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Good Project Management is an Art – Not a Science

Kathleen Petty   August 3, 2022  

Deadlines, discipline, and organization – these are the tenets of good project management that most can agree on. But as a vice president at a health care PR firm in Washington DC, I’ve learned that good project management goes beyond these principles. It’s more than keeping diligent timelines. There is also an art to it. Project management is essentially about people; and I’ve found there are six key principles to doing it successfully: getting your team started as soon as possible, setting your team up for success, looking for barriers and roadblocks before they happen, maintaining open communication with your team, leaning into your team’s strengths, and always keeping the budget in mind along the way. Doing these six things helps us produce efficient, high-quality work that keeps our clients happy.

1. Time is Your Greatest Asset
As anyone who works in health care communications knows, time is not always on your side. We work in a fast-paced environment that doesn’t often allow for careful planning, so it’s vital to use whatever time we do have to our advantage. Don’t get caught thinking that if something is due in a few months, you can “get to it later.” The time you have right now is your greatest asset so the more lead time you give your team, the better. Even if you feel like you can’t fully start the project, set up a timeline for deliverables; think through background research that your team could be doing to help set up a solid foundation for the hard work ahead. Whatever time you do have is a gift, so don’t wait!

2. Set Up Your Team for Success
This may be the most crucial part of good project management. First, ensure everyone has the background information they need to understand the overarching goal of the project. This will help guide people and ensure the end-goal is met. It’s also important to provide people with clear instructions and the materials they need right from the start. It helps instill confidence, allowing people to do their best work. It also cuts down on wasted time that would have been spent correcting mistakes and fiddling with nagging minor issues. Get ahead of all of that by giving your team everything they need upfront to be successful.

3. Look for Barriers Ahead of Time
Before assigning work to your team members, put yourself in their shoes as if you were going to do the work yourself. What questions will they have that you can be ready to answer? What can you address up front in the materials and information you give them? Additionally, think through the issues the team could run into as they begin the work. What advice can you give them right now to head off any roadblocks? For instance, if you’re asking the team to conduct a media audit of a client’s issue, spend a few minutes thinking through the process. Could the search terms you’re giving them produce too many articles to count? Or no coverage at all? If that’s the case, what will they need to know to adapt their process?

Once you identify a few of these potential problems, address them during your initial meeting so the team can develop the tools they need to solve them.

4. Communicate Often
Don’t wait until deadlines are looming to check in on your team’s progress. Having consistent, clear, and open communication can make sure everyone’s on the right track from the start. If you remove yourself from the process, your timeline may be derailed. This could lead to you and the team scrambling to deal with trouble as your deadline is fast approaching. Plan to check in one or two days after the team has begun work. It’s best to have in-person (or video) check-ins as opposed to relying on email. This builds team identity and encourages more personal communication and problem-solving together.

5. Lean into the Team’s Strengths
We all have qualities that set us apart from others as well as a variety of “strengths” that help us to excel in certain capacities. At The Reis Group, we identified each team member’s individual strengths during our recent team retreat through Clifton StrengthsFinder. It’s an assessment to help you discover what you do best and to learn how to develop your talents and maximize your potential. According to this assessment, my top five strengths are: empathy, individualization, connectedness, restorative, and positivity. The odds of someone getting the same list of strengths in that order is 1 in 33 million. Everyone will have varying strengths that complement each other. It’s important to learn what people excel at, and what they enjoy doing so that you can tap into those strengths and maximize each person’s opportunity for success. Doing so will help keep the team motivated and ensure they feel valued.

6. Don’t Forget About the Budget
In public relations (or any client-service industry), we have a tendency to want to say “yes” to anything our clients want. However, having a budget is crucial for ensuring staff’s time is valued. From the start, set expectations by telling each team member how many hours they should spend on the work. As you’re managing projects, check on their work hours to make sure no one is getting carried away. Not only is it a sign that the budget may be in trouble, it’s also a signal to you as a manager that your team is running into issues that need to be addressed; or that they might not have the correct direction from you to get the job done in a timely manner. Checking in and having open communication with your team will help identify any issues before the project and budget spiral out of control.

Managing tight timelines and client expectations are crucial aspects of project management, but we often lose sight of the nuances of “team management” as well. They go hand-in-hand. So, while it’s important to hone your skills in meeting deadlines and allocating work, it’s just as important to learn how to foster a supportive environment for the entire team. When we all have the tools to do good work, we all win.

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