Project management: lessons learnt

ideas

A project is a planned piece of work, involving the completion of a set of interrelated tasks in order to achieve a purpose, goal or particular outcome.

Managing projects is part of our work as library and information professionals. We all manage projects. Some are short term, others are long term. Some have outputs with a significant impact – organisational, professional, others not so much. There are projects with a number of stakeholders, often with competing priorities, and others that simply require the collaboration and ‘buy in’ from within your workspace. All require management at some level.

So, like it or not, and regardless of whether ‘project’ is in your job title, project management skills are essential for us all.

I’m generally an organised person. My fiancé, who wasn’t at all surprised when he found out I had a Gantt chart for our wedding planning, will say I’m more organised than most. I’m currently juggling a number of different projects on my plate – two research ones, one professional, a wedding, two blogs, a personal writing project and various bibs and bobs, like house renovations and professional development.

The importance of being organised when managing projects is a given. However, while being organised is pivotal to all the right things getting done by their right times, over the last few years I’ve learned that project management has a bit more to it than just being a good planner and being able to identify priorities and dependencies.

Always document your work.

I ‘grew up’ in archives and government record keeping, and if I didn’t fully document my work when I came in, I certainly did when I finished my first, significant, professional project – the Recordkeeping Policy Framework review for the Queensland public sector. This project produced a way forward in communicating what records management involves to various stakeholders in the form of a new framework diagram and re-thinking the language and process of how advice is communicated, as well as a future proof information architecture for record keeping advice provided via the website to public authorities.

Creating project plans and schedules are just the beginning of project documentation. It is important to document decisions, how you came to those decisions and what led to the outcome/s produced. Documenting a project is about transparency, managing risk and ensuring a successful implementation. Project documentation communicates your work to others. You may use your project documentation to bring stakeholders ‘on the journey’ with you, provide background information and reasoning, and as an evidence-based professional, show that what you’ve produced in grounded in evidence, situated within a strategic context and guided by project objectives. Project documentation adds value to your work and provides a solid base from which similar decisions can be made in the future. Example types of project documentation includes one-pager briefs you might take to team meetings, any presentations, status reports to a steering committee, memos or emails for seeking approval on things, etc.

Nothing goes exactly according to plan. Especially when working with a team.

Working with a team, or co-ordinating the project work among a team, is super duper challenging. There is an element of ‘pick your battles’ when it comes to how the work gets done. Not everyone will do it your way. So there needs to be some flexibility with how people like to work – individually and with others. Some things you can let go and there are some things that absolutely need to happen to ensure a successful outcome. The trick is how to distinguish between the two. And then communicate this with the team. You need to identify the outcome the team needs to produce, give them the tools, support and information to do it, and then from there, you(I) need to let go a little.

I’m getting so much better at this leading a priority project at QUT at the moment that involves re-designing and re-developing online learning resources for research and academic skills. There is a lot going on in the process of completing this project. There are underlying things at play that will impact the eventual output, like willingness to experiment, push the boundaries, take a critical look at how we’re responding to help seeking behaviours and re-conceptualising the learning of research and academic skills in a blended service delivery mode – online and face-to-face, and how the service connects to other support for learning services across the university.

When I say ‘nothing goes exactly according to plan’, I mean things constantly pop up unexpectedly, information is brought to light at different times, stakeholders and team members will have their own understanding of the project and its outcomes. The key I’ve found, is to keep the project objectives at fore front of mind, because they’re going to determine priorities, help inform decisions about scope and provide the basis for stakeholder communication throughout the project.

There’s a difference between project management and project leadership.

Prior to my current project at QUT, I knew I could manage projects (otherwise I wouldn’t have been appointed). I could identify stakeholders and opportunities to communicate with them. But until this project, I had never separated ‘project management’ from ‘project leadership’. No project has been so ‘in your face’ obvious about this point. Many would use the terms interchangeably, but they are different.

Managing a project is about the tactical elements and getting things done: the tasks, the planning, budgeting, co-ordinating, problem solving (Bull, 2010, p. 53).

Leading a project is about inspiring, influencing, guiding, coaching the output in a particular direction. Project leadership is also about people and nurturing relationships. The leadership part of managing projects promotes the vision and understanding of what is to be achieved (Bull, 2010, p. 53).

I have found managing projects the easy part. Being an effective leader through the process AND manage the output can be hard.

Plan ahead!

This goes part and parcel with being organised. But when there’s a team involved and I’m only in the office two and a half days a week, it pays to know what I need to have in place so the team can keep going in my absence. This is where keeping the outcome, the thing/s you’re project will produce or the next milestone, at forefront of mind is so darn critical. The project simply cannot afford to be stalled due to my ill planning. I really, really don’t like wasting resources and people’s time. Week to week, I identify what I need to have in place at a particular point in the project, so the team isn’t waiting on me to proceed. For example, before we started content re-development, I needed things like a style guide, content templates and a progress reporting spreadsheet ready to go. I also had presentation slides for my briefing and a ‘zoomed in’ schedule that focused on this phase of the project. Planning a few steps ahead can help create momentum and a seamless project experience.


If you’re looking for project management experience or opportunities to develop these skills, here are some suggestions:

  • volunteer to be involved in projects at your workplace
  • build in some projects into your personal PD plan
  • read up on project management – MindTools have some great resources to get going

Bull, R. C. 2010. Moving from Project Management to Project Leadership [CRC Press]. Retrieved from http://www.crcnetbase.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/isbn/978-1-4398-2668-3

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