Whether you are starting a business, working in a start-up business or have been in business for a while I can guarantee, with almost complete certainty, that you have dipped your hands in the murky waters of project management.
I know this because when you break down all the moving pieces and guts of almost any business, what you’re left with is a string of projects. Some successful, some not so successful and every one of them a potential cornucopia of interesting data about your business.
It’s in the data and outcomes from your projects that you will be able to make the important decisions that guide your business through the ebbs and flows of your market. When you don’t manage projects well you run the risk of wasting lots of time, money and energy on things that will never add value to your business or your customers.
That makes for a bad time.
Managing projects can be tricky business. What’s important to measure? What’s not? How are you tracking progress? Who’s accountable for what? Etc. Another part of that trickiness is the fact that there is an industry full of project management support businesses trying to get your attention. These businesses attempt to lure you to spend money on software, training and consulting that promises to fix all of your business woes - and even helps you come to terms with business woes you didn’t even know you had.
What are you, a busy entrepreneur trying to grow a business, supposed to do?
I have a simple framework to help you keep your well intentioned projects on task and on budget.
Before that though I want to share a quick caveat: I don’t think that there is one perfect tool or solution for everyone. I do think that if you look hard enough you should be able to find the tool that best supports the sizes and scopes of your projects. I also believe that the tool you adopt should be creating efficiencies and using your project data to tell stories that you can use to make solid decisions in your business. But, if you needed to start somewhere I highly recommend the Disruptive Decision Framework - this hyperlink will take you to a blog post on this site where you can get your free copy and tells you how to use it.
1. Is this project really important?
The first step is buy in. Is the proposed project on deck really going to move some needle in your business in any kind of meaningful way? That goes for the good and bad possible outcomes. Has everyone involved reached some kind of consensus on the project’s importance? What (in as quantitative and as measurable criteria as possible) does success look like? If you are a solopreneur talk to someone you trust about what you’re thinking about exploring. Talk to two people. The worst thing you can do as a solo entrepreneur is start down a closed-system project rabbit hole. I’ve seen good businesses and entrepreneurs burn out because they dumped too many resources into a project that wasn’t really important.
2. Outline the project.
In this step you are outlining and identifying all the important milestones you need to hit to get to some kind of outcome. You are also thinking about all the people and resources you’re going to need to support the project as well. Knowing that very few things in life follow any kind of strict schedule it’s important to build in some flex room as you are attempting to get a handle on what the time frames are going to look like as you approach and pass through each of those milestones. It’s also here that you’ll identify the formal scope of the project (what are you hoping to acheive), roles and responsibilities of the people involved at each phase (this counts for you too solopreneur), what information you are going to track and why.
3. Get it on the books.
There’s a good chance that this project is not going to be the only thing your business is working on at any given time. Armed with the knowledge that things don’t always go as planned do your best to schedule your projects in terms of the milestones that need to be completed. This is important because as time passes you’ll be able to balance the demands of your day to day operations with the scope and goals of your project. After it’s on the books go back and work out your outlines for a work plan. It’s great that you gave yourself 3 days to get from one milestone to the next but what are the crystal clear action steps needed to honor that timeline commitment. Vague timelines might be acceptable here but vague workplans are not. Spend time really getting into the nitty gritty of what needs to get done. Whether you have a team or not - getting specific and granular is your best bet at actually getting this work done.
4. Create guiding policies.
Before you start working on your project you need to set up the policies that will be used to manage the project. It’s not redundant I swear. These are the things that help you manage issues in your team, expectations, accountability, quality and so on. Picture the guiding policies for your project as the rules of Monopoly. You know, Monopoly - the game that breaks up families and friendships. That Monopoly. Your guiding policies act as an independent and impartial judge for the times when playing by house rules gets a little out of hand. As the work in your project ramps up managing people's, expectations, responsibilities and the rest of your business could get potentially dicey. Guiding policies act as a way to navigate challenges because you decided them before you started. They can also help to keep you honest if motivation starts to wane as a solopreneur. And, just like any good game of Monopoly you can literally decide to abort a project by flipping the game board over in a fit of power hungry plastic house rage should the need arise.
5. Work, Observe, Record, Evaluate, Repeat (Maybe)
This is where the project rubber meets the road. You are all planned and scheduled up now get to work. As you are making your way through your milestones make sure you stop to celebrate little victories or assess the little challenges along the way. Because you did such a great job with identifying all the quantitative, measurable and trackable data throughout the project you’ll be able to see in real time how the work you are doing impacts your business. You’ll also be able to make decisions about adapting or pivoting your business as the market changes around you. Probably one of the most important parts of this step is being able to recognize when you should just pull the plug on a project. There’s no shame in quitting here - you still learned something that will help better shape your business and by quitting you’ve salvaged any remaining time, money and sanity you may have lost by following through. Individual outcomes might be good or bad but if you’ve designed an experiment or project well you can only get good information from the experience.
6. Deliver and Evaluate
Congratulations! Regardless of the outcome you’ve finished. That means you are hopefully delivering what you said you were going to in a time that closely resembles what you originally quoted. During the process you laughed, cried and communicated lots. After you’ve celebrated your completion it’s time to tear through the data of the project. What parts of your work plan were successful? What weren’t? Where were the bottlenecks? What could you tweak? Was all this work really worth it? Giving your project a proper post-mortem will provide you with insight that will help you get the most out of your next projects. Don’t be afraid of failing or of fallen flat deliverables. You can always tweak your processes and frameworks. Be afraid of putting yourself through the trouble of launching a project with vague ideas, no accountability and no clear way to identify success.
Whatever system you choose to help you manage your next project should touch on these 6 steps. If they don’t then you are missing something. There are tons of resources at lots of different price points but the most important thing to remember is that any of the project management tools are only as good as the information you are feeding them and the commitment you give them. Sounds cliche I know but I can share first hand that I have worked with businesses that have dumped ridiculous amounts of money in project management software that they never used.
Being a tool hoarder is not going to help you do better work in you business.