I still remember the day I was assigned a project that I thought would kill me.
I was 25 and working as a Senior Project Manager for a small gaming company in NYC. I was asked to oversee the full development of a 2MM contract.
The video game would be used in over 400 classrooms throughout the US to educate high school students on business and accounting. We planned for over 100 unique characters, were slated to write a six-week course curriculum, and provide players with custom-build avatars.
This was the most complex project we had ever tried to tackle, and we realized we had bitten off more than we could chew.
As the PM I began to ask myself, "Why me?"
In an instant I had the answer to that question: I thrive off of complexity. I enjoy untangling the most complex project and making it tangible.
There is a difference between a complex project and a difficult project, and it is important to understand the difference.
A complex project isn’t necessarily a difficult project. Projects can be difficult due to reasons such as cost or performance, but this doesn’t automatically mean the project is complex.
Complexity refers to projects that include ambiguity or uncertainty. They are surrounded with unpredictability. Other indicators of a complex project include:
After identifying the complexity level of your project, it’s time to use your skills to tackle the beast one bite at a time.
Managing a complex project requires more than the ability to herd cats and spin plates. This is just one of the many skills needed for project management. Others include:
To be successful you must be adaptable. A project is constantly evolving and project managers have be evolve with it. This means not always thinking in black and white terms. There will come a time when you have to adjust and flex you project management style when the situation changes.
Communication is probably the most important skill of a PM. Over 90% of a PM’s time is spent communicating. It is essential that PMs can effectively convey vision, ideas, goals and issues, as well as producing reports and presentations.
Communication goes beyond documentation. It also requires building a relationship with your client and your team. If they don’t trust you, the project will fail. You must be willing to collaborate with your team. Working with others to get things done is important on all projects and never more so than on something that is really challenging. You cannot be successful by yourself. Work with your team and client to achieve success.
Lastly, leadership and expertise go hand-in-hand. If you can lead, you can deliver. Leadership is all about guiding, directing and motivating your team to do their best work and understand how their tasks contribute to the overall vision.
Leadership comes with experience. Neither skills can be taught. They develop overtime from real-life, practical experience.
Having these essential skills is the backbone for identifying what makes a project complex and how to navigate the water.
Let's now put these concepts into concrete action.
A project may be broken down into the most perfectly manageable mini-projects, but without clear documentation on the individual pieces and how they relate to the whole, the project remains opaque and complex to anyone aside from the main project manager.
Clear, up-to-date documentation is the insurance against this issue. It defines everyone’s roles and their deliverables and ensures that the overall vision isn’t trapped inside someone’s head. If someone new needs to come on board at any stage of the project, in any role, there is a clear roadmap outlining where the project has been and where it’s going. To ensure your team is up to speed, create a high-level timeline in PowerPoint to show the team’s overall process as well as a detailed gantt chart with individual tasks using a tool like TeamGantt.
As the project manager it is your job to document everything. Every week send out a project status to the full team. By providing clear documentation, both your team and your stakeholders can stay informed throughout the entire project lifecycle.
If you do not understand the “why” behind your project, you will not be successful.
Understanding the why brings clarity to the goal(s) of the project. It allows the entire team to find ways to innovate and bring their own areas of expertise to the table.
Project Managers tend to focus on delegating tasks. Our minds fall into a divide and conquer mindset. As the leader, you are expected to paint the bigger picture of the project for your team.
Don’t be afraid to push your team outside of their comfort zone, but also remember that people aren’t machines.
If we are constantly delegating tasks without clearly defined goals, our team will fail. It is important to pick our heads up and continuously clarify project goals. When your team understands their roles and the task at hand, they are able to dive directly into execution mode.
Clarifying your goals to ensure your project works remained aligned with the initial premise - not just once, but continuously. Remember and accept that you will not know all the answers, but push to explore all possible outcomes and what that would mean for the project.
When navigating complex challenges, teams often find themselves bogged down in the project details. It becomes a struggle to move forward when you’re buried under too much information.
To create more visibility within a project, adapt a project management tool that works best for you, your team and your client. This tool will allow everyone on the project to stay informed and see what is happening. Use this as your single source of information. This type of tool will provide real-time insight into the decisions and activities that are relevant to each member of the team.
Additionally, our teams have adopted process mapping for our complex projects.
The process map is a visual representation of the forecasted project roadmap. It allows both our team and our client to know where we are in the project and what activities are planned. Having a physical copy printed and hanging on a wall helps our teams facilitate huddles and planning meetings.
We are able to point directly to our current status and identify dependencies and risks in real time. This keeps us on track and the client informed.
The only constant in complex projects is change. I don’t care how amazing you think your project plan is, it will change. If you are not willing to adapt and be flexible for the sake of your client, you risk losing them.
Plan for unknowns, pivots and adjustments early on and set up processes that allows your team to remain nimble and respond to changing demands.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”—George Bernard Shaw
There is no such thing as over communication as project managers. We have lots of ways to communicate and the most popular methods don’t require you to open your mouth. Find out what style of communication works best for your project and stick with it.
If digital communication works best, go with it, but never assume your team is reading everything you write. If you are not getting results, be proactive in your communication. There are times when it is necessary to have face to face conversations. It will help ensure the message is not loss through back channels and that the team is clear on the objective.
Remember why you do what you do. You may waffle and second guess a decision that you’ve made, but at the end of the day every complex project needs a PM.
The short answer is this: The Project Manager either adds value (making stuff more efficient and effective) or reduces risk (without a project manager, bad things are going to happen).
The PM takes care of communication. He or she is the human shield between you and the development team, ensuring the team can work effectively without too many interruptions.
Never settle and never accept the constraints imposed upon you. Remember that you have more power than you think.
At the end of the day, everything turned out alright at the 2MM video game.
We realized we couldn’t be everything to everyone. We hired additional help. Had a lot of tough conversations, but we launched the game.
We ended up creating a high school course curriculum that ran for 6 weeks in over 400 schools nationwide.
We wowed the client.
Milestones make it easier to keep projects on track by calling out major events, dates, decisions, and deliverables. Here are a few examples of project milestones you might include in your plan:
Let’s dig a little deeper and explore 3 specific examples of how using project milestones can benefit your projects.
No plan is ever complete without a list of deadlines! The best way to make them noticeable is to use the project management milestones and deliverables technique. What does this mean? Make the deliverables project milestones!
Why do this? Well, it’s no secret that not everyone wants to pore over your beautiful project plan to find key dates. Most people—your teammates included—want a top-level view of key dates and events. Milestones are great for this purpose because they’re called out in a special way—usually with a diamond—in project plans.
While you should list the tasks and effort leading up to a project milestone, be sure to present the milestone at the end of those tasks to signify a delivery, or even a presentation of, the deliverable.
Here's an example of how Washington Hyperloop uses milestones to track an important deadline in their project.
Are there days from now until the end of your project that could impact your project in some way? Maybe your team will need to be out of the office for a mandatory training. Maybe there’s a board meeting you’re expected to attend.
It’s important to keep all of these important events in mind when you’re planning a project because they could possibly impact your project schedule. So why not include them as project milestones so you can track them all in one place?
In this example, the team’s off-site strat-op meeting has been added to the project plan as a milestone so work can be scheduled around it.
Many projects rely on the work produced by external teams or partners to make forward progress. If you’re not tracking those external factors somewhere, there’s a great chance you’ll forget to follow-up on it.
That’s why it’s important to list these deliverables as project milestones if you’re working on a project that depends on someone or something outside of your project. Here’s an example of what that might look like for a client approval.
We’ve got a free class to help you get everyone on board with your plan! Register for Plan Up: How to Create and Sell a Winning Project Plan to see why planning sets the stage for project success, and get a free Guide to Project Planning when you sign up.
Creating milestones for your project plan can be simple, especially with TeamGantt. Once you’ve mapped out your overall process and plan with your team, you can easily add tasks, identify gantt chart milestones, and determine task owners. Adding a milestone (or converting a task to a milestone) is very easy in TeamGantt.
Once you’ve signed up for a TeamGantt account, here’s a quick video on how to create milestones:
Project milestones are easy to create and even easier to track because you’ve called out the most important points in your project.
Want to give clients and stakeholders a high-level view of the project? Simply follow these steps to share a PDF of key project milestones in your gantt chart.
From your gantt chart view, click the All Dates menu at the top of your gantt chart, and select Only Milestones from the drop-down.
Navigate to your project's Menu, and select Print/Export PDF from the drop-down.
Customize your PDF settings, then click View PDF to complete the export. From there, you can download and/or print your PDF to share with clients and stakeholders.
Who would have thought such a critical step could be so easy?
TeamGantt makes it easy to create, track, and collaborate on all your project milestones so nothing slips through the cracks.
You’ll have all the features you need to ensure projects finish on time and under budget—from drag and drop simplicity and team collaboration to customizable views and workload management.
Best of all, it’s all wrapped up in a simple and intuitive interface your whole team will love. 😍