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How can I keep my project on time?

How can I keep it on budget?

Every project manager asks these questions of others and themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the project is as simple as writing this blog post or as complex as a multi-million dollar system upgrade, everyone needs to bring their projects in on time and on (or under) budget. These three tips discussed below continue to help me and my colleagues tackle every project with time and money to spare.

Work Your Plan.

First, remember that your project plan is a living, breathing document. Don’t prepare it to just check something off of your to-do list. Review on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, in addition to updating it as you receive task completions and milestone achievements from team members. I find myself adding tasks after the initial plan is created to add more specific detail. I also love a good check mark to show progress towards completion.

Assess your team and reallocate tasks if someone is getting overloaded or has capacity to take on additional responsibility. If the plan isn’t current, it is difficult to know where the project timeline stands, as well as the budget for that matter.

Your budget is as important as your team. Remember that adding resources if things get off track will impact your bottom line. The reverse is also true, if something gets done faster, you have a labor cost savings, which actually has happened to me. Part of your plan must include due diligence on budget items. Spend the time on the front end doing thorough labor estimates. Talk to the people who will actually be doing the work. Negotiate with vendors for the best price, remembering that the cheapest price is not always the best. Track actuals weekly and reconcile to the budget. This allows you to identify quickly if anything is getting off track. No one wants an ugly surprise deep into the project.

Everyone is accountable.

Next, ensure accountability on the part of all team members. Everyone on a project team has a role to play and needs to pull their weight. Your sponsor champions the project across the company and kicks it off with an enthusiastic show of support.

Team members have specific tasks from the project plan and action items from project meetings assigned to them. If deadlines are missed, don’t let time pass before contacting the team member to discuss what happened and how to mitigate the impact to the project. Make sure that action items are clearly assigned responsibility and due dates. Often, team members do not actually report to you, so you also need to work with their direct supervisor to ensure the team member is being given the time necessary to complete the assigned tasks.

The same is true for costs. If a vendor promises something at a certain price, don’t assume that the billing will be accurate, especially if it is a time and materials situation. Upon reviewing a bill from a long time vendor, I once discovered an error in excess of $100,000! Once I pointed it out, the vendor apologized and immediately sent a corrected bill.

Communication is Key.

Last, but certainly not least, is communicate frequently. Schedule meetings at appropriate intervals. You will probably have sub teams that meet on various project aspects, in addition to a project update meeting. Invite only the people who need to attend the sub team meetings and the entire project team to the update meetings. Produce meeting notes that capture the important discussion points, decisions, and action items. Send those meeting notes out within 24 hours of the meeting. This is important to remind team members of their assigned action items. The meeting notes template I use has become my standard for professional and volunteer opportunities. I have found that people appreciate knowing what they need to do and by when.

Be sure to include upstream communication to your project sponsors. More often than not, they will not be attending all the project meetings. They may not need or want the meeting notes and frequent project plan and task updates. Do include them in milestones accomplished, budget updates, and any successes achieved. Encourage your team to communicate with you as well. Establishing a two-way open communication corridor will help you stay on top of issues before they can derail your project.

Remember that as the project manager, you are the quarterback. You take direction from your coach (training sponsor) and your team is waiting for you to call the plays. 

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