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The building blocks of successful projects

Last updated on
October 21, 2019

Project success happens by design. It involves a masterful understanding act of resources, timings, budgets and expectations, defined well ahead of execution. But how exactly do you go about it?

How do you put all your project pieces together, let alone pick the right ones in the first place? What risks and considerations should you keep in mind? And how can you avoid duplicating effort or wasting a ton of time fiddling with spreadsheets?

Delivering successful projects starts with understanding the key building blocks behind them. Here’s our cheat sheet for how to get it right every time.

What does project success actually look like?

There is no formal definition in project management for what makes a project “successful”. But this makes it uncomfortably easy for internal and external stakeholders to brand projects a “failure”.

Since no two projects are ever quite the same, simple categorisation itself isn’t appropriate in any case. Instead, you need to actively define what success looks like for your team ahead of every new project. These baseline criteria are a great place to start:

  • The project achieved the desired outcomes
  • It met the organizational, client or market needs
  • It met the quality requirements
  • It delivered what was agreed in the project scope
  • It was executed on time and on budget

Accurate estimation

When it comes to project estimation, you’re not looking for perfection – nor is it possible. But intelligent forecasting, that uses past project performance to predict time and budget requirements, is essential for keeping projects profitable and achievable.

Good estimation will be based on the durations of all tasks involved in similar past projects. Just understanding all the bits of work a completed project required can be invaluable for working out all resource requirements and gauging the length of different project phases. Project managers should also take into account the “hidden” costs of previous projects – like all the time spent on client calls, traveling to meetings, preparing presentations, communicating internally and organizing the project.

Set better project estimates using this guide

Understanding your resources

Securing the right skills and people is also imperative to project success. You need to construct a team of complementary skills, with the right experience for the brief in question. Diversity forms a huge part of this, as it can protect against flat, out-of-touch or simply uncreative work grounded in bias.

But beyond assembling the right team, there is a more mundane administrative aspect to consider – people need to actually be available to work on your project. Where resources are tight, you may need to look beyond your in-house team to seek out external agencies or freelancers. Once your project is live, you then need to ensure everyone is actually pulling in the right direction and has a healthy workload. A solid team performance tracker can help with this – helping you monitor team capacity, activity and workload against project budget spend.

Monitor team performance and workload automatically

Planning ahead

Obviously, success doesn’t just happen – you need a solid plan in order for all your project pieces to fall into place. Project timelines are indispensable to that, laying out what needs to happen when, and visualizing how your resources should coordinate. These timelines can be highly detailed, with hundreds of tasks and subtasks, or very simple, listing only a few deliverables and deadlines. Regardless, it should detail what’s coming up, task dependencies and task durations. Project schedules will then encompass a WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) to divide each phase into smaller, more manageable sections.

Team scheduling and capacity management, are also important cogs in the planning wheel. If you don’t plan your resources effectively, you risk overloading employees and delaying deliveries. If you work with external consultants or remote workers, coordination can get even messier. A good team planner will help you sync all employee calendars and allocate project work thoughtfully in advance.

Check out these 7 simple team planners

Accounting for risk

Unfortunately, no project is risk-free, regardless of how carefully you plan. However, you can minimize risk by drawing up contingency plans and closely monitoring project performance. Creating a risk log and subsequent action plan for each risk will help minimize downtime in the event of an issue arising. Consider people carefully for compatibility when selecting your project team, since team members who can’t see eye-to-eye on how to approach a task can pose a risk in themselves.

Make sure you’re prepared to tackle one of the biggest project risks going: scope creep. Clear client sign-off, watertight briefs and transparent plans are essential for managing expectations and sticking to original plans. Review similar previous projects to consider potential bottlenecks and blockers, remembering to qualify project data with human knowledge for a full picture of what actually happened.

How to identify and manage project risk

Communicating thoughtfully

Communication can make or break a project. It means more than just keeping progress transparent – knowing what information to share with whom, in what format and when can make the difference between catching misunderstandings early and dealing with an expensive clean-up once they’ve snowballed. Communication itself represents a huge hidden project cost, so it’s in everyone’s interests to keep it efficient and meaningful.

Think about which communication tools you will use. Your team might use multiple apps and tools to execute their tasks, but spreading information across too many channels can mean crucial communications get lost or overlooked. Lay out the purpose of different communication channels: like Slack for quick team updates; Trello for attaching documents and tagging people in feedback; Basecamp for communicating high-level motivations and goals. Daily stand-ups may not be necessary at all – an “opt-in” policy may be the better for project check-ins, saving meeting spaces for chunkier team alignment.

Keep projects on-track with real-time performance tracking

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