Project Management Basics: What You Need to Know About Kicking Off Your First Project

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Do you need to get your firm’s website off the ground? Perhaps you’ve been asked to plan your first event, or renovate an entire property for the first time? Each of these is an example of a project, and you’re likely to come across many more of them as your growing business takes flight.

Left unmanaged, projects have a habit of going off-kilter. They can eat up more time and money than you expect; people can get things wrong or let you down, and the end result can fail to live up to yours — and your customer’s — expectations. On the other hand, getting to grips with project management helps you stay on track and avoid any nasty surprises. Here, we’ll talk you through the project essentials so you can tackle the task in-hand with confidence.

When and why do I need project management?

The Project Management Institute describes a project as “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”. Broken down, it’s something that exists separately from the day-to-day activities that keep your business going. It’s likely to consist of multiple tasks, all of which are aimed towards achieving a single goal; and a project is always temporary, due to it having a defined beginning and end.

Types of project

It could be that your business is going to be entirely project-based (if you’re planning on designing apps for companies, for instance). Alternatively, you may have the opportunity to dip into project work from time to time. Projects can be internal too: for example, you could be tasked with implementing a new marketing strategy for a particular product or event which is set to last for a specified time.

The difference between management and project management:

All businesses require management to stay afloat, but project management calls for a particular focus. There’s almost always a deadline to be met — and failure to do so can lead to dissatisfied customers and a reduced chance of repeat work. There’s usually a fixed budget to work with, and failure to keep control of your resources can mean taking a hit on profits. Projects also tend to involve teamwork and collaboration — sometimes with people from outside your business. It’s, therefore, important to ensure that everyone involved understands what’s expected of them and is working to a schedule.

What is a project manager?

A good project manager will get to grips with what’s needed from the outset, plan properly, and keep the plates spinning when it’s underway — before bringing it all to a successful conclusion. So, how do we achieve this?

Defining what needs to be achieved

A certain goal has to be achieved and your job at this stage, as project manager, is to work out precisely what it is. If it’s your first big customer, it’s very tempting to automatically say ‘yes’ to a brief (especially if that customer suggests an attractive-sounding budget). But have you fully understood what’s being requested? Have you worked out the resources that will be required to complete the job?

Especially for complex projects, draw up a list of precisely what you understand to be the customer’s wish list — i.e. each of the features that are to be included as part of the job, along with the budget (if specified) and any stipulated time limit. Ask them to confirm this first of all. It’s best not to agree to anything until you’re satisfied that it’s achievable.

Project planning

You know what needs to be achieved. Now it’s time to work out whether it’s achievable — and what’s needed to get it done. A simple flowchart can be useful here, setting out each of the tasks required to meet the end goal. You also need to pin down who’s going to do what, and when. If members of your team are involved, you need to be confident that they have the ability to carry out the tasks assigned to them. You should also factor in their existing commitments. For instance, you don’t want a situation where you or your staff are forced to neglect existing customers for the sake of a new job.

What to check:

If you need to draft in outside help (freelance developers or specialist tradesmen, for instance), you should check their availability and pricing, and ideally get them provisionally booked in before agreeing to anything with the customer. If it’s someone you haven’t used before, check testimonials and independent reviews to ensure they are up to the job. As you draw up a proposed timetable for the project, factor in an element of extra time for unforeseen delays or snags that might arise.

At the end of this process, you should have a realistic plan. This is along with a price for the project, that you can then present to the customer.

Implementing and monitoring your project management plan

It’s important to give each person involved in the project a clear schedule. You need to set out what’s required of them and when. When the project is underway, weekly meetings can be a useful way of ensuring that everything’s on track. It is also a good way of dealing with minor issues before they become larger problems. Simple project management apps such as Trello can be a great way of keeping in touch with everyone involved. It’s also useful for monitoring the progress of specific tasks.

Future projects

After you have completed your first successful project, you can then consider next steps. Project management is a professional discipline in itself. Particularly if you want to attract big clients in the future, you might think about picking up some formal training and certification in this area, and the Project Management Institute is a useful starting point if you want to learn more. Our help centre also has lots of management tips for you to browse.

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