Ever have those days when you feel like total garbage? Maybe you’re tired or not feeling well. Maybe it’s Boston, and the weather is 12 degrees and windy. In those kinds of situations, it’s easy to give up, take a sick day, and binge on Netflix from your couch.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in this position, feeling tired beyond belief. (Our neighbors had been shouting outside at 1 am for who knows what reason.) I’d dragged my sorry self into the office, half expecting to be an unproductive lump for much of the day.
Instead, I pull up a Tettra page, review my plan of attack, and start chipping away at a project. By the end of the day, I’d finished the project, and I even gained an energy boost from reaching a goal I’d set. Sure beat a day of sitting on the couch, feeling sorry for myself.
I assure you it wasn’t willpower that carried me through the day. I was able to stay on track, thanks to the magic of project management. “Project management” refers to the systematic process of documenting what you’re working on, why, who else is involved, and how you’ll get the project over the finish line. Good project management techniques can make all the difference between the success or failure of a project.
The Importance of Good Project Management Techniques
Whether you’re an actual manager or an individual contributor, you’ll benefit from having good project management techniques in your toolkit. A project that’s well documented and managed is more likely to succeed. Here’s why it’s worth adding best practices and techniques to your personal skill sets:
You eliminate or reduce “scope creep”
“Scope creep” refers to the way projects often balloon over time. Teams experience scope creep when they add new ideas, goals, or parts to a project that’s already underway. The danger of scope creep is that it can slow down a project, muddy the waters around the goal of the project, or distract people from the initial focus area.
Good project management reduces the potential for scope creep in a few ways. First, by documenting what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s easier for everyone to stay focused on the task at hand. Second, it offers a mechanism for handling input when people suggest layering on additional parts of the project. If there’s disagreement about whether to increase the scope of the project, you can refer back to the project plan.
The project is more likely to finish on time and in budget
We all want to finish our projects on time, but too often, obstacles get in the way. And those obstacles can cost your team both time and money. Sometimes, it feels as though our ability to finish on time isn’t even within our control. With good project management, teams are better able to control the timing of their projects. Here’s why…
Aside from scope creep, timing issues generally stem from unclear dependencies. “Dependencies” refer to pieces of work that must be accomplished before other pieces of work can be tackled. Without good project management, one person can inadvertently slow down an entire team. This means the project takes longer than expected or ends up costing more in people time or other costs.
For example, let’s say you need a manager to sign off on some rough mockups before anyone moves forward on design and engineering. If that manager goes on vacation and doesn’t realize that he or she is a blocker to everyone else’s work, the whole project can grind to a halt. By identifying dependencies, it’s easier to avoid letting one bottleneck gum up the works for everyone else. The best teams proactively find a workaround when they identify a delay with a key dependency.
Increase team happiness and autonomy
Though you might not consider team happiness as a goal for your project, you should. After all, in this era of knowledge work, people (and the knowledge they possess,) are your greatest asset. Happy employees tend to be more productive and do better work. Besides, if a disgruntled employee leaves, the cost to replace him or her is estimated at 50-75% of that employee’s annual salary. It’s in every team’s best interest to foster employee happiness where possible.
So what’s the connection between happiness and good project management? With good project management, your team has a better sense of who’s in charge of what. This means less stepping on one another’s toes or dropping the ball. It also means that people feel more empowered to work autonomously. No one likes to feel confused about what they should be doing; help people avoid this feeling by identifying the directly responsible individual for every project you take on.
Process, Not Product
We’re in the business of building a tool that’s often used for project management. I wish I could tell you that Tettra is the magical ingredient that ensures all of your projects succeed without a hitch. Sadly, (for you, and for us,) that’s not the case. It’s not about Tettra or Gantt charts or Trello. No product or tool will ensure that you manage all of your projects perfectly. Instead, it’s about the strategies and techniques you bring to managing projects.
Teams that develop this muscle have a competitive advantage over those that don’t. As members of the Lyft engineering team said, learning good project management is
“an upfront investment of time and effort that in the long run can create exponential payoffs for you and your team.”
And like anything, practice makes perfect. Refining your process in an intentional way will help you and your team get better. The more often you use these techniques, the more they’ll feel second nature.
Top Seven Techniques for good project management
There’s an almost limitless number of ways a team can lean into good project management. In fact, some people spend their entire lives researching and writing about how to do project management well. This list is merely a subset of the many ways to manage a project, gleaned from watching thousands of teams use our product to document their knowledge and work.
1. Document the goal or hypothesis
Every project or experiment should have a clearly-stated goal or hypothesis. Goals might include things like “increase product usage”, “reduce new employee onboarding time”, or “generate 100 monthly marketing leads with a new piece of content”. The most important thing is that you’ve defined the goal in advance, written it down, and gained team-wide buy-in.
2. Confirm you can measure success
After getting agreement on the goal, verify that you have a way to measure your progress towards it. Do this early on in your project planning. Nothing is more frustrating than working hard to achieve a goal and then feeling completely clueless about whether your work paid off. Don’t wait until the project is complete to make sure you have the right instrumentation set up. Be sure that you can measure your progress or prove/disprove your hypothesis.
3. Assign DRIs
As you’re drafting your project plan, clarify who will take responsibility for each piece. Assign a DRI (or directly responsible individual) for every part of your project. This will help ensure that no one overlooks anything, nor will anyone step on another person’s toes and duplicate work that someone else is already doing.
4. Schedule regular check-ins
Carve out regular time to check in on progress. Specifically, identify any blockers that might be holding other people up. This is one of the best ways to identify dependencies that could delay your project. This is also a good way to resolve questions as they come up. If problems do arise, seek to resolve them as quickly as you can, so that everyone can get back to work on the project. Many accomplished entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg credit their success to their commitment to high-velocity decision making.
5. Attach dates to each steps
Build a timeline into every project plan. This will help you stay on track, and again, will help ensure that dependencies don’t slow you down. Additionally, having granular details about your timeline will make it obvious, earlier in the process, if you’re falling behind schedule.
6. Define the scope
Again, scope creep can add time and costs to your project. Make sure you have a clearly defined scope. Try using our technical spec template to clarify what is and isn’t included in the scope of your project. It’s just as important to document what you’re not trying to accomplish as to document what you are.
7. Update your project plan along the way
If and when things change, don’t stress out. That’s ok. Provided you aren’t dramatically increasing your project scope, changes aren’t a bad thing. The most important thing is to document your changes. Ideally, give context about why the change is being made, so that everyone understands your reasoning. Be aware of dependencies and document how you expect them to cause changes to timing or costs if applicable.
Good Project Management is an Investment
Adopting these techniques is an investment. By documenting your work in an organized, intentional way, you make life easier for your future self. You eliminate confusion, keep the project on track, and maximize the chance that you’ll produce work you can feel proud of. Being systematic with these techniques will help you build a higher-performance team.