Successful Project Management: Eight Simple Steps to Follow

Best Practice | By John J Lawlor | Read time minutes

Hand holding a key with success written on the fob

A failed project can lead to loss of revenue and opportunity; failure to achieve business goals; diversion of resources from other activities; sapping of staff morale and, perhaps, even business failure. So, as projects become more complex and critical to business performance, how do you improve your chances of success?

Follow these eight simple steps to achieve great results in your projects:

1. Get Management and Stakeholder Commitment

In the first instance, you need to have the real commitment of management and stakeholders, the people who will benefit from the project. Be sure that your project has a sustainable business case and that it can deliver real business benefits, so understand both its business and technical objectives. You must maintain business focus to avoid the common pitfall of projects that deliver a technically correct solution, but one that does not meet business requirements.

You must also have a strong sponsor, someone who is sufficiently high up in the organisation to sustain commitment to the project and who will fight for it at senior management level. It is not enough simply to gain management and stakeholder commitment at the start of a project, you must work to sustain it throughout. You can do this by keeping them firmly in the communications loop and making sure that they are aware of major developments, achievements, issues and risks.

2. Define Scope, Goals and Objectives

The scope of a project defines what business areas and processes will be affected. Define it clearly and communicate it to all stakeholders. To avoid any doubt, do not be afraid to say what is not in the scope. Once defined, manage the scope carefully to avoid "scope creep," or widening of what the project will cover. The customer or sponsor should approve changes to the scope, which will almost certainly mean that the project has to be re-planned or re-costed. Don't buy in to a changed scope without re-planning the project, it is a recipe for almost certain disaster.

The sponsor or customer should define the overall business goal for the project, the "end game" that it will achieve. Once you understand the overall goal, you can then define the project's business and technical objectives. These are lower level objectives that will contribute to the achievement of the overall goal. They will form the basis of the high-level project plan.

Remember that the longer a project goes on, the more organisational change will take place. So make sure that the project is not overtaken by events that might lead to its failing to meet customer expectations.

Make sure that the project is realistic and that your organisation is capable of undertaking it. What can you reasonably and realistically achieve with the resources provided to you? Challenge your organisation and your team with stretch targets, but avoid "grand design" projects, they have a nasty habit of failing!

3. Have a Written Plan

The best way to manage your project is with a written plan. Any project over about one weeks duration or involving more than one person needs one. A plan describes:

  • How the project will be broken up into phases;
  • What tasks will be carried out in each phase;
  • Who will carry out each task;
  • How long each task will take;
  • When each task will start and finish;
  • What will be the deliverable or end product of each task, and
  • What the overall project budget is.

A plan can be as simple as a list of tasks with names, dates and deliverables written on a sheet of paper or a complex matrix of phases, tasks, dependencies, responsibilities, dates and costs managed in a software package.

4. Manage Project Resources and Encourage Team Working

A typical project involves lots of people, including end users or customer staff; technical staff; administrative and financial staff; consultants; contractors; suppliers; external advisors and outside agencies. The attendant relationships create additional dependencies and risks that you need to manage. When you also consider the need to manage cost; provide hardware, plant and machinery; deal with industrial relations; manage process change and train staff, it is clear that resource management is quite a challenge. Therefore, there is a clear need for a skilled project manager and for an effective team, working together and committed to the project.

5. Manage Communications

Maintain good communications within the project team and with the wider group of stakeholders and affected groups. The team must not become isolated from the rest of the business environment or from the ultimate customer and users. If it does, the project might run the risk that users will not accept the final system or product. Good communications are particularly important towards the end of a project to ensure that the users or customers are prepared for the implementation and for using the new system or facility.

Management might need to review and amend working agreements to ensure that staff will accept the system. Where the general public is involved, it may be necessary to consider wider communication methods like advertising, focus groups, or pilot implementation.

6. Manage Suppliers and External Sub-contractors

Modern complex projects usually involve suppliers, sub-contractors, consultants and other external resources. They create further dependencies and risks. Base agreements with suppliers and other external parties on clearly specified requirements that identify the performance standards expected and the products or systems to be designed, developed, and delivered. Meet suppliers and external parties regularly to ensure that they are performing as expected. Remember that your external resources may, in turn, depend on their suppliers and sub-contractors so be clear about whose responsibility it is to manage these dependencies and keep an eye on the performance of sub-contractors.

7. Put in Effective Control Processes

Control processes are used to make sure that the project is proceeding as planned and that deliverables meet required standards. Put simple processes in place. Hold regular project meetings, every week for most projects, to review progress against the plan. Use a standard agenda. Document and agree key decisions and formally test and accept major deliverables, which must be clearly verifiable and associated with measurable milestones. Establish a regular reporting process both at project team and project board level to provide formal reports on project status. Make sure that all stakeholders receive the right reports to maintain awareness of the project and its achievements. Establish review and quality assurance processes to maintain the quality of the products or systems being developed and the quality of the project management process. Identify and manage the risks and issues that arise during your project and put in place procedures to allocate responsibility for avoiding, resolving or mitigating them.

8. Close the Project

Lastly, bring the project to a formal close and advise all stakeholders and participants that it is complete and has achieved its objectives. Put a lot of work into tying up any last loose ends. When the project is finally over, make sure the required support and operational arrangements are in place. Wrap up project documentation and prepare the final project report. If your organisation has a quality management process, report any lessons learned or suggest opportunities for improvement so that these may be considered in future projects.

Then have a party, you and your project team will deserve it!

John Lawlor is an IT manager and consultant and has been delivering large-scale technology and business solutions and advising major public and private sector organisations for over 25 years. He is the author and presenter of training courses on general management; strategic management; project management; communications skills and personal development. He speaks regularly at seminars on public sector governance; internal audit; public financial management and value for money. He also writes on technology, business and career matters.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not represent those of any employer or other organisation with which he is or was associated.

© Copyright John J. Lawlor. All Rights Reserved.


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