At the end of the summer, I was challenged to give a workshop on Project Management to the interns of the Summer Internship Program at The Loop co.
I was worried about how to describe Project Management and keep it interesting, as I remembered some of my college classes regarding this subject (insert yawn). Therefore, I tried to focus on tips that are more practical and not so much on the theory behind it. It turns out it was a success and made everyone excited about it and curious to know more.
So, we thought about condensing some of the info I shared with the interns and bringing it to you too. That way maybe you can be as excited about it as I am (yes, I am a nerd for organization and productivity).
First, to fully understand Project Management and for my tips to make sense we need to start with the 3 big questions: what, why and how. What is Project Management? Why is it so indispensable to have a productive team? And how does it actually work?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a project as “a piece of planned work or an activity that is finished over a period of time and intended to achieve a particular purpose” . As the definition states, this project is expected to have a defined timeline, a main goal, and to be carried on by someone — the team. Sometimes it can also have a budget, stakeholders and specific resources. So, having in mind the definition of “project” we can understand that its management consists of applying skills, knowledge and tools to complete it according to the specified requirements, and also to help the teams work smarter instead of harder.
In summary, Project Management is all about identifying the problem, creating a plan, executing it and ending with a solved problem.
Well, but now you ask me “Is it really necessary? Can’t we just have a calendar with scheduled deadlines, a document with a list of requirements, and exchange some e-mails? I’m sure the project will be completed on its timeline, Marta.” To that I answer “Yeah, I’m sure it will be completed, but how many more hours will you spare above the initially planned? And what about you and the team, will you have a smile on your faces on the delivery day or will you be tired and fed up with it all?” That’s why project management is key, especially as the team and project’s complexity starts to grow.
Project Management allows the team to focus on the work that matters. With tasks and a timeline well defined the team will be more efficient, people will be less stressed and feel motivated, the goals will be achieved and the client will be happier.
Thus, the Project Manager (PM), having a global vision of all the parts of the project, will help the team have a smooth workflow. By understanding the big picture, the PM will be able to make better decisions to overcome blockers and sometimes even anticipate potential problems, making sure the project doesn’t go out of track. Accompanying the team allows the PM to understand what works better or worse and what can be improved.
Moreover, how will this be achieved? The PM guarantees the project is delivered within the budget and time initially programmed. His/her responsibilities can vary according to the phase of the project. The PM must plan tasks, make sure their executed, monitor the team and guarantee that the project is finished. He/she also has to make sure everyone is on the same page, from the team to the stakeholders, so that the goal is achieved at the specified deadline, the team is not overwhelmed and the stakeholders are happy.
A huge part of the “how” is the choice of the project management methodology to follow. The methodologies are different ways to approach a project and they have specific processes and flows. According to its characteristics, each methodology is adequate for certain contexts and scenarios. I will not focus on the description of each methodology category, since that is not the purpose of this article. What is important to retain, is the right methodology should be chosen according to the project to which it will be applied. At The Loop Co., on our software engineering projects, we usually follow agile methodologies, like Scrum or Kanban, which allow the team to be flexible and to easily adjust as the clients update the requirements. Sometimes we even adjust the workflow mid-project to make it better suit the team and the circumstances. Moreover, we usually do not follow all the methodology’s guidelines rigidly; we tweak them to our needs.
An important part of the management of any project is its lifecycle. It is usually related to the chosen methodology, but there are generally four main phases. The initial phase when the project is well defined, the planning phase, to establish the main roadmap and guidelines of the project, the executing and monitoring phase when the project is actually developed, and the closing phase when the project is finished, delivered and we have a happy client. It is furthermore when we celebrate the achievement with the team and the company, to spread the joy and fulfilment of a delivered project! The last phase is a great chance to take lessons since it is when we can better access what went well or wrong and what can be improved in the upcoming projects.
Gladly, to ease all these processes, we have a ton of helpful tools nowadays. Most of them are desktop or mobile apps, but even the traditional pen and paper can ease the teams’ and the PM’s life. I’ll share my favorite ones with you.
The usual communication tools, such as e-mail and instant messaging tools (Teams, Slack, Discord, etc.) are fundamental for discussions and clarifications. Besides that, a project management software is very helpful to keep all the tasks organized and to streamline the workflow of the team. It helps the team to get things done and the PM to manage resources allocation, timelines and organize sprints. My personal favourite currently is ClickUp, but there are tons of good options, like Trello, Monday or Jira.
Working on software and web development, it is crucial to have a version control tool (which sometimes works as a documentation tool as well) as GitLab or GitHub, to make sure the code can be easily reviewed, its quality can be assured and also ease the deployment process.
I also believe it is crucial for the team, but especially for the PM to have a personal productivity system too. A calendar, a diary or a Bullet Journal help schedule all meeting and delivery dates and keep track of everything that needs to be accomplished. For some people, paper is the way to go to keep the mind clean and focused. Nevertheless, if you like to keep everything online, Notion, Evernote or Microsoft To Do may be great alternatives for note-taking and to-do lists in steroids.
I’ve managed teams for almost two years now. Some may say that’s not much, and it is not, indeed. Nonetheless, in these two years, I learned a lot of valuable lessons that will help me manage teams better in the future. I thought about sharing some of them with you, so they can help you too, whether you are starting as a PM or even if you are an experienced PM and just need a boost to re-focus.
1. Set the example — if we want the team to follow the established workflow we must do it too, otherwise, they may feel it is not necessary.
2. Don’t be afraid to lead the team — Sometimes we’re afraid to lead because we know people don’t like to be “bossed around”. The key is to understand they feel more capable and confident if they’re oriented and guided, to know they’re on the right track, and that’s the PM’s job.
3. If you (the PM) are feeling lost, the team is most likely feeling lost too: stop, re-focus, re-organize and get back on track. And make sure to make everything clear for the team.
4. Accountability is crucial! — The PM guides the team, but the team must work with the PM too and be accountable for their responsibilities.
5. Small changes can make a big difference — Listen to the teams’ feedback. Something that may seem very useful to you may be tedious to them. Take that feedback and adapt the workflow accordingly.
6. Brainstorm with the team — Check on your team members regularly, understand their pains and make sure their ideas are heard and taken into account, not only on a personal level but also when finding better solutions for the project.
7. Keep the team motivated — Remember to cheer the team when things go well and to share with them those awesome compliments the client gave about the new feature.
8. Think “what would the client want?” — This can help you make better decisions, anticipate problems and give more accurate answers to the team.
9. Organize team buildings — Some time off to disconnect from work and to connect with colleagues is very good to relax and to be even more productive on the next day.
Nowadays Project Management is no longer only related to tasks, budget and deadlines. Companies are realizing it is a crucial tool to have fast and efficient results and to keep teams focused, motivated and happy, for the projects to be a success. Project Managers must not only have the hard skills necessary to accomplish the job, but also soft skills to help keep the team and the project on track. The main duty of the PM is to guarantee the team the team is happy, the project is complete, and the client is satisfied with the result.
For me, one of the most fascinating things about Project Management is one can never know everything about it, because it shifts according to the team, the project itself and the context. It is a constant learning process, and the lessons arise day by day. I hope these tips help teams and Project Managers to work smarter and happier.
— By Marta Mercier, Head of Software Engineering