How to Manage the Process

Digital or not, all projects can benefit from good, solid project management.

In a previous career, I spent close to a decade honing my project management skills creating print publications for a large network of nonprofit organizations. My colleagues and I sent hundreds of items to print every few months, and each had to pass through a lengthy review process on the path from creation to final product. By trial and error, by formal training, and by informal observation, I learned how to plan, how to communicate options, and how to adjust when faced with unexpected roadblocks.

These skills have served me well in public history work, too. My day to day tasks may be different, but I’m still ushering projects from start to finish, communicating with stakeholders, and plotting how to get around hurdles.

Of course, even the most skilled project manager can’t control everything. People will miss crucial deadlines. Essential emails will be deleted. Entire shipments of just-printed materials will be destroyed in freight train accidents (yes, that happened to me once).

That’s why it’s called project management: at your best, you’re managing, not controlling, the process.

Here are five helpful tips I learned in the project management trenches:

1. Always have a plan
It may seem obvious, but don’t take planning for granted. How will you complete this project and when? How long will each step take, when do you need others’ feedback, and how big a deal will it be to be late? Are vendors about to hit their busiest time of year? Is your supervisor about to go on vacation for a month?

Having a plan will make your job a lot less stressful, and help you quickly see how the project will be impacted when something unexpected inevitably arises.

2. When planning, assume tasks will take twice as long as you think they should
You should always build a bit of cushion or fudge time into your plan. One simple way to do this is to simply assume that each task will take you twice as long to complete. But this trick will work only if you still aim to complete those tasks within your original estimate, or in half the time you’ve allotted.

This tip applies to deadlines you set for other people too: if you are thinking of requesting feedback in 4 days, consider building enough time in your plan to allow for 6-8 days instead. If your reviewers meet your original deadline, you’ll have an early jump on the next milestone.

3. Revise your plan regularly
A plan is of no use if you don’t keep it up to date. Miss a deadline? Revise the rest of your milestones accordingly. Finish a task early? Decide how to use your “extra” time. Receive a new assignment? How will it fit in with the deadlines you’ve already set?

4. Keep people in the loop
Your boss, your colleagues, your partner organizations — all may benefit from knowing how your project is progressing and whether you’re expecting their involvement. No need to inundate people with phone calls or emails, but keep the appropriate parties in the loop on key milestones.

5. Prioritize your time
At some point, you’re going to have more tasks to do than you have time to do them. In fact, many of us feel like we always have more tasks to do than we have time to do them. That’s where prioritizing comes in.

Don’t leave it up to chance to decide what gets done from your overcrowded to-do list. And don’t assume you must pull all-nighters to get everything done. Decide up front what’s most important, and make sure you’re spending your time on that. Reschedule the less important and less urgent tasks,  and don’t get distracted by squeaky wheels that have nothing to do with reaching your goal.