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Think Like A Project Manager

Friday, February 25, 2011
Get More Done In Less Time With Fewer Hassles

By Kim O’Connor

Most home-based businesses are long on projects and short on project managers. The good news is that the basics of effective project management are simple and intuitive, and they can be applied to almost any project, regardless of size or scope.

Take it from Michelle LaBrosse, owner of Cheetah Learning, a project management training company that works with professionals across industries. In 2006, she was named one of the most influential women in her industry by the Project Management Institute for her mission of bringing project management to the masses.

“A project is a project is a project,” she says. “We see project management as a fundamental life skill like balancing your checkbook.”

Elizabeth Harrin, author of “Project Management in the Real World,” (British Informatics Society Ltd, 2007) takes a similar view. “If you’ve organized your wedding, a big vacation, a sports tournament for a group of friends or a school project—you’ve done project management,” she says.

Whether you’re working on a project for yourself or for a client, thinking like a project manager will boost your efficiency and your business. Here’s how.

Set Specific Goals

Many projects never get off the ground because they’re shapeless and vague. Successful projects need to be contained and defined. There is a big difference between, say, the desire to streamline your shipping process and the goal of making it 20 percent faster in three months. The first is a wish; the second is a project.

“A project has a start, a middle and an end,” says Harrin.

You need to work toward a specific outcome within a defined time frame. Without that end game, the project loses all sense of urgency, which makes it difficult to build momentum. Day-to-day business will eat your time and absorb all your attention if you let it.

If your clients are the ones who don’t have specific goals in mind, take the time to help them get clear. Setting specific goals will make sure you’re on the same page.

“Improve our website,” for example, is a project, but the goal is fuzzy and subjective. Your opinion of how to go about that improvement—and how much time it will take—might differ from what your client has in mind.

Find The Project’s Beating Heart

Most projects have three main constraints: cost, time and scope. Early on, you need to pinpoint which of these things is most essential to the project at hand. Whether it’s a deadline, the bottom line or quality, there will always be one priority that is closest to your (or your client’s) heart.

“Knowing what each client really cares about [Timeline? Staying on budget? Good work at all costs?] is helpful,” says Tiffani Jones, a former project manager who now runs a Web design agency, Things That Are Brown, and a content strategy business, Second and Park.

Finding the heart of the project will help you make tough decisions across the life of the project. Sacrifice and compromise are easier when they’re in the name of something important.

Break It Down

A big project is really a collection of many smaller projects. Like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, each one is nested inside another. As a project manager, your job is to create a master to-do list that drills down to the smallest doll.

LaBrosse identifies this as the part of project management that small-business owners struggle with most.

“You have your big vision, but you’ve got to do the everyday block and tackle,” she says. “You’ve got to do little things every single day that get you toward your goal. You’ve got to move yourself down the yard line.”

The trick is to transform your project into manageable tasks that you can cross off one by one.

“Make a list of everything that you need to do to get the project done, then break each bit down into smaller chunks until you have a really detailed list,” Harrin advises. “Slap on some dates and voilà! A project plan.”

Make A Plan

Once you have that master task list, it’s time to get everything on the calendar. Project managers know how to craft workflow schedules and charts that look like works of art, but your project plan doesn’t have to be fancy.

LaBrosse, who favors sticky notes to charts, says the most important step in creating a project plan is consulting other people.

“When you have a group that’s doing a project and you work together on creating the project plan, they own it,” she says.

That kind of buy in is invaluable as you try to keep everyone on task.

Harrin agrees. “The most common mistake project managers make is not talking to enough people. We call this stakeholder management. Even in a small business, there are plenty of people who need to be involved, like suppliers, the bank and your family.”

As you collect information, make a note of any important drivers within the schedule. Will someone be on vacation during the month of August? Does the printer need copy by a certain date? That way, if you need to fiddle with the schedule later, you’re less likely to make a mistake.

Weigh Changes Carefully


The real art of project management is staying flexible enough to roll with the punches of an evolving project while staying on task.

“If you are too flexible and make a lot of changes, there’s a chance that you’ll never get finished,” Harrin says. “Equally, if you are inflexible, you’ll end up with something that doesn’t do quite what you want. Change management is about assessing the impact of each change—the costs, benefits and time—and working it out if it is worth the effort.”

She also notes that changes become more difficult to implement as a project progresses.

“If you are going to change things, do it early on,” she says. “You can’t change the foundations once the roof is going on.”

Use Common Sense


LaBrosse also recommends being honest with yourself about your own preferences and capabilities.

“People really need to understand themselves to become more effective in project management,” she explains. “Everybody has innate strengths and challenges doing project management. The best thing to do is to find out how to amplify your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.”

In an era when there’s an electronic solution for everything, it’s easy to forget about good old-fashioned people skills.

“We put a man on the moon without Microsoft Project,” LaBrosse says. “So many people get hung up on the project tools that they forget common sense. One of the biggest things that derails projects is not a lack of tools; it’s bad interpersonal dynamics.”

Jones agrees that a levelheaded approach is key.

“In my business, common sense and paying attention to the big picture has trumped staunch principles every time,” she says.

If you follow your head, your heart and your plan, you’ll be crossing projects off your list in no time.


Kim O’Connor
is a freelance writer who prefers starting projects to finishing them.

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