Getting Started with Project Management
In 2013, Moz learned the hard way what can happen when a project gets derailed. The project, Moz Analytics, was rushed, full of bugs, unpopular with customers, and delivered two years late. If that wasn’t bad enough, the project stalled development on core products, causing Moz to lose customers to competitors.
After the fact, Rand Fishkin, Moz’s founder, attempted to determine what went wrong. It turns out the project was understaffed, the due dates were wildly optimistic, and engineers were forced to follow a “big bang” release style directed towards a single launch with no measures to check progress along the way.
“It’s sad because [this style] actually worked a number of times, before we fell flat on our faces,” Fishkin wrote as a word of advice to fellow startup founders. “Don’t be like us – use agile development, have lots of visibility into progress, and keep your team accountable to each other.”
Over half of big business projects fail. This is not because of lack of resources or ambition. It’s due to mismanagement. Even the best intentions need the support of strategy and planning, and a manager who knows how to meet the needs of team members.
If you’re here, you’re probably new to project management or looking to refresh your knowledge of the basics. By gaining an understanding of how project management works, you can avoid the pitfalls of mismanagement and start your team on a happy and productive path.
The three main angles of project management
The need for project management arises when a company decides to undertake a work project outside of normal operations that has limited resources devoted to it. A project can be anything from launching a new product, to overhauling an internal process, to digging into a new marketing channel.
These projects require input from various sources and take a significant amount of time and coordination. At the same time, a project is expected to produce tangible results, such as a boost in revenue or a new software feature that customers can’t live without.
While there are many ways to think about project management, from company size, to type of project, to methods such as Agile and PERT, all project managers have the same basic responsibilities.
Project management can be examined from three main aspects*:
- Time management: How you divide a limited amount of time into spans with start and end dates
- Task management: How you break down the work itself into discrete assignments for different team members
- People management: How you coordinate the efforts of several team members towards the same goals
*Project management may involve overseeing a budget as well. In many cases, the ability to meet a budget requirement depends on the ability to master the other categories, so we won’t discuss it in full here.
For the project manager, these three responsibilities can compete for time and attention.
This variation of the project management triangle shows how project managers have to balance challenges from various angles on their way to project success.
No project will be perfect, but with mastery of all three, you will work towards making sure the project gets delivered on time, contains all the necessary parts, and is a collaborative effort.
The three categories overlap frequently and all are vital to the project management process. Each category should factor into the project planning and scoping stage. Depending on the project length, team, and type, you may spend more time in one sphere throughout the project. Let’s look at how each category contributes to project success.
Making time smarter with a timeline
Missed deadlines are one of the biggest reasons for project failure, and with good reason – without a concrete way to control time, it will escape us. Due to the planning fallacy, we tend to be overly optimistic about our abilities to get future tasks done, even with the knowledge that past predictions have been incorrect. A timeline helps managers create informed deadlines and shows everyone how to use time wisely.
A timeline is a visual way to organize time as a continuous span, rather than simple dates on a calendar. In Redbooth, timelines are represented as Gantt charts, which look like a series of cascading horizontal lines. These multicolored steps are limited spans of time to complete to-do lists, individual tasks, and subtasks.
Timelines contain more knowledge than a simple deadline. In the example above, the timespans of past tasks are juxtaposed with upcoming tasks and their predicted spans.
While a deadline creates a destination, a timeline creates a path to get there. When you create a task in Redbooth, the task duration is a significant part of the planning process.
The calendar shows when weekends might interrupt a task for cause a task span to seem longer than it really is. The task window urges the creator to set a due date, decide urgency, and comment on the assignment.
In a Gantt chart, you can see task lists, subtasks, and minor and major deadlines all in one place. Contributors can see what’s on their plate on a given day and the reasoning behind it, and work towards checking tasks off their to-do lists. In this way, time becomes more structured, more detailed, and more incremental. The individual contributor can see the progress of the project along the way rather than in the aftermath.
Timelines take the guesswork out of meeting deadlines. When the path is laid out in the timeline, everyone can see how their minor deadlines lead up to major ones, and how a missed deadline affects the end product. A project with a timeline is more likely to succeed than a project with only due dates because people don’t have to constantly consider how to divide and conquer their schedules on a daily basis – it’s already laid out for them.
Creating visual task lists
Tasks form the substance of a project – the work itself. Tasks allow teams to divide and conquer the large work of a project. Tasks must be actionable for individuals to hit the ground running; but when objectives and deadlines change, tasks must also be adaptable. A visual task list makes it easy to organize and update tasks as a project progresses.
In Redbooth, there are many ways to create and organize visual task lists. You can build a single master task list or divide task lists by team (i.e., ‘product marketing’), type of task (‘design’), stage (‘pre-launch’), or any other category that makes sense for your project. You can look at your to-do lists in timeline or task list view:
In the example above, a marketing team at a startup can view task lists for different projects. Completed tasks appear with a green checkmark or are hidden. The owner of each task appears next to the dates. The viewer’s tasks are highlighted in yellow. Tasks can be reordered with drag-and drop.
Without delegation and task ownership, tasks simply don’t get done. In a project management tool, owners are visible to all, increasing accountability.
As the project progresses, the project manager has to maintain the task lists in order to make sure work is getting done. They can revisit the timeline or Kanban to check in on tasks, as well as adjust due dates, communicate with task owners, and resolve any lingering questions that impact productivity.
Once you’ve stacked all of a project’s tasks together and checked off all the actions on your task lists, you’ve built your final product.
Helping teams communicate and collaborate
People are the most important assets to a project – and often the most tricky to manage. As a project manager, you need to get to know the individual team members and their strengths and weaknesses, as well as how they collaborate, in order to create a productive work environment for all.
People management requires the ability to coordinate and communicate effectively. Some of this can be done within the project management software, and some of it will be done face-to-face in team meetings and 1:1s.
Regular meetings can be motivating and educational for both the project manager and the individual team member. Try scheduling team meetings at the project kickoff, halfway through, and after launch, and building in 1:1s with each team member throughout the project. Create task lists for meetings that appear in the timeline as milestones for everyone to plan for.
You can also create workspaces for individual meetings. In Redbooth, you can schedule a meeting, create its agenda, and record feedback all from a single workspace. Use pre-made templates to make meeting planning even faster.
Filling in the template can help guide the meeting so that it sticks to the agenda, nobody walks away empty-handed, and everyone knows the next steps instantly. Plus, employees can reference the meeting notes easily later on.
Written progress reports can supplement or even replace meetings. Progress reports can be created and delivered within a project management app as a task list or as a private workspace between employee and manager. In this workspace, you can create lists of what’s going well, what needs improvement, and what you’re working on continually.
Overall, the combination of clear, contextual communication within the project management app, as well as regular in-person contact, can ensure that team members are working to the best of their abilities every day.
Building projects in your team
How you manage a project depends on the team you’re working with. Different teams have different goals for projects and different execution strategies.
As an example, think about three different project teams at the same mid-size company: product, marketing, and sales.
- The product team focuses on task and time management: they need to build a unique product and deliver in time for launch. They use a Scrum Board to get things done.
- The marketing team focuses on task and people management: they focus on content and communication. They use a Kanban-style content pipeline.
- The sales team focuses on time and people management: they need to efficiently convert and onboard new customers.They use an action plan.
Starting from the action plan template, the sales team builds out a new action plan to onboard a recently acquired customer in the first month. While the project is underway, it looks like this:
The team can instantly see which phase of the plan they’re currently on, what tasks are underway, and if they’re staying on target to implement within the month.
The project manager can open up tasks to communicate with team members and check on the status of tasks.
Working from the template, it’s easy to customize each project to fit a particular sales team and their customers, without having to rethink the project strategy every single time a new customer signs up.
Of course, you can always experiment and switch things up – and having teams share their workspaces can inspire creativity. After seeing the product team’s success with agile development, the sales team might decide to adopt agile sales development techniques and switch to Scrum. Since Redbooth workspaces are flexible, it’s possible to shift the priorities, form, and function of a project in no time at all.
Set your team up for project success
Between time, tasks, and people, project management can sometimes feel like a juggling act. Luckily, there are tools to support you as you start on your project path. By becoming the master of your team’s project management tool, you can create frameworks and develop strategies to keep your team on track for high performance. With each win, it becomes easier to iterate on successful tactics and learn from mistakes made. Along the way, you will also find ways to innovate on project structure, communicate more effectively, and enable cross-team collaboration.