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8 essential ingredients for project success

No two projects are the same. But all successful projects share a similar set of processes and procedures, or methodology, for keeping on track and on budget. Here are eight elements of a successful project.

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1. Scope and deadlines are defined up front. “During complex projects, it’s easy for team members to miss seeing the forest through the trees,” says Catherine Roy, senior manager, PMO, HOSTING, a managed cloud services provider. “Before kicking off any project, make sure that the client, stakeholders and team members know the exact scope [and] that they aware of all critical dates.”

2. Project lead and sponsor are established on Day 1. “Have the client clearly identify the project lead (day in and out point of contact) and project sponsor at the initial implementation meeting,” says Ellen Craig, vice president, consulting services group, Unanet, a provider of project and resource management software. “By identifying these roles, the client understands who will be responsible for day in and out activities and who owns the engagement. Also, if the sponsor leaves, the client must identify a new sponsor.”

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3. Team members have the right skill sets and work well together. “One key to delivering a successful project is identifying a project team that meshes well with that of the client, both professionally and personally,” says Thalia Ortiz, director, project management for Omnigon, a digital consulting firm. “Given the time spent together, both in person and remotely, it is critical these teams not only collaborate well but enjoy working together, which is especially key in crunch times,” she says. “In post-project client feedback surveys, our clients often tell us how much they enjoy working and spending time with us.”

“On more complex implementations or engagements, I’ll specifically request certain resources whose skills and expertise I have leveraged on past projects,” says Roy. “I also tap resources I know I can count on to deliver results within the project scope when the going gets tough.”

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4. The project schedule is realistic. “Mistakes are often made when you or your team are tired and overworked; [so] be realistic about [the] schedule,” says Roy. “It’s also important to let clients and stakeholders know in advance when a project will require additional budget or resources in order to meet their completion date,” she says. “On many occasions, executives set completion dates without realizing the overall impact on resources. I’ve often had to push back (oh so nicely) at the beginning of the project and manage their expectations.”

5. Has a (software) system for keeping everything and everyone on track. “Research has shown that project management software substantially increases the likelihood that projects are completed on time and on budget,” says Rachel Burger, project management software expert, Capterra, which helps companies find the right software. “For example, Capterra found that project management software significantly improves final product quality, the number of products on budget and the number of projects completed on time. There is even industry-specific project management software, like construction management software,” she notes.

The key is to “use tools [software] that make administration and reporting simple,” says Scott Bales, senior director of customer success at Replicon, a provider of timesheet software. A good project management system should be “easy to run [and provide] real-time reports. Setting up projects and tasks should be easy and obvious by pointing and clicking.”

In addition, a good project management software solution should “have built-in intelligence that anticipates what you need to get the work done” and allow you to “see team productivity, compare actual costs versus original budget, quickly understand overall status, and process and approve expenses immediately,” he says. “And as you proceed with new projects, historical data is readily available to help you make more accurate forecasts.”

6. Project details, team members and clients are kept up to date. “It’s a fallacy to think that project planning happens only at the start of the project. In reality a project is a dynamic, living thing that is constantly changing,” explains Liz Pearce, CEO, LiquidPlanner, a provider of project management software. “Agile project managers do iterative planning and daily stand-ups with their team to keep team communication strong while also staying on top of issues, roadblocks, changes or risks that might send the project off track.”

“A project manager needs to ensure that there is transparency within the team and [with] stakeholders throughout the duration of the project,” adds Jose D. Canelos, project manager, program management, Centric Digital, which helps businesses with user experience and operational processes. “A common issue in projects is [team] members not receiving all the details. By ensuring transparency,” that is, by making sure all team members are kept up to date, not only do you build “trust within the team, which helps projects more than people think, but in the event of an issue, everyone can take action to ensure the project continues down the successful track.”

“Maintaining positive, frequent communication with clients is [also] paramount to a project’s success,” says Ortiz. “At the onset of every project, one of the first points discussed is preferred mode and frequency of communication. “Some clients prefer daily status calls; other prefer weekly. Some prefer dashboard reports; others prefer portfolio. We are completely adaptable and flexible to their needs,” she says. In addition, “our client management team has regularly scheduled conversations with their counterparts to get a sense of overall relationship health and to ensure all expectations are being met, and in most cases, exceeded. We [also] hold recurring ‘State of the State’ presentations with clients to ensure they are abreast of overall industry trends and as they relate to the current engagement.”

7. Team members are empowered to make decisions. “A primary project manager is required for direction and accountability, but the roles of decision maker, organizer and communicator need to be embodied by every team member,” says Ray Grainger, CEO, Mavenlink, a provider of project management software. “To be effective, empower each member of the team to make strategic decisions. This allows the project as a whole to be more nimble, and to make many necessary pivots that will ensure the overall success.”

8. Problems are faced and fixed head-on (not shoved under the carpet or ignored). “As with life in general, project management can be messy,” says Roy. “While it’s true that some days you want to stick your head in the sand and pretend that last meeting – the one where the client changed the project scope after 6 months of work – never took place, it’s best to deal with issues ASAP,” she states. “Some issues may require the project manager to use their influence in order to solve a problem or get a decision made. In most cases, action taken sooner is better for the overall success of the project.”

“When projects go off the rails, the first step is to accept responsibility and forget about blame,” says Jeremy Sewell, principal collaborator at Firefield, which offers software consulting, design and development services. “You can go back and evaluate what went wrong later.” The important thing is to “get a clear picture of where you are versus where you need to be and identify what decisions need to be made and by whom to get there.

“You or your client will likely be faced with a choice: extend the time and budget needed or change the scope of the project,” he explains. “Make sure this choice is clearly articulated. Once the choice is made, set clear and incremental goals for all members of your team. Don't dwell on what went wrong, but instead set a clear plan for what happens now.”

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