Thursday, 1 April 2010

Interviewing an experienced project manager

This afternoon, as part of my AMA, I interviewed one of my colleagues, Isabel Benavides about her experiences of project management. Isabel is the project officer in our department and has also project managed a variety of different projects, large and small, in the past.

Talking to Isabel proved really useful as she talked about what had worked well in projects she has managed in the past and gave me examples of how she uses the tools that I’ve learnt about and am starting to use more and more in my own work. As so many people say, a lot of project management is common sense, but sometimes it’s just useful to take the time out of your everyday life to sit down and think ‘common sensically’ about it. Hearing her describe how she deals with situations that I’m familiar with also gave me the confidence to try and use some of her strategies myself.

The success of one of Isabel’s previous projects was partly due, she believes, to having set up a steering group and a working group at the start and having clearly defined the roles of each person with a job description at the start. The steering group was particularly useful at the start of the project when setting out the strategic vision of the project. She recommends keeping the steering group fairly small and making sure that key people who have a strategic stake in the project are involved. For a smaller project a steering group is probably not necessary, but a working group set up from the start of the project who are very hands-on, problem solving and carrying out the project can still be very useful.

Other factors that made this project successful in Isabel’s view were the freedom and space that she was given to work with the blank canvas at the start of the project, recruiting a good team, having good electronic and filing systems and good training and development.

I asked Isabel whether she deals differently with smaller projects than she would with bigger ones. This was partly because I sometimes feel that using all the tools and mechanism that I was taught to use in project management training feels like overkill on a small project, but, on projects where I have not used them, I’ve inevitably regretted it towards the end. I was cheered to hear that Isabel thinks that these tools are always useful in all projects, but it was interesting to hear the way she phrases her communications with project team members in such a way that it doesn’t need to feel overly formal and contrived. She also feels that even if people respond skeptically at first to tools that may be unfamiliar, an efficient and well-run project will always win them over in the end.

One example that stuck in my mind was establishing the communications plan. I have written communications plans for myself in the past but never found a way of circulating them to a project team without it feeling overly bureaucratic and heavy. But as Isabel explained, this need not be a case of circulating numerous Word document attachments, but simply making sure that all the partners know who is involved in the project, what their involvement is, and how, whether and when to contact each other. So this could be an email dialogue between the project manager here and the project manager at a partner organisation saying:

‘These are the people working on this project full time, their email addresses are… We will also be working with an external consultant called X, the museum project manager will liaise directly with this person and feed back to the project team.’

Isabel had a useful tip for preparing for meetings which was to mentally consider all the worst case scenarios beforehand and all the things that people might take issue with and to think about how to deal with them.

Two more essential tips from Isabel which are, again, common sense, but in reality probably don’t come to mind as easily as they should:

  • If you feel frustrated by a project, take a step away from your desk, get a coffee, go for a walk or whatever before responding to whatever has frustrated you
  • Slow down to speed up – projects will always get done faster in the end if you take the time at the beginning to plan for them

I’ve come away brimming with ideas for how to improve my existing methods. I think I’ve already made some big improvements to my project management in the last few years and I already use a lot of the strategies that people suggest, but with some little tweaks based on Isabel's advice I think I could really continue to improve them.

Things I will try and do from now on:

  1. Establish a working group at the very start of a project
  2. Get the working group involved in all of the decisions establishing the aims, objectives and outcomes of the project, thus ensuring that everyone is on board from the start.
  3. Establish timescales at the start together with the team and then set them in stone and have the confidence to stick to them. This way I’ll hopefully decrease the likelihood of things not being delivered on time, but also hopefully reduce the risk of people coming back with changes after a sign off phase has passed.
  4. Extend the usual planning I do before meetings to consider all the worst case scenarios and all the things that people might respond to my points and how I will deal with them

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