Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
I'm a geek. I loooove planning and organizing. I also love learning and improving my skills. As Joshua Sheats said in a Radical Personal Finance podcast episode from July 2014, “when I get excited, I make a spreadsheet!” I also make lots of lists and schedules.
Below you'll find 8 tips and 5 major concepts I learned from reading Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore and James Wood. (2015).
It makes total sense that I love this book because it has been and continues to be an incredibly helpful resource for planning and organizing my projects at work. The tips I learned from it make me more efficient at my job, more thoughtful and strategic about my planning processes, and help me and my boss clarify goals, expectations, and have more realistic conversations about the actual amount of time and effort needed to successfully execute a strategic plan. I’ve implemented a bunch of the tools provided in the Unofficial Project Manager (including forms and charts provided) into my project planning processes.
I am a policy analyst; I am not a manager or director (yet). However, I am responsible for the successful creation and completion of our organization’s campaign plans, and I am the main point of contact working on several major policy issues that will span years. Some of our work is incredibly complicated and in the weeds - read, "wonky," it involves a lot of high level science and at least some policy expertise. In order to better map out my work and strategize for a successful campaign or end result on an issue we’re engaged on, I need to know how to manage a project even though that wasn’t in the job description.
Below are the main tips and tools I highlighted from this book, along with why I think they’re useful.
Tip 1: There are lots of reasons projects can fail. The most common reasons that projects fail include:
Lack of commitment/support
Too many competing priorities
People pulled away from project
Lack of a “big picture” for the team
Lack of leadership
Lack of or mismanaged budget.
(P. 9.) This information is important is because it lets you know the most common pitfalls that you can- and should– try to predict and avoid or control as an unofficial project manager. The more issues you can identify and troubleshoot up front, the higher the likelihood you will avoid or control these problems and ensure a better result.
According to the Project Management Institute, or PMI, in low-maturity organizations, only 39% of projects get done on time, only 44% are completed on budget, and only 53% meet the original intent or business purpose. (P. 10). It goes to show you that the bar might not be very high in some organizations for you to wow leadership if you’re able to successfully complete a project! And it forecasts some of the problems the book addresses, like budgets and scope creep.
Tip 2: There are 3 signs of a successful project: you meet or exceed expectations, optimize resources, and build team confidence and morale for future projects. (P. 10).
Major concept #1 of 5: Manage Projects, Lead People. (P. 11). This concept is one of the major themes of the book: successful management requires leadership. In order to succeed you need to lead and inspire your team. Leadership comes from informal authority, like your personality and character. It's what you do and not your title or any formal clout you might have that makes you a leader.
Major Concept #2 of 5: There are four foundational behaviors that make for good leadership. If you take nothing else away from this book, I'd argue that the main point is that good project managers are good leaders, and good leaders exhibit these four essential behaviors: 1. Demonstrate respect, 2. Listen first, 3. Clarify expectations, 4. Practice accountability.
Much of the book goes on to give real world examples of projects where unofficial managers either do or do not demonstrate these skills – and yes, these are actually skills, not just behaviors. You have to work to develop these skills – they most likely won’t all come naturally or intuitively.
Tip 3: Map out your projects in 5 phases. The five phases of a project include:
plan (define and refine objectives and strategies)
monitor and control (ongoing from step 1 to step 5)
close (formalize acceptance of the project, check results against desired outcomes, and document lessons learned)
(P. 14). Each of these phases and the progressive steps to be taken during each phase is detailed, chapter by chapter in "Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager."
Tip 4: Avoid scope creep, and many other project pitfalls, by performing stakeholder interviews when initiating a project. Ask yourself:
Who will the project impact?
Who determines success and what are their expectations?
What are the project limitations?
How do you create a shared understanding of the project outcomes?
(PP. 43 – 44). The authors emphasize the importance of identifying key stakeholders, and effectively interviewing all stakeholders to brainstorm and to get buy in up front. Why? Because “a major key to project management is to never get blindsided. The more effort you spend identifying every possible person who might be “touched” by the project, the smaller the chance of failure.” (P. 45).
Major Concept #3 of 5: Stakeholders will make or break your project. Be sure to engage with them consistently, transparently, providing constructive feedback throughout the life of the project and you are much more likely to have a successful result.
Tip 5: Tips for holding one-on-one or group stakeholder meetings include, among other tips:
set a strict time limit
set ground rules in advance (i.e., no interrupting)
limit response time
carefully record answers
distribute record/notes after
Part of what I like about this book is that many of these practical tips can be applied universally – for example, you can use these tips for any meeting you hold at work. I've started to! The result - for me - has been more efficient and productive meetings. Most people don't like to go into a meeting not understanding why they're there or what they'll be discussing.
After completing stakeholder interviews, the initiate phase of project management wraps up with the preparation of a scope statement and approvals of the scope statement by those with approval authority. (P. 66). A scope statement should include: project name, projected start date, projected duration, project purpose, project description, desired results, exclusions (what is not included in the project), communication needs (how often must you update stakeholders), acceptance criteria (i.e. approvals required by higher-ups or other departments), constraints, and approvals. (P. 68). The scope statement is like a compass, the project plan is like a roadmap. (P. 79).
Tip 6: Start off each project by first identifying and then taming risks. First make a list of all the things that could go wrong. Then assess the risks with this formula: impact x probability = actual risk. This way, you can rank risks by most to least risky. Last, brainstorm how you can “T.A.M.E.” the risks – namely, transfer the risk to a third party, accept the risk, mitigate the risk (reduce its probability or impact), or eliminate the risk. (P. 83).
Major Concept #4 of 5: The bones of a project are any project are called the "Work Breakdown Structure," or WBS. It is critical to understand this structure to pull off a successful project. This is the meat and potatoes of project planning:
develop the Work Breakdown Structure (or WBS)*
identify the project team
estimate the duration of each task
identify the critical path
create a project budget
Essentially, this is your project roadmap or skeleton.
To appropriately sequence activities you must understand the relationships between the tasks and whether some are dependent upon others being completed first. You must also estimate the duration of each task. Develop your best estimate of task duration by including a comfortable cushion to be conservative.
In creating your WBS, you should also understand the critical path to successful completion of your project. The critical path is “the longest sequence of scheduled activities that must start and end as scheduled that determine the duration of the project. If any activity on the critical path is late, the project will be late.” (P. 111).
You can use a GANTT chart to map out the critical path – the Operations Director at my work created and shared a template, and I think it's incredibly useful. In fact, the first time I used her template on a project, I told her afterwards that she’s an inspiration, that I LOVE her tool and planned to use it on all my projects moving forward!
Major Concept #5 of 5: To successfully execute a project plan you must create team accountability.
Team accountability requires "a mindset of consistent, frequent, regular, shared accountability. You also need to know how to use informal authority to help team members keep their commitments.” (P. 131). Accountability sessions are meetings focused on timelines and budget(s) where each team member reports out on progress made towards last week’s commitments, makes a new weekly commitment, and where options are identified to the clear the path for any team-member who’s hit a roadblock. (P. 144). When a team member fails to execute pursuant to their commitments, a conversation planner tool is provided to help resolve the problem.
Tip 7: When monitoring and controlling project flow throughout the life of the project plan, you should keep your eye out for scope creep and scope discovery. Scope creep can be controlled by assessing the intent of the change, the impact of the change, and what is required to make the change happen.
Change in scope may necessitate a project change request form that explains the reason for the change request, how the change will affect the project constraints (time, scope, quality, resources, budget, risk), and should require key stakeholder approval – a tool is provided at page 177. Interestingly, scope creep is not the same as scope discovery. Scope discovery takes the project in a new direction, for example when previously unknown information leads to a better way to meet the needs of stakeholders, clarifies the project’s purpose, or focuses the project more narrowly on a manageable solution. (P. 181).
Tip 8: Project closeout is an important step to help you put a bow on your project and leave it in a condition so that others can understand the outcomes and learn from it. To close out a project, a close checklist is provided at page 191 as follows:
Evaluate the project
Confirm fulfillment of project scope. Consider:
Did we meet our goals, including timely delivery?
Are we satisfied with end result?
Was it worth the cost?
Did we do a good job of anticipating and mitigating risk?
Any ideas for improving our process?
Confirm fulfillment of all Project Change Requests
Complete procurement closure
Document lessons learned
Submit final status report to key stakeholders
Seek feedback from key stakeholders
Obtain all necessary sign-offs
Archive project documents
Celebrate project close with team using rewards and recognition
Personal thank you notes go a long way.
These eight tips and five major concepts form the backbone of the book, imho, but there are lots more bells and whistles packed in that make it an excellent read.
The book is only about 200 pages; it is clearly and succinctly structured and written and easy to read and digest. The tools and tips I summarize here are laid out in clean forms that you could scan and copy to use in real life. In sum, no matter what job you find yourself in, if you work on projects with other people you will benefit from reading this book!
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