The art and science of project management

As many have noted, including some folks over at Adaptive Path, project management is both an art and a science. It requires a person who can be a facilitator, a motivator, an instigator, a deal broker, and more. My approach emphasizes building stakeholder consensus and keeping the lines of communications open. Here, I will try to simplify the process, as I see it, down to 6 components: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How (although not necessarily in that order):

  1. Who: Identify and gather stakeholders and define their roles. For a Web application, one needs to define the core project team, which includes writers, designers, and programmers. In addition to the client and the core team, one must coordinate with others who will be part of the collaborative process and involve them in the requirements (see “What” below). It’s important for the PM to be familiar with all elements of the organization in order to understand how projects and programs may interact. In large organizations, it can be a challenge to identify the best stakeholders, but I would do so by checking in with related areas, reading company newsletters or blogs, etc.  Who are the key members of the impacted teams?  If you want user-generated content, who will be reading and vetting that content? If possible, find team members who demonstrate an interest in the project. 
  2. What: Define the overall goals, requirements, dependencies, and constraints. How does the project fit in with the overall strategy and communications/ marketing plan? The client will define this but the development team and stakeholders should have input into defining this based on their areas of expertise. This is where the brokering and consensus building among the parties begins. Having identified the right people to include will be important. In the case of a Web application, one first needs to define the content and vision, then define the technical means of accomplishing that goal.
  3. When: Timelines and deadlines are generally the PM’s main responsibility. Promoting and maintaining communication between the development team and the client is essential. If there are other moving pieces or dependencies, such as the development of a new Content Management System or the production of an ad campaign, the PM must know. For software and Web development, some teams prefer an iterative process that is similar to prototyping and involves several rounds of testing. In this instance, the client needs to not only know about this process, but also support it from the beginning. When it comes to the Web and social media, the environment and consumers’ expectations are constantly changing. Any product or feature development needs to keep a look out on the road ahead; the PM on this type of project needs to help educate the client about this dynamic environment.
  4. Where: Ideally, the development team and even the key stakeholders work in the same location, which facilitates more natural communication. Beyond gathering for meetings, I find technology useful to facilitate collaboration whether the team members are co-located or not. Some tools I have used are Basecamp, Twitter, test sites, instant messaging, and wikis.
  5. How: Define internal resources and evaluate them as the project moves forward. Does the team have “experience design” expertise? If not, can an outside resource help? Will the current infrastructure (server capacity, etc.) be sufficient? It’s important to discuss the “how” with the stakeholders, without getting into too much detail and watching their eyes glaze over. I also believe strongly in feedback loops. As a PM it’s important to celebrate successes as the project moves along, while fostering an environment to discuss openly any issues or problems that may arise.
  6. Why: This is the most important part! The PM helps keep everyone’s “eyes on the prize.” The project as a whole and all of the above elements should be evaluated from the beginning and throughout the project life by how it meshes with the core values of the company. Will the project mean a paradigm shift for the organization – e.g., will user generated content be introduced for the first time and how will it impact the company? How is this project contributing to a great user experience? How will it help create passionate and loyal customers or motivate and train team members? The PM should lead the way to excellence.
  7. Of course, documentation such as project plans and creative briefs are important and they should reflect the above issues.

    Best Practices and Industry Trends

    I like to also look outside the organization to get ideas of how others may be tackling a similar project or issue. By researching what others have done and presenting that information to the group, such as demonstrating Web sites or sharing findings from recent studies, we can get ideas that will help the project, preferably in the requirements phase.

    Launch

    Before a public launch of a Web application, sign-off should be obtained from the key stakeholders and final edits or changes made.This is always the most stressful time in the product development cycle and it’s important to build in time for this and even for unforeseen problems at the launch.

    Flexibility and Fun

    As I said above, I try keep on top of activities throughout the organization to determine how they might affect the project. Will any changes in other programs affect it? Flexibility and strategic thinking helps ensure projects are successful.

    Finally, beyond being the task master and cat herder, a PM should work to ensure that people are enjoying collaborating with each other and find some time to just have fun together.

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