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Five Ways to Turn Small Projects into Professional Success

Role of the Project Manager | By Kevin Eikenberry | Read time minutes

A project management workflow diagram written on yellow sticky notes

I know that there have been people with the title of project manager for many years, and there has been a growing body of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques in the area of project management for a long time. Yes, there have always been projects. But never before has it been so important for every person to be able to lead, manage or participate in projects of all sizes.

The quality movement of the 80s and 90s taught people everywhere that work is a process - that we can look at our work in this way to make improvements, large and small. The improvement came in part because it got people to think about their work in new ways.

Work is still a process, but many jobs have less of a process focus than they once did. Technology has driven some of this change - many steps that used to be manual and labour intensive are now handled by computers and their related tools. But expectations and needs have changed too. With technology and ever streamlined processes, organisations have looked to people at all levels in the organisation to do more than manage or work in a process, they expect people to do project work too.

Once you recognise that your job expectations, regardless of your job title, include initiating, leading and completing projects your focus changes. Now you have to develop or use some different skills and behaviours than were required in the daily ritual. Now you have to think differently and act differently, because the world has changed.

While my advice applies to the big company-wide initiatives - there are many resources to help you with that in-depth knowledge. My focus is on the small improvement project; planning the next company meeting, the redistribution of customers among sales people, and a thousand more - the smaller pieces of work that are projects, even if we haven't thought of them in that way.

Here are five things you can do starting today to excel with these small team or personal projects:

  1. The assignment is just the start. Projects may come to you dressed as tasks or assignments. Stop. Don't just take the assignment. If you want to make a difference you have to listen to the assignment, and then start creating the project. Ask questions to further understand the situation. Investigate the big picture. Find out what the root cause of the request really is. Often leaders (and all of us) have a problem, come up with a solution then get someone to implement the task we identified - and too often that solution is only a band-aid, or won't solve the problem at all. The first way to excel in project work is to refine and redefine the project until it is something that really matters and can have real impact.
  2. Fall in love (with your project). As you are re-crafting and re-tooling your project you should be creating something that you can be passionate about. This won't be hard if you have truly turned it into something that matters.
  3. Sell your new project. Once you have done #1, you've changed the project forever. This isn't about getting people to "buy-in" to your new scope and vision of the project, though you certainly need that. This is about getting people to get it - to see how this project can have real value. To help them see that the annual meeting can be more than the same old event, with a tweaked agenda, but that it can be a catalyst for organisational change. In short, your task here is to get people to love the project the way you do. (Hint, if you haven't done #2, this is going to be hard!) This will not only get you the official resources you need but will lead to all sorts of other help coming your way. People want to work on juicy stuff - and your project will have the juice.
  4. Chunk the plan. I said chunk, not chuck! You need a plan for your project. But too often the plan is too big and too rigid. Take your plan and turn it into smaller tasks. Use the plan like a road-map. When I open my atlas it has views of the whole country, an individual state and of some cities. Your plan should expand and contract like that too. Don't forget to build the city maps - because in your projects that is where the real work gets done - one well designed task at a time.
  5. Finish strong. Too many projects don't quite finish. They had a good plan. They got most of the way there, but the bow never got put on the present. You have a project that you love, so you will always finish strong, right? You will have sold the project and its possibilities so people will be anxious to move you on to the next big thing. Resist this temptation until you finish strong. Make sure the project delivers on as much of your initial vision as it possibly can. Then celebrate your success!
  6. Put in the effort. Any project that you love is going to require a lot of effort. If you love it, it might not always feel like work - but it will still take lots of energy, focus, and sweat. If you want the project to make a difference, be willing to invest in it.

Applying the lessons in these five areas (plus the all-important #6) and continuing to strengthen these skills are one of the best ways to develop your value both to your current organisation and in the marketplace. Organisations need people who can get their hands around work and turn it into great results. Starting today, that is you.

Kevin is Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a learning consulting company that helps clients reach their potential through a variety of training, consulting and speaking services. Kevin publishes Unleash Your Potential, a free weekly e-newsletter designed to provide ideas, tools, techniques and inspiration to enhance your professional skills. Go to The Kevin Eikenberry Group to learn more and subscribe.


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