The Low-Down on Effective Project Management

We asked a range of industry insiders: what were their tips for effective project management? Here's the advice they shared. Get ready, this stuff is pure gold.
Masooma Memon
July 26, 2022

Effective project management is the key to client satisfaction and a reputation that keeps bringing clients back to you. 

The catch? There’s no cookie-cutter approach to successful project management. Instead, what you need is a clear understanding of projects in your pipeline, the resources available at your disposal, and a birds-eye view of project bottlenecks.

Not sure where to start? We’ve got nine insider tips to help you overcome project management challenges and maximize efficiency.

 Let’s dive in.

1. Prioritize goal setting

Before anything, learn to set realistic goals. Not only do you need clear, actionable goals for project success but also for ensuring your organization grows strategically.

 So start off with setting annual goals. Identify:

  • Which projects do you want to work on?
  • Who is your ideal client?
  • What new initiatives you’d like to take to encourage your team to step out of their comfort zone?

These questions encourage sustainable growth, helping you refine your ideal client profile and build a solid reputation in the market. 

From there, break down your annual goals into quarterly and monthly goals so you can flesh out a plan to achieve them.

But you don’t need broad goals alone. Instead, you need to set clear goals for each project in the pipeline. Determine:

  • What results do you want to drive for a project?
  • Who will work on the project?
  • When do you want to ideally complete this project?

 Another crucial aspect of project planning: break each project down into stages. These assist in tracking project progress, helping make sure you’re achieving project goals within the budget and project schedule you’ve assigned to it.

2. Communicate effectively

With project managers spending between 75-90% of their time communicating, communication is clearly one of the most important project management skills to hone.

In fact, Callie Coe, the Project Manager at VisualFizz opines that most projects go sideways due to a lack of communication.

“From the very start, if roles are not assigned, responsibilities are not clearly defined or expectations not clearly outlined, the project will flop,” Coe notes. “It’ll be doomed from the get-go. Avoid the headache of angry stakeholders and frustrated team members by mapping this out at kickoff and keeping up with communication on a daily and/or weekly basis.”

A few more tips to help you communicate effectively:

  • Pick a communication channel to streamline all communication. This saves project team members from notification overwhelm and makes it easy for them to keep a record of all project communication.
  • Have a process to communicate with your project stakeholders. Determine at which stages in your project journey you’ll share project updates with them. Set reminders in your calendar during project planning so you don’t forget to keep clients in the loop. Bonus: this helps you build strong relationships with clients helping you retain them
  • Clearly communicate the project scope with your client and team in the project planning stage. This way, your clients know what to not expect from you and employees know the exact project requirements and work they’re responsible for.
  • Create an internal communications handbook. Again, this helps you create a consistent process around clear team communication. Lay down the principles for how often you’ll meet to share progress status, when to call a meeting, and when a team member should leave a message versus creating a screen-recorded video to share concerns.

3. Make sure you know what's coming down the pipeline

Effective project management relies on having visibility into each project on your plate.

After all, not having a project in sight prevents you from prioritizing it. The result? Neglected work and missed deadlines — ultimately leading to unsatisfied clients.

So choose a format to manage your project pipeline:

  • Paper or whiteboard. These are best for small teams working on a few projects. Keep in mind though, a physical project manager is uneditable, doesn’t let you automate tasks, and can never meet the requirements of a remote or hybrid team.
  • Spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are the digital versions of paper project managers. They’re editable and you can easily share them with your team. However, they offer limited automation and do little to support team collaboration.
  • Software. A project management software makes up for all the weaknesses of paper and spreadsheet project managers. These are easy to create, making project tracking, task assignment, automation, and team collaboration a breeze. To add, these are perfect for coordinating with a global team.

But remember: for successful project management, getting an overview of projects in your pipeline is only the first step. As you advance, create a full breakdown of a project including the individual tasks that’ll go into it, project financials, and the people working on it.

You should also be able to track the time that goes into each project to ensure you’re on budget. Tracking and analyzing project times also helps you understand how long it takes to complete certain types of projects — assisting you in delivering work within the promised time and setting prices better.

4. Keep a follow-up list to save things from falling through the cracks

Not all clients will be open to working with you right away. Perhaps the time isn’t right, or they may ask you to follow up in a couple of months.

Similarly, a client may need some time to deliberate on an add-on service you offered with their ongoing project.

In all such instances, a follow-up list comes in handy. As Matt Graves, Project Manager and owner of the PM blog Construction Yeti, explains:

“A follow-up list is key to helping remind you when you need to make sure no team member drops the ball.”

 Graves notes while it’s common to keep a to-do list, a follow-up list helps keep senior project managers on top of their project goals. 

5. Build and refine your processes

No matter how powerful a project management software you use, it won’t help with managing projects if your work processes are faulty.

 “A bad process with the right tool will not lead to success, nor will access to great leaders and half-baked ideas being filtered into a PM who doesn’t know the team and how to leverage it,” says one Startup and FAANG Project Manager.

So what helps?

“Deep relationships across the organization, combined with well-defined but adaptable processes, are the lifeblood of any effective project and program manager”.

In fact, clearly defined processes help throughout the project plan — from initiation to completion.

But here’s the thing: clear processes are rarely ever born in the first try. Instead, rounds of iteration help you reach working processes that support efficient project management.

So whether you’re creating a human resource planning process or a process to prevent revenue leakage, be patient. 3-6 months after you create an initial process, gather feedback from your team to learn how well the process is working for them. Refine the process based on the feedback you get.

6. Use a resource management tool

Managing the people working on your projects is just as important as managing projects right. Without it, you’d likely struggle with delivering quality work by the set project schedule.

Besides, effective resource management is essential to employee engagement. This, in turn, pays dividends. In fact, a Harvard Business Review survey reveals that 56% of the respondents say their company reaps positive ROI by pursuing employee engagement.

Jim Stewart, Project Management Consultant at JP Stewart Consulting, echoes the same. Stewart recalls an experience of being called in to help a corporation that was running at least eight projects, with several more in the pipeline.

The situation? “Their main projects were overdue (some significantly) and team members were complaining that they were overutilized (meaning more than 100% utilization) and overallocated (meaning too many projects or conflicting assignments),” Stewart shares.

And the one that helped Stewart steer this client clear of the mess? A resource management tool. 

“By implementing a new resource management tool, we were able to establish demonstrably that their entire IT team was never utilized anywhere near 50% on average. In fact, some of the teams were at 22% utilization,” explains Stewart, “The only people who were 100% utilized were project managers. And the few people who were highly utilized or overallocated were fairly easy to resolve with adjustments by the PMs.” 

“Getting a clear view of who was working on what, where, and when helped us to see that their problems weren’t actually due to overwork or misallocation of resources,” Stewart recalls. 

“This was an essential part of the puzzle that helped us understand that they had other systemic problems which contributed a lot more to the failure of some of their larger projects."

The takeaway? If you already don’t have a finger on your resources, you need to invest in a resource management tool right away. The software will tell you:

  • Who your resources are and what their key skills are (which helps with resource allocation)
  • When resources are available to take on work (resource availability)
  • Which resources are under-used and which ones are overloaded (effective resource utilization)
  • When an employee is due an off and when they took their last vacation (helping with project allocation and employee engagement)

Pro tip: Use a project management software such as Runn that has robust resource management features. This way, you can manage your projects and resources in one place without switching between project management tools.

7. Give honesty the front seat

“It’s okay not to have all the answers,” notes Matt Graves from Construction Yeti. “It’s okay to simply say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll check on it and get back to you.’”

The point here is simple: instead of lying or faking things (which could land you into further trouble), tell the truth.

“No one will look down on you if you don’t have the answer,” Graves says, "If anything, they will appreciate the honesty and will actually be more impressed when you do as you say and follow back up with the answer.”

A good approach then is to promote honesty in your company culture. This will help you build strong relationships with employees as well as leave a lasting impression on your clients.

8. Take regular stock of potential bottlenecks and blockers

Another effective tip to manage projects is to identify and correct bottlenecks before they cause serious damage.

Essentially, bottlenecks are anything that hamper your project workflow, preventing you from reaching your maximum productivity.

You can face both internal bottlenecks — caused by unproductive employees, for example — or external bottlenecks, caused by the tools you use.

The best way to identify them is to lay out your processes as workflows. From there, highlight potential congestion points.

Once you’ve a list, explore them one by one to confirm whether they’re a bottleneck and what damage they’re causing. Then dedicate resources to rectify the productivity-impacting problem factors.

9. Only take on as many projects as you can manage

Lastly, it’s essential you only take on as many projects as you have the capacity for. 

For anyone who doesn’t have an overview of the projects they’re working on at any given time, this is going to be challenging. In such a case though, the starting point is getting a project planning software

Once you’ve eyes on the projects in your pipeline, study how well you and your team are handling them. Ask yourself:

  • Are there any projects that are being neglected due to a lack of time or resources?
  • Are we meeting project goals and delivering quality results that we promised clients?
  • Are all employees working at their optimal capacity with no one being overloaded?

If you find yourself replying negatively to any of these questions, invest in capacity planning. This ensures that you're meeting client demands with available resources at your end.

If at any point, you anticipate a high workflow season, consider onboarding contractors to help meet the demand. You’ll also want to automate repetitive processes to free up employees’ time so they can focus on client work.

However, if you’re dealing with understaffing, you can’t make up for it by hiring contractors. In that case, you’ll need to create a staffing plan and start hiring.

And that’s a wrap.

Remember, effective project management boils down to knowing your team well and having visibility into the projects on your plate. 

From there, build processes and improve team communication to take projects to the finish line as smoothly as possible.

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