5 Steps to Project Management Nirvana

If you’ve ever had the frustrating experience of finding a project you’re overseeing hasn’t turned out quite the way you’d hoped – or if you’re new to managing projects and wondering where to begin – try following these five steps to successful project nirvana.

1. Get clear on the desired outcome before work begins. It might sound obvious, but too often people forget to make sure they and others working on a project agree about what a successful outcome would look like – and then are surprised when the final work product isn’t what they were expecting. To avoid this gap between your expectations and the final outcome – and to avoid having to go back and make changes after work should have been complete – always talk explicitly at the start about what a successful outcome would look like. And be as specific as possible here, so that everyone involved is agreed on how you’ll know success when you see it.

2. Establish clear roles. Projects can languish when people aren’t clear on their roles and who’s responsible for driving different pieces of the work forward. To avoid this, be explicit at the outset about who should play what role  – who’s the project “owner” (with overarching responsibility for its success), who is available as a helper to the owner, who should be asked for input, and who must sign off on decisions before they’re final.

3. Conduct “pre-mortems.” You might be used to conducting post-mortems when a project is over, but as Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work recommends, it can be far more helpful to do a pre-mortem before a project starts. As you’re still in the planning stages, ask your team, “If it’s X date (some point after the work is over) and the project failed or didn’t go well, what will we look back and say went wrong? And what can we do now to adjust our plan to address that?”

4. Build in check-ins along the way. Sure, if you’ve talked through the project at the start, it would be nice to assume that the work will happen according to plan. But in reality, you’ll need to stay involved and check in as the work progresses. Those check-ins are what will allow you to keep the work on course, catch problems early, and change course if necessary.

5. Debrief when the work is over. It can be tempting to skip this last step when new projects loom, but scheduling time at the end of a project to reflect on what went well and what could have been done differently can help you draw out lessons and get better results in the future. A write-up of these lessons – even as just a quick bulleted list – can be invaluable to have on hand the next time you conduct a similar project.













Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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