Thinking back as far as high school, I was never a fan of “group projects.” I’m a Type A perfectionist with what my friend Emily lovingly refers to as “control strengths.”
In college I would volunteer to write an entire paper on my own rather than relying on a group to help get the job done right. Sometimes I would end up rewriting an entire section of a paper or adding quite a bit to ensure the paper hit all the marks.
But, by the time I hit my senior year, I was incredibly frustrated by the missed deadlines and poorly written work that would occur when someone was coasting in a project or lacked attention to detail. The final straw was when a classmate added a single run-on paragraph to our group’s communications plan in a senior PR capstone class. I was done picking up the pieces. I sent the paper on to the professor with a note about who produced each section, not bothering to write the pages of research we needed for his section of the paper.
Fortunately, I’ve found “group” projects to be a much smoother experience in the workplace, where team members collaborate, meet deadlines and assign parts of the project based on strengths and workloads. I can confidently say I’ve never experienced group project disasters like I did in high school or college.
Over the past few years, I’ve mentored college students and am reminded of the groupwork struggle. It has made me realize we’re failing to teach most college students a critical career skill: Project management.
The most important part of a successful project isn’t the creative strategy or the final product printed on slick paper. It’s project management. Without project management, entire campaigns can crumble.
Even if you don’t have “project manager” in your official job title, you are very likely a project manager at some level. Whether you’re a student working on a group presentation or a young professional pulling together an event, you might:
- Serve as the liaison between the client and the team
- Set expectations and deadlines
- Plan checkpoints to ensure project progresses
- Hold team members accountable for their deliverables
- Organize meetings, agendas, information and notes
- Pull together various elements of the project into one file or document
- Ensure the full project is delivered by the deadline
- Oversee both the big picture and day-to-day tasks of the project
Whether you’re officially managing a project or simply helping implement a piece of a campaign, here are five tips to help ensure you master project management.
1. Start with a plan
Before you get started, you need a roadmap. To begin planning your project you must understand the scope including the goals, audience, product, budget, timeline, sequencing and approvals that will bring the project together.
Sometimes, as you develop a plan, you hit roadblocks or uncover new questions. This helps you anticipate potential issues, investigate alternative options, and gets stakeholders to clarify what they really want.
At this point in the project planning process, it is also important to set basic expectations for the team, such as expected response time to emails and text messages, who will take notes during meetings and who will send follow-ups to the entire group as needed.
2. Develop a realistic timeline
After working through your goals and the strategies and tactics you’ll need to meet them, it’s important to work backward from the final date the project needs completed. What actions need to be taken to get there? How long will approvals take? How much time do you need to set aside for elements that could cause you to miss a deadline, such as printing or mailing?
The most important thing to remember in this phase: Underpromise, over-deliver.
There’s no excuse to miss deadlines and no reason to pull an all-nighter if you plan ahead. With your timeline laid out in front of you, you will know your deadlines well in advance and should be well equipped to prepare for them.
Your timeline can be created in a shared Google Doc calendar or you can use a more sophisticated tool, like Asana (my personal favorite).
3. Expect the unexpected
As you work through the project’s tactics and the approvals, it might feel like there is nothing left to do but sit back and wait for Murphy’s Law to take over.
All projects experience bumps in the road. Throughout the planning process, you have already anticipated the potential problems that could arise and built in extra padding in your timeline. If a problem pops up, take a moment, breathe and work through solutions with your team.
4. Follow up and follow through
First, know you will likely have to follow up with people — sometimes several times — to get things done. For example, you may need to follow up to:
- Set up a meeting, phone call or Zoom
- Ask for a review or approval on a document
- Have a colleague complete a key part of the project
- Check in with a vendor
- Make sure a deadline isn’t missed
As a project manager, it can be frustrating because it feels as if the success of the project falls on your shoulders. However, this project may not be a top priority or top-of-mind for some others who are involved. In most cases, people will appreciate your persistence in making sure the project gets done.
Second, always follow through. There have been many times a person has committed to sending an agenda, a document or other materials during a meeting, and days go by without the item hitting my inbox. Committing to an action without following through erodes trust and credibility. Keep track of what you commit to do before, during and after meetings, and always follow through.
5. Execute a project post-mortem
So much learning occurs when you reflect on your successes and failures. After the project is complete, reflect on how you could have better planned ahead, solved problems, minimized miscommunications and managed a more successful project.
Learn more about project management as a Patron
This month I’ll be uploading a video workshop about project management on Patreon. It will only be available to patrons at the Curious, Fearless and Fierce levels.
A special thank you to CMU student Rachel Bednarz for helping draft this post when she was volunteering with Venturesome through a class project. She definitely had to follow up with me several times to get projects done!