Project Management 101

If you think you can ‘do it yourself,’ think again.

April 23, 2012

For years, I was an executive at a sign manufacturing company. We specialized in massive projects—from a million-dollar scoreboard at a pro football stadium to a multistate bank branding change involving hundreds of locations.

The keys to our success were both the personnel and the systems—enabling us to manage large-scale projects.

Of course, many of our customers were nervous. I remember bidding on one college stadium where the president of a general contractor was having problems convincing his key staff that we could handle the job.

To allay their fears, he flew some of these folks out to see our shop. After a brief tour and meeting, the president asked his staff to raise their hands if they thought our sign company could handle the contract.

Most of the hands went up, but a few still looked worried. “And who thinks we can handle the job ourselves?” he asked his minions.

Note: Awkward moments are often priceless ones.

For good project management in any situation, there are two choices. Either you:

  1. Hire a firm or individual with loads of experience; or
  2. Wing it, using a copy of “Project Management for Dummies” as your reference.

Being seasoned, experienced, and thoughtful credit union people, most of my colleagues probably opt for No. 2: the option (priced at $14.95, including super-saver shipping). This, apparently, is what subcontractors love to see, too. After all, they can step in later to finish things up properly for a nice paycheck.

So for those who plan to invest less than $20, here are key project management tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid overhiring. Doubling the number of workers usually won’t cut the time in half. To illustrate, a woman can have a baby in nine months. Nine women can’t reduce that time to one month.
  • Plan your milestones. If you have only two (“the beginning” and “the end”), you haven’t really tried.
  • Document everything. All projects can be accomplished on time and within budget in a make-believe world called “paper.”
  • Budget for excess. Your project will take twice as long and cost three times as much. Or is it take three times as long and cost twice as much?
  • Pad your estimate. This is a time-honored tradition of analyzing the time and resources needed and then ignoring your analysis.
  • Determine your critical path. For most of us, it’s the path to the CEO’s desk to tell him why the project still isn’t done and is massively over-budget.
  • Stay calm. Money is not your most precious resource constraint. Sanity is.
  • Don’t panic. If you use one of those computer scheduling systems to ensure you finish the project by a certain date, it will show that you should have started two weeks ago.
  • Don’t celebrate until the project is done. That light at the end of the tunnel actually is the Crazy Train coming into the station.
  • Prepare for scope creep—when the project’s goals move forward as the project moves backward.
  • Determine your priorities. You can manage costs and you can manage time. You can’t do both.
  • Plan for contingencies. The only benefit of not planning is that you’ll avoid worrying about the cliff you’re about to drive over.

Complicated projects require people with the skills to manage them—people who aren’t flustered by setbacks, but who see them as part of the process. These folks are unique, driven, and “nuts.” Due to their particular abilities, great project managers will save you a lot of time, money, and anguish.

If you still don’t know whether you need a project manager, ask your staff, “Who thinks we can handle this job?”

That awkward moment will make it obvious.

JAMES COLLINS is president/CEO at O Bee CU, Tumwater, Wash. Contact him at 360-943-0740.