Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

December 12, 2006 |

A few months ago I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that I was pretty good at managing projects. Most of the projects that I manage come in on-time, on- or under-budget and with relatively few problems. More importantly the projects I manage usually leave everyone involved happy and feeling like they'd accomplished something. Now, don't get me wrong, I've been managing projects for years and it's not always been like that. I used to really hate managing projects, probably because I didn't really know how and I made project management into something much more complicated than it is.


My approach, while tailored to the kind of projects I work on; design for Web, mobile, interaction, etc. should work for just about any project. Now I realize that there are projects out there that require a much more complicated level of planning, documentation and the like, but my guess is that even those could benefit from the simple and elegant project management methodology I like to use.

So, if you've got a few minutes, read on and hopefully I'll give you a thought or two that'll help you manage your projects better and easier.

It's not as hard or complicated as you think

The first thing you should know about project management is that it doesn't need to be complicated. Don't be fooled by thick books or year long certification courses. The basics of project management—the important stuff—is pretty easy and mostly common sense.

Look at what you need to do. Break it down. As a project manager you're probably not going to have to do all the work yourself. You just need to make sure that it gets done, is done right, is done on time, etc. What are the tools you need to do that? A proper plan, good people, clear expectations, good communication, a timeframe, deadlines, a budget, etc. If you really take the time to look at it all, you'll likely see that with a little thought it's pretty manageable. Whatever you do, don't go making a mountain out of a mole hill.

I think one of the biggest problems with many project managers is that they over complicate things or they force you into an overly ridged or complicated process. This makes everyone's job harder. The idea is to work on the project, not for the project.

Kicking off

Kick off each project right and get off on the good foot. What I like to do first is make sure I fully understand the project. I learn everything I can, even the things that don't seem relevant. I've actually got a checklist of sorts that I go through, before I get going on a project.

  • What are the project's goals?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Is there a hard deadline?
  • What are roles?
  • Have expectations be clearly set for everyone involved?
  • etc.

The list can differ from project to project. The idea is to gather, then disseminate, as much information as possible. Don't be stingy with information. Make sure that everyone knows what's expected of them before you start working. Setting (and resetting as the situation calls for it) expectations is key and should be clearly done at the beginning of the project. I don't know how many times I've seen a project go off the deep end because someone didn't understand their role on the project. That should never happen. If someone doesn't know what they're doing they should feel like they can ask before the project gets going. It's a good idea to check in with everyone involved to make sure they're all clear on what's going on.

Clear documentation

Always make sure the initial goals, requirements, scope, etc. of your project is clearly documented. We use a detailed job order that we have our clients sign-off on. We treat this as The Bible as far as the project goes. If it's not in the job order when we start, we don't do it without an adjustment in scope, schedule, etc. We insist that everyone involved read and fully understand this document before we begin. It's made a huge difference in the success rates of the projects I've worked on.

Schedule, tasks and milestones

At the start of your project you'll likely create a schedule. I've found it's best if you stick to the high-level milestones and let those working on the project get into granular details. The reasoning behind that is twofold:

  1. Everyone works differently. Let your teammates use their preferred working styles to manage their tasks.
  2. It builds trust and facilitates communication. By holding your teammates responsible only for high-level milestones you're putting the trust in them to do their part, as well, if they're unclear about what's expected of them they'll have a hard time working out their own tasks and likely need to talk to you about it, potentially eliminating problems.

Be sure and clearly state any deadlines that could become bottlenecks. For example, let your clients know that if they miss an approval you'll be sliding the schedule out. Do that right at the beginning and clearly reset expectations any time there is a change in scope or schedule. Also, always remember that a deadline is not a guideline. If you set the example by hitting your deadlines, chances are everyone else will follow.


Being a good, clear and consistent communicator is the one thing that will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to project management. Give weekly updates and make sure everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing at all times. Make yourself available for questions and concerns. By simply taking the time to communicate well and on a regular basis you've won half the battle.

It's surprising how much a quick status e-mail once a week can do to keep a project on track. As well, I've found being honest about problems, missed deadlines, expectations, etc. can go a long way to keeping everyone on track. Don't hide anything, even if it's embarrassing. No one if perfect and it's best to keep things out in the open. People are forgiving if you're honest and hiding things can cause more problems.

A good process and change management

Just about every project changes along the way. You could have a great process that everyone buys into and realize somewhere along the way you forgot to think about something. Or the scope could change, or the project could go on hold resulting in re-work, etc. These things will happen and it's important to be able to deal with them when they do. As I mentioned earlier, we document our project's scope thoroughly before we begin and feel that's very important. However, we also try to be flexible and able to deal with change easily.

When a client asks for something outside the scope of the original job order we be sure to assess how it will effect the project overall and then communicate the new expectation. We always as the client for a written sign-off on any major changes, but we try and make it as painless as possible. Obviously this can vary greatly depending on the specifics, the idea is to try and be flexible while covering your ass. ;0)

Having a solid yet flexible process is key.

Make your tools work for you

When it comes to PM tools I've found the easier to use the better, and trust me, I've used many, many tools in my career. The wrong tools can result in you spending more time managing your tools than you do managing your project. Here's my essential PM toolbox:

  • Basecamp. I use Basecamp for messaging (collaboration, sign-off, etc.), file sharing, and keeping track of high-level milestones. It's not perfect, but it does almost everything I need it to and it's easy to use.
  • Harvest. Harvest is an online time tracking tool. I use it to keep track of budget, which for my projects is almost exclusive to billable hours. For expenses I use a simple spreadsheet.
  • E-mail and chat. I do all important messaging in Basecamp as it's easier to keep a record there, but I do use e-mail for reminders and such.

All of these tools are simple and easy enough to use that I've never had a problem getting a team-member (client or otherwise) up to speed with them with little effort. Hard to use or cumbersome tools can become a real hassle and time spent mucking with them can actual derail a project. Keep it easy and find what works for you and your teams.

To sum up

If I were to boil it down to some quick and easy tips, I'd go with:

  • Don't make it harder than it is
  • Kick off strong and with clear documentation
  • Stick to the high-level
  • Always make sure expectations are set and understood
  • Trust people to do their jobs
  • Be a great communicator at all times
  • Have a solid yet flexible process
  • Use tools that work for you, not the other way around

That's pretty much it.

Over the years I've learned to take what works and lose what doesn't. This has left me with a surprisingly simple and easy to learn group of tricks, tips and methods related to project management that work better than anything I've read in a book or learned from a "real" project manager. Project management doesn't have to be complicated or time consuming, in fact I'm arguing that it's better if it's not.


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