project managementMany learning professionals are unexpected project managers. Although you never dreamed you’d be a project manager, suddenly your whole work life revolves around projects. You’re the manager on some of these projects, some you participate in, and you compete with others for scant resources. The project manager with the organizational skills necessary to manage this project maze will thrive. 

Here is a brief overview of 10 steps to successful project management. 

Step 1: Decide if you have a real project to manage 

Many learning professionals unexpectedly become project managers. You never planned for this role, but now find that you spend most of your time working on projects. The first thing you need to know is how to tell the difference between a task, a process, and a project. Many of the things now on your to-do list really aren’t tasks—they’re projects. By treating them as such, you’ll work more effectively. 

Step 2: Prove your project is worth your time 

In both profit and nonprofit entities, there is a limited amount of money and a finite number of people to get things done. Learning professionals need to be able to discern and document the business reason for any project. When you understand the financial part of project management, you clearly will see the impact of projects that wrap up late or come in over budget. 

Step 3: Manage scope creep 

Ask 100 people if documenting scope is critical to project success, and I bet that 99 percent of them would say “yes.” I also think that at least 70 percent don’t document scope at all. Most people feel that describing the scope in writing requires difficult conversations with busy executives and page after page of contract-like text demanding sign-off. They assume it’s better just to get going on the project. They’re wrong. Learning professionals need to know how to document scope graphically so they can enhance communication and limit scope creep. 

Step 4: Identify, rate, and manage risks 

A project risk is something that could happen during the project, and it’s something you make plans to mitigate or avoid. By brainstorming at the outset about what could go wrong during the project and how such situations might be managed or mitigated, you take some of the pain of interruption out of project work. 

Remember, however, that you’ll never think of everything that might happen on a project. And sometimes it’s not worth the extra energy to preplan for a risk that is not very likely or won’t have a great impact. 

Step 5: Collaborate successfully 

One of the most important things I’ve learned about project management is the usefulness of collaboration. It sounds simple. But, in practice, collaboration is extremely difficult. 

There will be many times when you’re angry with someone on the team or with one of the stakeholders because a promise has been broken, a change has been made, or some other bomb has been dropped. At this moment of anger, you choose between collaboration and payback (a project killer). Learning professionals need to know how to take a deep breath and create collaboration without regard to the turmoil and personal agendas. 

Step 6: Gather your team and make a schedule 

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In many project management classes, you learn how to make a work breakdown structure to brainstorm the tasks needed in a project, and then how to hook all the tasks together along a timeline. It’s a good academic exercise, but is rarely done in the real world. 

On an actual project, you’re given the end date and a bank of resources that usually seem unreasonable and inadequate, respectively, and you have to fit the tasks you want to do into that tight space. Consequently, it’s important to know how to create a plan from a fixed date, a fixed budget, and constrained resources. 

Step 7: Adjust your schedule 

When the project starts, it’s challenging to monitor how it’s going. Project status meetings can become “who hunts,” in which participants spend the entire meeting figuring out who’s at fault. Keeping track of all the people whose work you need at critical times is very difficult. 

It’s better to use quick, repeatable ways to communicate status and keep everyone aligned with the project. Know the warning signs that reveal when a project is drifting into trouble. 

Step 8: Embrace the natural chaos of people 

Chaos happens—that’s a given. But chaos really is just the result of people changing their minds, getting angry and frustrated, misunderstanding directions, and working under stress. Learnng professionals need to be ready to employ the people skills required to build relationships, manage conflict, and negotiate disagreements. 

Step 9: Know when you’re done 

Ending a project doesn’t begin when the project is complete; it begins in Steps 1 through 4. Clearly defining and communicating what “done” means throughout a project are critical aspects of ending well. 

Step 10: Follow up to learn lessons 

The most important and least practiced project management skill is the ability to do a post-project review. Having the discipline to set aside time and reflect on a project, alone or with others, ensures that future projects will be better managed. Learning professionals can use a standard template to help capture lessons learned during the project when facilitating the project debrief. 

Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from 10 Steps to Successful Project Management.


Learn more tips and advice for managing projects at the Project Management for Learning Professionals Certificate program.