4.   Involve your team – a good project manager should respect and draw on the technical expertise of their team. Use your soft skills – being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean telling people what to do and how to do it, it can also mean asking your experts the best way to do something and facilitating their skill set to deliver. Make sure your project team is involved in the development of the plan and that they sign up to it – and make sure you have senior management buy-in too. Managed project plans can be challenging but they should never be unrealistic or you’ll soon run into problems.
  5.   Consider any interlinking risks – risk management is and essential skill and a project plan should map out all the key work and when it needs to be done by, recognising interlinked elements and critical paths. There are many types of project management software you can use to help with this. If your plan involves a supply chain in any way (and it probably will) make sure to have early conversations with suppliers before you set dates, to ensure they can fulfil your requirements.
  1. Keep your eye on progress – monitor the plan as you go so you can address any issues before they become problems. For example, you may need to reassign resources or tweak deadlines to keep the project on track overall. Get regular performance updates to ensure teams are delivering to time, budget and quality management principles. Don’t hold meetings unnecessarily (no one wants to sit around a table just listening to other people’s updates) communication skills are important though so make sure you log and communicate clearly any changes to the project scheduling so everyone is always on the same page, and you have the learning recorded for any future projects.

Check out the free online resources

A quick Google search will reveal a wealth of advice on the best way to manage a large project. The Association for Project Management has published a body of knowledge that allows users to explore essential areas of project management, including:

  • Context: Covering governance (the procedural and cultural aspects that need to be in place) and setting (the broad organisational factors that are outside the boundaries of the project but that have a significant impact upon the way the work is approached and carried out).
  • People: Including the skills project managers need to motivate and coordinate people to achieve specified objectives, and a section on professionalism, describing aspects of developing and maintaining a professional approach at the individual, organisational and institutional level.
  • Delivery: Focusing on outputs, outcomes and benefits. This covers project scoping, scheduling, financing, risk, quality and resources.
  • Interfaces: Where project managers need to have an understanding of how disciplines such as law, accounting and HR management impact upon their work.

The NAO has also published the framework it uses to review major projects, and the questions it asks can be helpful indicators as to what should be in place in the first place.

Project management will always be a journey involving a delicate balance of resource available and cost versus the expected outcome and benefits, but by gaining and retaining the support of the teams involved by protecting their time and providing extra resource as needed to ensure expectations remain realistic – whether from within the company or by outsourcing – you stand the best chance of achieving success.