After twenty years leading projects, my approach to project management is pretty practical. There is always something fancy you can do, but for me it comes back to the core ideas outlined below (in no particular order.)
1. Projects don’t manage themselves.
2. Respect two truths:
The triple constraint should not be gamed: The triple constraint is scope, schedule and budget. You don’t get to increase or decrease one, without affecting at least one of the others. One game that is often played with the triple constraint involves pretending that you can develop a plan without clarifying what the project scope is. Unfortunately, you really do need to decide what you want to do before you can estimate how long it will take and how much it will cost. Another game is pretending you can, say, cut the schedule in half, while achieving the same results, for the same cost. You can’t. It doesn’t matter how loud voices get, how unfamiliar you are with the word “no”, or how badly you want to be a hero. Another game is the opposite: Refusing to problem-solve or adapt in the name of the triple constraint. That’s generally just annoying and counterproductive. Good news is, learning how to have honest conversations using the triple constraint can lead to well-informed and timely decision-making throughout the life of the project. If you want to be a hero, that’s the way to do it.
People are exhaustible resources: Projects that achieve their stated objectives at the expense of the people working on them should not be considered successful projects.
3. Make the decisions you are responsible for. Support others to make the decisions they are responsible for. Work hard to ensure you and others are clear on the difference.
4. When planning...
Take the time to find out who has done something like this before. Talk to them. Chances are someone in the organization has information that will save you time or make your project better. You can leverage past projects to make schedules more realistic, improve stakeholder engagement, and/or inform technical approach.
Budget to key milestones or deliverables: Reporting on and gauging progress throughout the project becomes a lot easier when you can see how resource spend is tracking to deliverables or specific outputs, rather than just activities completed.
Create a contingency pool: Creating a plan that assumes or requires everything to go exactly according to plan is asking for trouble. Always build in contingency. Rather than assigning contingency ahead of time, set aside a a shared pool of time, dollars and/or other resources that can be allocated across the entire project, as needs arise. As possible, engage the whole team in decision-making when requests for contingency are made.
5. Projects are fertile ground for learning. Always include a project objective related to staff development. It's useful for all project team members to set a specific, personal learning goal for the project. Project leadership should work with team members to find opportunities within the project that match their goals and check-in with them on progress. If you don’t provide every team member with an opportunity to use the project to build knowledge or skills in a specific way, you are leaving a lot of value on the table.
6. Status reports are always necessary. Shared responsibility across the team for writing status reports integrates regularly scheduled reflection time into the team process. Project managers should always read status reports; it’s a sign of respect to those who wrote them. Team discussions of status should focus on learning or challenges, rather than repeating what was written in the status report. This is harder than it sounds, but worth the effort.
7. Communicate a lot. This includes both talking and listening. Do both, with emphasis on the second, more than you think you need to.