Last month, I offered three tips for better project management, including how to delegate properly, how to make the most of tools, and how to close out your project in a meaningful way. But project management presents so many unique challenges, with a vast field of research that continuously presents new approaches and perspectives, so I couldn’t help but follow up with some more advice.
These tips focus on proactively managing several of the things that can sneak up on you and derail your success. It sometimes feels like little failure demons lurk in every corner, waiting to give you a good “gotcha!” Here’s how risk management, change management, and scope management will improve your chances for success.
1. Pay Close Attention to Your Risks
A risk is a threat that has yet to materialize, and the first thing you can do to prevent it from materializing is simply know that it exists. If you are developing a new application that customers can use to pay their bills, risks might range from the more minor or moderate (a team member gets reassigned, leaving you short-staffed) to the major (changes in mobile payment regulations require you to use entirely different technology). You can’t prevent every risk from happening, but a comprehensive and thoughtful account of any conceivable risk can help you manage the possibility.
During the planning phase of your project, develop a risk log where you can track any risk that might present a challenge to your timeline, your budget, or your overall ability to complete the project. There are many different templates available online, but most of them suggest including a description of the risk, the date on which it was raised, the likelihood that it will happen, and the severity of the consequences if it does. Each risk should have an owner assigned to monitor it and, most importantly, a meaningful set of actions that can be taken to reduce the chance of that risk occurring (if any exist). For example, the risk that a server could fail, causing the loss of people’s data, might be low probability but high severity, satisfied by a mitigation plan to install a back-up server. Even though the probability is low, the impact would be so great that early and secure steps to account for its possibility would be worth the cost and effort.
Remember that this should be a living, breathing document, and new risks should be accounted for and monitored as they arise over the course of the project.
2. Lay the Groundwork for Change
Project management necessarily means you’re disrupting the status quo in some way. And it’s no secret that many people find change, well, difficult, to say the least. In a white paper for the Project Management Institute, consultant Marge Combe discusses the concept of change readiness as both the capital—human and otherwise—an organization is ready to dedicate to a change, and the psychological willingness of the people whose cooperation is required to implement the change. If you can’t afford to make the change, or if all your workers are lined up outside with signs of protest, you’re obviously not in much of a position to move forward.
So what can you do to lay the groundwork for a change, whether big or small? The tangible aspects of change management are a bit easier to deal with. If it’s clear you don’t have the money, equipment, or technological capacity to get the work done, then these are things you must address straight away.
It’s the cultural and psychological work that requires more careful execution. If employees or customers are resistant to a change, take the time to understand why. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding you can clear up, or a major flaw with your plan that you hadn’t considered. A team of clerical staff might be grumbling about a switch from processing paper forms to electronic forms. Rather than assuming the team is resistant to change, a discussion with them about their reservations might reveal that the electronic system has no way to handle exceptions, which will ultimately lead to disorganization and two separate processes. Understanding perspective of the staff that would use this day in and day out can help to ensure that the change serves the entire organization.
Organizations with people who are open to a change and who understand the change and its benefits to them are much more likely to see that change happen seamlessly than ones that keep their people in the dark.
3. Think of Scope Creep As Your Mortal Enemy
Scope creep—when the parameters of your project gradually outgrow the original borders you’d established—is a frequent derailer of projects. And this is largely because it often seems to make sense to expand upon your original scope. You may find yourself slapping your forehead in a “why didn’t I think of that” moment or being convinced by a stakeholder that an extra bell or whistle will save workers hours every day.
As a rule, do not—I repeat, do not—cave to these demands.
Of course, sometimes requirements do change, and it may be easier to change the game today than to come back when all is said and done. But these additions often add up, delivering you straight to the unhappy universe of over-budget and off-schedule.
The best way to prevent scope creep is to spend more time and energy up front gathering requirements, exhaustively interviewing those with subject matter expertise, and asking the right questions to make sure you’re not missing anything. And in the inevitable event that you do, carefully consider the costs and benefits of a change to your scope. If need be, keep a running list of phase two enhancements that you can revisit once the original project is off the ground.
So much of getting the results you want on the timeline you need can be traced back to being proactive. Train yourself to smell a problem before it arises, and to feel the tug of scope creep before it sends you down a wormhole of distraction. You won’t think of everything, but foresight beats out hindsight any day.