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Tips on basic project management

Small business owners, working professionals, and even some students often play the role of a project manager, even when they are completely untrained to do so. Project management is a big and serious business, with advanced degrees and certifications dedicated to the subject. If you're not a certified project manager, it's easy for a project – and its affiliated team – under your oversight to spiral out of control, veer off track, and turn into an utterly disorganised mess. How do you keep your project on course if you know nothing about project management?

This very situation happened to me a few years ago at a small organisation. I was asked to manage several website redesigns and re-launches (I was hired as an editor). The team members included a few internal staff members, as well as quite a few outside contractors, and some unpaid volunteers. And I knew nothing about project management.

I'm a highly organised person, which is probably why I was put in charge of managing the projects in the first place. But personal organisation isn't the same as project management, and my first project got off to a terrible start.

I felt horrible about it, and my lack of confidence only made matters worse. Sure, I knew how to collect information, draft a schedule, and disseminate it to all the parties involved, but I had no idea what else I was supposed to be doing.

Eventually, I righted the project and got it on course, but it wasn't an easy thing to do. There are so many things I wish I had known then about how to organise and manage a project.

For all you unsuspecting souls who have project management thrust upon them, I've collected some wisdom from professional project managers, and shared a few of the tips I learned, too. All these tips are written in plain language, without jargon, and point towards best practices that are both general and practical.

Project management tips

Always have a meeting. A regularly scheduled meeting, whether it's a weekly check-in or more often, is the best way to keep everyone on the project informed and on the same page. There should always be a "next meeting" in the near future. —Jill Duffy.

Make sure the meeting frequency works for all parties. Depending on the size of the project and how well it's going, the frequency of the meeting (or call, for geographically separated teams) will vary. Weekly meetings or calls are often the norm, particularly to begin with, but the frequency depends on the size and timeline of the project, and it's got to be agreeable and valuable to all sides. —Tom Thrash, project manager at Aptara.

Make meetings matter. Have an agenda, stick to the agenda, and end early. Wasting a project team's time is one of the quickest ways to lose a team's confidence. If it is a status meeting, make sure it stays a status meeting and doesn't become a gripe session or brainstorm. And giving back a few minutes of time that were already allocated is a quick way to communicate the fact that you respect the team and their time. —Bill Sanders, managing director at Roebling Strauss, Inc. (a digital project and management consultancy).

Choose the right meeting tools. When weekly phone meetings with an off-site contractor proved unproductive, I added a Google Drive spreadsheet to the mix. It showed a list of bugs I had identified in a project, and a rating for how important I thought they were to fix. The contractor and I collaboratively edited that document together, while talking on the phone. Sometimes, he would even fix small problems right then and there. Hosting "working meetings," where work gets done during the meeting itself, has since become an invaluable addition to my list of suggestions of ways to keep a project moving along. Using real-time collaborative tools, video conferencing systems, and old fashioned face-to-face, laptop-to-laptop encounters are all options here. —Jill Duffy.

If "everything's fine," keep digging. Check-ins are invaluable. Very often, I find a check-in meeting results in an answer of "everything's fine." That's when I find follow-up responses like, "That's great to hear, but, really, there are no issues at all?" can make you stand out, and that's often where you get feedback you can use. That follow-up question often leads to responses of, "Well, yes, X has been moving along nicely, but there was this little Y that rubbed me the wrong way." There are many people who simply don't like to complain, so it's up to the project manager to dig deeper. —Tom Thrash.

Never shoot the messenger. When things go wrong, and they will, no one wants to deliver the bad news. If you are known for reacting to bad news with anything other than a positive, "Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention. Now how do we resolve this?" you are almost guaranteeing that you will never get bad news early. And getting bad news early gives you that much more time to resolve the issue(s) and lessen their negative impact on the project. —Bill Sanders.

Let others think they're in control. It takes some seasoning I think, but one thing I've found valuable is learning to be in control while letting others think they're driving. Many want to feel like they're in control, and that's fine, but the project manager must understand that they're ultimately responsible for how the project turns out. —Tom Thrash.

Have the user define the quality criteria. Every deliverable has a user, be it another team member or an eventual end user. Before the owners of that deliverable can accurately estimate the time and resources necessary to complete it, they have to know how the deliverable will be measured for quality and completeness. Whether this takes the form of a full featured technical specification or a one page quality criteria worksheet, the user should define it in advance. This is one of the simplest risk management techniques available. —Bill Sanders.

Tools for project managers

Aside from the most basic multi-purpose business tools, like Excel and Outlook, ad-lib PMs might find that specialised project management software actually prompts them towards best practices by way of integrated features. Assigning responsibility, estimating task completion times, and maintaining communication are facets that can all run much more smoothly if there's a tool walking you through the motions. Here are a few you might consider using for projects big and small:

Asana. This is really a task manager, but it supports multiple users, it's free and extremely flexible, and it can easily double as a lightweight project management app.

Basecamp. This is project management software used in many large organisations. A free version is a nimble and flexible option for teams of much smaller means – as long as they don't need connected storage.

Huddle. Much like Basecamp, Huddle is heavy duty project management software with a free version suitable for smaller projects and teams, and it does come with some connected storage space.

LiquidPlanner. There's one major strength with LiquidPlanner: It brings scheduling down to earth. Rather than asking users to enter soft dates for when they think work will be completed, LiquidPlanner lets project managers schedule by priority. It's a different way of thinking and working, but it may work for you. Note that LiquidPlanner does cost £18 per member per month, however, unlike the other services we've mentioned which are free (that said, it does have a month's free trial available).

There are many more tools you could use when managing a project, and sometimes the simplest ones get the job done more efficiently than the robust, fully-featured ones. If you have a great tip to share about managing projects or a program to recommend, please leave a comment below.

Image Credit: Scott Penner