How The Best Project Managers Plan for Success

Neal Ellis Project Management • Collaboration • 3 minute read

Sometimes managing projects can seem less like making the trains run on time and more like herding cats through a yarn factory. The best project managers know the secret to delivering projects on time and on budget is striking the right balance between careful planning and flexible execution. We thought we'd pull together seven essential tips to help you plan for success.

1. Strategy before tactics

When planning a project it’s easy to get lost in the details. You are a general planning a huge battle. Before you worry about the details on the ground, you need to figure our the big-picture view of your win. Make sure you have a strategy for accomplishing the goals of the project before you decide what tactics to use. If you focus on the tactics and details first you risk losing sight of the goal, and your planning will begin to cannibalize the time you have to accomplish the project.

2. A written brief is your friend

No matter how detailed the project is in your mind or how thorough your boss’s email was, if you are going to successfully manage something you need to have some parameters in writing. Creating a project brief that includes the scope, the timeline, the budget, and the contingencies or risks (every risk has a cost!) will help keep you and the project on target. If you circulate the brief to any decision makers before starting, you also protect against scope creep or surprises from other layers of management. You'll be better prepared to respond to necessary changes, and able to gently remind others of the original agreed plan.

3. Delegate, don't dictate

You know you can't get the project done all by yourself. That’s not your job. But, the difference between great project managers and everyone else is, great managers support and enable their teams, delegate authority, and don’t just dictate work. When you delegate you are showing your team you trust them and their skills. Give team members their objectives, set strategic level tasks, provide the time and budget targets, and get out of their way.

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4. Create manageable milestones

With work spread over a group of people, or even across multiple teams, it can get difficult to accurately assess the progress of the project. Make sure the entire project is broken up into smaller milestones, and help everyone stay aligned to them. This will create natural times to get reports on progress, spot problems, and monitor the budget. Having several smaller milestones will also help keep your team members motivated because it makes progress more appreciable along the way.

5. Plan for recalibration time

It's one of the cardinal project management rules: nothing ever goes quite as planned. The way the top project managers always keep projects on time and on budget is that during the planning stage they factor in time to correct mistakes and adjust as needed. When circumstances change, having a plan and some resources available will keep things on track, prevent shifting the blame, and truly demonstrate your abilities as a manager.

6. Commit to a 'get to work' date!

Poor planning may be the biggest reason projects fail, but the second biggest reason is over planning. Almost like a law of nature, planning will expand to fill all of the time allotted to it. Going over the details, fine-tuning ideas and generating proposals is important. However, it is also easy to procrastinate and end up wasting time while telling yourself you are just being a thorough planner. Early on in the process, commit to a firm date when you'll begin the execution of the project. 

7. Celebrate the accomplishments

Your team works hard. You work hard. Often during the middle of a large project everyone begins to feel a little weary and to silently wonder if the project is going to work. It's critical to keep yourself and your team motivated by celebrating small accomplishments along the way, not just the end result. This doesn’t mean throwing a large party every week. The mini-celebrations could be as simple as taking a moment to provide a truly thoughtful compliment, ensuring positive feedback is always part of your team meetings, sending an email of appreciation, or taking team members out for a coffee.

After all, it's through continual small moments of achievement that even the biggest projects reach successful completion.

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