Running a project marathon

30/10/2014

Just before Christmas (yes, this has been a long time coming!), Sam Barnes asked me to be involved in the first DPM:UK conference in Manchester. After the initial bout of nerves (HOW many people?!) I jumped at the chance to be involved in such a key event getting the DPM community going in the UK.

So what to speak about? Something that had been on my mind for quite a few months was project momentum. Having spent the last few years managing long-term projects, I’ve found that it’s all too easy to slip into project fatigue.

It’s easier to avoid that slip when you’re on a project with tight timescales where you’re working under pressure for a shorter amount of time. But what happens on a long term project, where your client, your team and yourself are all working on the same thing for months at a time? Keeping up a continuous sustained workflow is difficult.

So… last year I ran a marathon. You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Eh, what’s that got to do with project management?’, but, managing a long term project is a lot like running a marathon.

Stage 1—The Start

You’re feeling excited, maybe a bit nervous, but looking forward to getting going. There’s lots of people around, and lots of support. Like the kick off of a project, it’s exciting: you’re looking ahead at what’s to come, and there’s lots of involvement from everyone.

Stage 2—Mid-way through

You’re halfway there at mile 13, still feeling strong, and settled into the pace. In the project, you’ve settled down into the flow, getting into the design and build phases—and everyone’s still engaged.

Stage 3—The wall

And then it hits… the wall. You feel like you can’t go on, it’s never-ending. The pain! When I was running the marathon, after the wall hit I was obsessed with two thoughts: ‘it hurts’ and ‘I want to walk’.

(For photographic evidence of my wall take a look at the link to my slides from my presentation below—but be warned, it’s not pretty.)

The project wall

So, the project wall. Fatigue has set in, you feel like you’ve been going forever—how can you, your client, the team, and the whole project pick up speed again and continue?

Knowledge

Keeping everyone on the project informed is a great way to keep team members involved, maintaining project momentum. Perry Hewitt wrote an article for A List Apart, which covers a lot of tactics for keeping the client focused, helping the project overall. In the early stages of a project, learn about the organisation and their current situation. Find out how this project being a success will really affect them. Identify the stakeholder types and learn how best to work with them. Strengthen relationships by providing your client(s) with enough information to tell the story. You can then tap into this knowledge at a later date if you feel the client’s momentum is slipping. What is the best way to keep them focused on the end goal? What is important to them?

During the project, make sure you keep the client involved in the process. This might seem like project management 101, but it’s easy to get caught up in internal work and not keep your client contact regular, especially if they are busy too. The key is keeping transparency and visibility. Think about it. If the client is told you’re in the development phase, it’ll take 6 weeks, and then they’ll see the finished product – of course they might lose focus and move onto other things.

What about your internal team? See above! What works for the client will also work for the team. If you let them work away in a bubble where they don’t have access to all the information, motivation can drop. Keeping in mind the end goal, and what they are working towards, can help to encourage work momentum.

It’s a fine balance though. I’ve written here about the balance between keeping your team in the loop and speaking to the client regularly, and not overloading them with unnecessary (and interruptive) tasks.

Communication

Update the client regularly. Tell them what you’ve been working on today and what you’re doing tomorrow. On my final project which had been going on for a year+ at Numiko before I moved to London, I was doing a daily stand up with the team to keep us talking. I transcribed that into a daily update to the client on Basecamp. I told them what we were working on, what we would be working on—and what we needed from them to do this.

Speak to the client regularly (there’s a theme here). Clients will have other things going on apart from your project, and keeping up a conversation with them about what’s happening keeps them engaged with the project. They’ll also have enough information to engage the wider stakeholders. If they don’t know, they can’t tell.

You might think it’s information overload, but keeping them involved in the whole process really helps them to stay with it and keep motivation up on their side. It also provides your direct client with enough information to keep their wider stakeholders informed, therefore keeping organisational momentum.

Show stuff

Show the client stuff regularly (yes, that word again): designs, documents, build, future plans. People love to see tangible things. Gauge whether they are the type of client to understand that a work in progress is a work in progress—and then show them it! People love seeing their focus and ideas come together, so don’t be afraid of prototypes and early stage builds.

Get your team to share what they are working on. At Numiko we did a project update every two weeks, where everyone got together and a person from each team spoke about something interesting they’ve been working on. At my new agency Tribal, we have ‘Tribal Talks’ every month where people can speak about new things going on in their area. Creating a sense of pride in the work being produced can help motivate people.

Smaller goals

If the project is a very large one, instead of focusing on the end game try breaking large phases up into smaller deliverables. More regular goals will encourage focus and working towards smaller targets can be more manageable. As I said above, show the client stuff regularly—not just for their sakes but for your internal team too. Get feedback. Good feedback is a nice reward for hard work, but don’t worry if the feedback is negative, it’s always good to know at that point. Tell the wider team that aren’t involved in the project if you get positive feedback. It’s good to keep internal stakeholders in the loop too!

Motivation

Recognise how individuals work. This is just as important as recognising the different types of client stakeholders. Do the developers like to get their head down and work undisturbed? Try not to break up their day with too many meetings or calls. Do they like to be involved in client discussions? Don’t keep them away! Enabling your team to do their best work will encourage them on the project. A useful way to focus people is to get everyone in your team to set a project goal or objective at the start of the project—and keep that as a reminder of what they want to achieve if motivation drops.

Take a break

Schedule project breaks. If it’s feasible in the timelimes, give the team a day when they don’t have to work on the project. Let them do some personal development, or work on something else, or review other projects. Encouraging a fresh pair of eyes when they go back to the project will help move it along.

What about me?

And finally, don’t forget about yourself! We’ve all been there. The project has already lasted a few months, you’re trying to keep the team and the client focused and motivated. But it’s hard to focus yourself when you’ve run out of steam.

Even as a PM when you’re working on a few different projects at a time and it’s a bit more varied, it’s easy to feel project overload. Whilst you can’t necessarily avoid your project to take a break, try allocating some time away from it to spend on other other tasks (and not just working on other projects!)

If you have a big document to write, or a period of testing to do, split it into smaller chunks and targets and spread it over a few days.

Finally, think about what you’ll achieve on the project. There will be many benefits, from learning new techniques, getting experience on different things and working with new people and products. Whilst motivation can lag when you’ve been doing it for a while, thinking about what you’ve achieved and what is to come can be a great re-motivator!

View slides from my talk here.