5 Little-Known Tools to Enhance Your Project Management Skills

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Time management is difficult. Project management is a beast.

Don’t believe me? Nearly 55% of projects fail to finish on time, which, incidentally, accounts for the double-digit growth in demand for credentialed project managers. Unfortunately, leaders in every industry are being called upon to manage projects from concept to completion–with or without the assistance of an expert. Are you in this boat? Have no fear–these tricks of the trade will make you a hero to your team!

1. Start with a clearly defined scope.

When you aren’t a titled project manager, it can be tempting to skip a formal planning phase since you have so many other obligations competing for your time. But take it from me…you can’t afford to skimp on this step if you want the project to finish on time.

The first thing you’ll need to do is break your project down into manageable chunks. PMs do this using a tool called a work breakdown structure (WBS.) It’s a simple, visual, intuitive tool that helps you decompose your project into smaller and smaller pieces until you can wrap your head around the job-to-be-done. This is a great exercise to do with key members of your project team. Just grab a room with a big white board and go to town. To get started, check out this tutorial for newbies.

Make sure that as you construct your WBS, you’re also working with your team to document project requirements. Let’s say that your project is to plan a conference. You’ve identified “invitations” as an item on your WBS. A requirement might be that the invitation must be electronic, or that it must match the color scheme of your company logo. If you miss any requirements in the planning stage, it will cost you time down the road in rework and unplanned changes–so take your time!

2. Identify all your task dependencies.

Once you’re done with your WBS, you’ll need to translate it into actual tasks, or to-dos. What happens next is critical—you must identify dependencies between tasks. There are three main types of dependencies to watch out for:

  1. Finish-to-Start (FS): Task B can start as soon as Task A finishes.
  2. Start-to-Start (SS): Task B can start as soon as Task A starts.
  3. Finish-to-Finish (FF): Task B can finish once Task A finishes.

Once you know which tasks are dependent on others, you can start to assemble a realistic schedule. If you’re visually-oriented, it helps to map out all your tasks in a diagram like this one:

3. Identify everything that could go wrong.

These are called risks, and they are enemy-number-one to your project finish date. You need to spend a chunk of time with your team in the beginning identifying as many risks as possible–what they are, when they’re likely to occur, their probability, and possible impact to your project. If you drew a diagram like the one above, make sure to take a close look at any task with lots of arrows pointing into it. They probably have a ton of risks associated with them.

Once you’ve identified all your risks, decide which ones are most important and come up with response plans now. What will you do if the risk is realized? How can you prevent the risk from occurring in the first place? What kind of insurance policy might you need to purchase? All of these factors need to be considered before you go on to estimate how long each task will take.

4. Estimate how long everything will take.

Break down each task in your schedule far enough that estimating duration is relatively easy–and decide ahead of time whether your durations will be documented in hours, days, or weeks. Also keep in mind how many risks (see #3) are associated with each task. A great way to arrive at a realistic estimate is to come up with three numbers: an optimistic estimate (O), a pessimistic estimate (P), and a most likely estimate (M). Then, use this formula to come up with your final number:  (O + 3M + P) /6

Keep a record of your initial three estimates for each task, because you can use the O and P estimates to figure out the best-case and worst-case end-date for your project.

5. Keep “buffer” time a secret.

You can also decide to manage your project by the “optimistic” estimates and keep the “buffer” to yourself. Why keep that extra wiggle room a secret? Two words: Student Syndrome. When people know buffer exists, they’ll chew through it immediately, sometimes not even starting the task until the buffer is gone. Unfortunately, this leaves no room to maneuver when a risk occurs or something goes horribly wrong. It’s fine to account for some buffer in the schedule, just don’t manage to it. Instead, use your optimistic or most likely estimates as due dates. The technique of using “hidden” buffer is called critical chain management (further reading here) and it’s a powerful tool in the PM’s arsenal.

6. BONUS: Keep your schedule in a public place.

I’m a big fan of keeping a simple form of the schedule on a white board or other display in public areas. As another PM once said to me, “peer pressure is an amazing project laxative.”



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