Managing multiple projects can quickly descend into chaos. Suddenly, you’re responsible for several due dates, task owners, and clients. You have to code-switch all the time as you move from team meetings to 1:1s to presentations to retrospectives. Deadlines change along the way, adding further complications. You alone are responsible for all of it happening perfectly and on time.
Even the most skilled project manager needs a way to organize and track success. But you don’t need several complex project management tools. You just need a killer pipeline.
What is a project management pipeline, and why do you need one?
A project management pipeline is essentially a project tracker. It’s the secret weapon of project management tools because it makes your workflow smoother and clearer.
Using a pipeline is similar to ordering a pizza from Domino’s, except this tracker involves a few more steps, and there’s no pizza at the end.
At the beginning, middle, and end of a project, you need a quick way to monitor your team’s progress and take action when you find any issues with workflow, due dates, or deliverables. If you are leading several projects, this can be hard to do at scale. That’s where your project pipeline comes into play.
A pipeline is a visual board that shows what stage each project is in, matched up with a checklist for each stage, and any accompanying notes. This helps the project manager do a quick assessment of each project’s status and health across the board.
The pipeline answers these essential questions that will guide project success:
- Are we setting project goals that advance company goals and values?
- Are we communicating critical actions with team members and stakeholders to make sure everyone’s on target?
- Are we taking precautions to avoid failure?
As project manager, you need to immerse yourself in your teams’ work but also keep long-term goals top of mind. By gathering data from several projects in one place, you can gain a more complete snapshot of team performance and company trajectory.
The pipeline is the perfect high-level project management tool because it not only helps you stay on top of daily work, but it helps your teams and company develop as a whole.
Constructing your project management pipeline
Borrowing from agile project management, a pipeline can be set up as a Scrum board with a few more stages. It follows the To-do > In Progress > Done linear progression. To see what the pipeline looks like in practice, check out this example made with Redbooth:
Think of the pipeline as your dashboard. It is not as detailed as an individual project board. The idea is to keep a high-level view of projects so that you can keep your priorities straight. At the same time, the pipeline ought to be understandable by anyone at the company reading it; this holds you accountable to your process and forces you to clarify your reasoning for taking certain actions.
Let’s take a more detailed look at each stage of the project management pipeline.
“Ideation” is the brainstorming phase. Concepts and early stage pitches live here. Some will become projects and others may not. This is the stage where you let your imagination run wild.
In this phase you:
- Gather ideas from sources and record them
- Start to form early stage project scope
- Write project pitches
Like an office whiteboard, the items placed in this task list can be unpolished and dashed off. At the same time, even if the ideas aren’t your own, it’s your job to derive value from the ideas and determine whether they will be useful to your team(s) going forward. For these reasons, your “sticky notes” in this column still need to be clearly written.
It may be helpful to note the source of the idea, the date it was recorded, and a date to resolve the idea to avoid inertia.
Here’s what an idea for a marketing project might look like:
Asking critical questions of ideas at this stage is crucial, as you can avoid pain down the line. If you decide that an idea doesn’t fit wider company goals, you don’t have the resources to get it done, or you simply don’t like it, clear it out to keep your pipeline neat and clean. If you like it enough to present it, then move it down the pipeline.
“Proposed” projects are ideas that have been presented to stakeholders and are awaiting the green light. In this phase you:
- Meet with stakeholders
- Adjust the proposal to fit stakeholder requirements
After brainstorming several ideas, you choose the idea that not only fits your goals and team but makes you excited to get to work. You give the project a name. You then create a formal pitch to present internally to upper management and externally to clients. This pitch will outline the basic scope of the project, the expected outcomes, and the timeline.
In this stage, you need to take realistic stock of what your team can achieve and frame the pitch in a way that will set client expectations. Ideally, you’ll have an in-person meeting or video call where you can present the pitch, but you should also create a written version.
In the pipeline, provide a link to the project proposal and any commentary about the pitch meetings.
For a marketing project manager, items in the “Proposed” stage might look like this:
A list of pitches in the “Proposed” column of your pipeline will serve as a reminder to check in with executives and clients. When you send a follow-up about a proposal, you can keep up project momentum and avoid missed opportunities.
Projects in the “Backlog” have been approved by the client and stakeholder and are waiting to be started. In this stage of the pipeline, you:
- Create a project plan
- Create task lists
- Assign tasks owners
- Assign due dates
- Conduct a pre-mortem analysis
After the initial idea is approved, you need to build a detailed project plan. You break the project down into tasks, design a task order, assign tasks to owners, set a timeline, and arrange meetings. Create the plan on a separate board or timeline and link to it in your pipeline.
The way you line up projects in the “Backlog” will affect the outcome of every project in the pipeline. You can pace start dates for overlapping projects to build momentum without causing disruption to workflow.
A marketing project manager’s “Backlog” would show various upcoming projects:
Since you can see all upcoming projects in one place, you can balance the mix of projects that you’ll be managing concurrently and prioritize projects based on resource availability and deadlines.
The “Backlog” phase is when you really start to think about strategy and results. This stage is the perfect time to conduct a pre-mortem analysis of each project. In your analysis, you can anticipate problems and create action plans for preventing project failure.
Once a project makes it to the top of the backlog, host a kick-off meeting with your team so that everyone is aware of the plan and knows what to do next.
When projects enter the “In Progress” stage of the pipeline, the pace starts to pick up. The project team is hard at work executing the task list, stakeholders are anticipating results, and deadlines are fast approaching.
At this phase, it helps to have a checklist to make sure you’re fulfilling all of your project management responsibilities. This checklist can include:
- Update the project board as tasks are completed or changed
- Send regular progress reports to stakeholders and executives
- Hold regular team meetings such as daily standup or weekly check-ins
- Schedule 1:1 check-ins with individual team members
- Assess performance on a daily and weekly level via a few key indicators
A marketing project manager would maintain this checklist in the pipeline:
At any given time, you’ll probably be most focused on the “In Progress” stage in your pipeline. This is where your workload is most demanding and urgent. After all, you have to act as a go-between between team members, executives, and stakeholders. By zooming out and viewing current projects in the context of others, you can gain perspective on how well you’re doing. This can help minimize stress and refocus your efforts on big goals as opposed to minor problems.
Projects “In Review” are tentatively complete. At this stage of the pipeline, you are reviewing all work done and preparing to present the project to stakeholders. Remaining steps include:
- Giving structured feedback to your team
- Incorporating that feedback into the final product
- Delivering the final project to stakeholders
Unlike task reviews, the feedback at this stage is given at a high level; you should not be critiquing individual tasks but rather the quality of the overall package. You should mainly be checking to see if the work produced matches the original goals you set with stakeholders and how you can go above and beyond to satisfy them.
A marketing project manager might have this to-do list for a project in the “In Review” column:
It’s important to avoid holding projects in the “In Review” stage for too long; with distance, it’s easy to forget why certain decisions were made or actions taken. Once team members have moved on to new projects, they may not have much time to work on revisions.
Create a review strategy that can be executed as soon as possible. Refer to the original project plan to cross-check requirements. Once you know which changes need to be made, communicate those changes to appropriate team members, review their work, and prepare the final presentation and deliver it to the client or stakeholder.
Projects in the “Done” stage have been delivered to the client, have met all requirements, and do not require any final revisions. At this phase, you are assessing results and performance before archiving the project for good.
A postmortem analysis is the perfect way to analyze a project after it’s been delivered. A postmortem can be done in person or digitally, but it helps to record your findings on a post-mortem project board. The board will help your team address failure in four major categories:
- Planning – issues or problems that arise in the early stages of project development
- Execution – problems that impact work and workflow, including those around pace, people, and quality
- Results – problems with performance and performance metrics
- Communication – issues that arise due to a breakdown in internal and external communications
Analyzing your projects after completion will pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and help your team(s) improve over time. Again, don’t wait too long to conduct the postmortem, as the project can fade from memory quickly as your team moves on.
Viewing the projects in the “Done” column will remind you how much you have accomplished so far and what kinds of projects have been successful for you, your team, and your company.
Customizing your pipeline
By now you should have a clear idea how a project pipeline aligns project goals, sets you up for successful communication with team members and stakeholders, and takes protective measures against failure. But a generic pipeline will only get you so far.
A customized pipeline will help you work smarter as a manager, while also providing useful data on how your company works.
You can organize pipelines by client, department, project type, or even company value. A pipeline for “customer-obsessed,” for instance, will show all the projects that improve customer experience.
An effective pipeline runs itself. If you follow the steps to move projects along at each phase, you’ll start to see a smooth flow of projects entering and leaving the pipeline.
Ready to try it out? Try building your pipeline in Redbooth today.