In a perfect world, your clients’ projects would be completed on budget and on time. But in the real world, budgets are often exceeded and timelines pushed back—and consultants who operate with a learning mindset know that a forward path to project success requires reflecting on lessons from past managed projects.
As project management expert Yael Grushka-Cockayne put it in a Freakonomics podcast interview: “Look historically at how well those projects performed in terms of their plan versus their actual. See how accurate you were, and then […] adjust your new project that you’re about to start.” And when you’re making that assessment, consider your mindset and your project teams’ mindsets at the time.
While it may be tempting to rely on tools and methodologies to structure your clients’ projects, what’s most important is having the right mindset. Ask yourself:
- Was the project unsuccessful because we used the wrong project management software tool? Or was it because we lost sight of our ultimate goal?
- Was this other project successful because we followed a particular methodology? Or was it because we kept thinking long-term?
The meaning or rationale behind any project will help keep clients’ project teams stay on track. Here are the essential elements to getting it right:
Make sure to have a list of stakeholders from the beginning.
Before kicking off a project, it’s essential to identify all stakeholders and communicate with them early and often. When you include the right people from the outset, they feel a sense of ownership and belonging. And when you inform them of what’s happening from the beginning, it becomes more difficult for people to push back down the road.
Effective communication is integral to success in any capacity, and so understanding your stakeholders’ communication styles will only further benefit the project.
Have the right time horizon.
One of the pitfalls of project management is favoring short-term planning over the long-term project goal. Even with an established deadline, focusing on short-term milestones or tasks can create constant tension. When project teams lose sight of what’s ahead long term, the team can miss unintended consequences. When teams make tiny ad-hoc adjustments, like bumping a deadline here and there, to accommodate short-term goals, they may jeopardize the final output.
Force yourself and your stakeholders to think broader and further ahead. It’s much simpler to anticipate downstream effects when you give yourself enough runway.
Keep the big picture in mind.
It’s essential to remember top-performing project managers aren’t just there to provide updates. They’re also conductors responsible for considering the needs of the project as a whole and avoiding the dreaded scope creep.
When it comes to all the moving parts of a project, ask yourself, “Are we doing the right thing?” Just as it’s dangerous to focus solely on short-term goals, project teams need to avoid negotiating on seemingly insignificant details, tacking on more work to accommodate others’ wants, or conceding on essential elements in order to keep political peace.
When examining all the tasks and milestones making up a project, think of them as separate layers. If those layers don’t make a cake, get rid of them. Scope creep is an easily avoidable hazard if you remember the cake you’re making instead of building independent layers.
Respond, don’t react.
Responding and reacting may seem like similar concepts, but there are nuanced differences. When project teams react, they do rather than think. When they respond, they give themselves time to reflect on and consider the project before taking the appropriate action.
As the consultant, your obligation is to pressure test your clients’ ideas and test the rationale of what your clients are asking you for. Through pressure testing, you allow yourself the opportunity to respond. You don’t want to simply do and uncover problems along the way, realizing you shouldn’t have sunk all your resources into the wrong course of action.
Project management shouldn’t be based on tools alone. It must be based, first and foremost, on mindset.
Yes, tools are necessary, but they’re also dangerous. They give project teams a false sense of security and structure. Project management tools track action—not meaning or rationale. When you focus solely on tasks or milestones, you lose sight of the project as a whole. With that loss of perspective, it can be easy to fall into issues around communication, planning, scope, and thoughtless action.
Successful project management is a product of the right mindset, remembering lessons learned from past projects. That mindset must be open, flexible, responsive, and focused on the big picture.
Projects won’t always finish on time or on budget, but with the right mindset, you’re more likely to achieve your desired outcomes.
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