7 indispensable project management tips

Good project managers are worth their weight in gold -- and earn their keep by following these best practices

In my role as a traveling computer security consultant, I meet with project managers every week. Let's just say their levels of competence vary greatly.

I can tell you from experience that the best are aggressive practitioners who take their roles seriously. They don't wait for big problems to emerge to start making decisions and taking action. They evaluate team-member skill levels early on, assess overall project risks on day one, create formal project plans, and make assignments with due dates to help all team members reach their goals.

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I'm not a certified project manager, although I think getting a cert from the Project Management Institute is a great way to advance your career. My project management knowledge and appreciation comes from the school of hard knocks, mostly as a participant, but sometimes as a project manager. It's not easy -- good project management takes both skill and the right mindset.

Here are some common factors of project management success:

1. Even small projects should have a project manager

Any project longer than a week with multiple people involved deserves a dedicated project manager. On small projects, management will often have a full-time technical participant double as the project manager. It saves money and resources, but the project often yields a subpar outcome.

2. Start every meeting with goals

Everyone dreads meetings, simply because many are a waste of time and get in the way of real work. I've consulted at numerous companies where the time spent in meetings far surpasses the hours spent working on the project. No wonder none of the tasks seem to get done.

You should hold as few all-hands meetings as possible. Each meeting should begin with explicitly stated objectives: Why is the meeting being held? What are the expected outcomes? Someone should take notes and document significant decisions, discovered information, task assignments, deliverables, or points of conflict. Each task should be assigned to a single responsible person, with an expected due date, and documented.

Every person with an assigned task should reaffirm his or her understanding of the task and due date at the end of the meeting. Every meeting should end by asking if there are any questions. All this advice sounds simple on paper, but I'm amazed at how many meetings end up without real, accountable tasks or deliverables.

3. Document, document, document

To amplify that last point: Write it down. Many people lament that only verbal communication is "real" and intentions expressed in conversation get lost in email or notes. That's a problem, isn't it? We have nothing to refer back to except what has been documented. There's nothing wrong with open discussion, but make sure you confirm your understanding via email, memo, wiki, or (if appropriate) internal social media. You'd be surprised how often the understanding of a spoken agreement varies depending on who's doing the remembering. Careful documentation is your insurance policy. If something goes wrong and you're not at fault, you'll have an email trail to back you up.

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