CTS – Your Technology Partner

Lessons Learned from Managing Projects

Written by Brendan Thompson on August 13, 2015


Flat design of project management

Someone recently asked about my experience as a first time project manager. After recovering from the nervous sweats, I thought of the following mistakes I made and lessons I learned to create this Spinal Tap-inspired top eleven list. What advice would you share with a first time project manager?

  1. Regardless of the project type, always have some kind of plan (file type doesn’t matter) that you and your team are working on. The plan will allow you to verify with your customers that you’re working the right activities and identify any expectations issues early to avoid situations where your customer is questioning activities or value during invoicing.
  2. Within your plan, try to break activities into small tasks (half a day, one day, etc.). The smaller tasks will allow you to know early if something is falling behind.
  3. With your plan, seek guidance and feedback from people in peer and higher level roles. They’ll likely ask questions that will make you think about something you hadn’t previously considered. You’ll likely end up with a better plan.
  4. With your plan, do your best to make the customer’s obligations and schedule commitments as clear as possible.
  5. Request regular feedback from your team members regarding task status, ideally at least once a day. If your tasks are granular enough, you’ll be able to identify issues early and get help or address any implications with your customer.
  6. If you identify a problem that will result in a project delay, make sure you fully understand the problem and identify options for resolution before waving red flags to the customer. At the same time, don’t let too many days go by before you alert the customer. You’ll generally find they appreciate your timeliness and professionalism.
  7. If a customer falls behind on commitments, address it as quickly as possible. You may not be able to change it, but you want it to be on the record early. Also, avoid being too heavy-handed in these situations. This is where I like to rely on my plan. “Ms. Customer, I’m referring back to our plan that we agreed to a month ago and not having the test SQL Server instance available is going to affect our schedule, here are some options to address …”
  8. If you find yourself working with a stakeholder who tries to shield you from interaction with other client reps and you need to get a message to those other client representatives, work with your higher-level colleagues. Working with other team members will give you the ability to say “Sorry Mr. Customer, our VP has his own relationships, and I’m too focused on your project to control him”.
  9. When asked questions, if you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say you don’t have an answer. You can say something like “I’m not sure I can give you a complete answer on that right now. Let me get back to you later today, tomorrow morning, etc.”
  10. As best as possible, try to schedule your day around your projects. In particular, be aware of the number of client and internal meetings that you can productively handle in a single day. Figure out if you prefer group status meetings on a single day, or if it makes more sense to spread them out across the week. Don’t be afraid to tell customers when you have a schedule conflict. They’ll understand. It happens to all of us, and it’s better than saying yes but not really being able to accomplish what they want because your schedule doesn’t really allow it.
  11. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions. If you’re leading a requirements effort and you want to avoid shell shock when you present your estimate, ask if the customer has a particular budget in mind. You can frame the question like “Ms. Customer, can you guide me regarding your budget for this effort? With a project like this, we could spec out a Cadillac-style solution with a price in the high six figures or we could stay pretty close to bare bones, avoid all bells and whistles and stay in the XXX range. Your guidance will ensure we deliver a spec and solution plan that’s aligned with your budget expectations.”