How to Successfully Manage Your First Project

Project manager with team looking at plans on a computer screen
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You have just been put in charge of an important new project. Clearly, your boss is offering this opportunity as a vote of confidence in your skills. And while you are excited, this is your first time being responsible for an entire project.

Getting started for the first time is challenging. However, there are ways to help you get your feet wet. Project management has evolved into a process with defined stages and steps to guide those who are new to project management toward a successful project.

5 Stages of the Project Process:

  1. Initiation: a project is initiated when a need for change is identified
  2. Planning: planning the work of the project
  3. Execution: performing the work
  4. Managing and controlling: all of the work you do during the project to monitor progress
  5. Closing: completing and delivering the project and adjourning the team 

These steps are identical for every project. And remember, you are the project manager, not a front line supervisor. Your job is to manage the project, not the people.

Basic Steps for the Project Novice:

During the initiation stage, the project is created and a charter is drawn up authorizing you to be the program manager and establishing a reporting chain. The planning phase is where you:

Define the Scope 

The first and most important step in any project is defining the scope of the project. What is it you are supposed to accomplish or create? What is the project objective? Equally important is defining what is not included in the scope of your project. If you don't get enough definition from your boss, clarify the scope yourself and send it back upstairs for confirmation.

While this example is slightly off the business topic, we can all relate to a wedding reception. In planning a wedding reception, you may have as your scope: prepare a wedding reception for 100 guests complete with dinner, open bar, wedding cake and a live band for dancing by a certain date at a cost not to exceed $20,000. 

Determine Available Resources

What people, equipment, and money will you have available to achieve the project objectives? As a project manager, you usually will not have direct control of these resources but will have to manage them through matrix management. 

Matrix management refers to the use of the set hierarchy within the company to accomplish what you need done. If Joe works for your project, and for his department as well, he has to listen to two bosses. As the project manager, try to stay in touch with the supervisors of the people or owners of the equipment you borrowed so that you can resolve conflicts.

Understand the Timeline

When does the project have to be completed? As you develop your project plan you may have some flexibility in how you use time during the project, but deadlines usually are fixed, as in the case of the wedding reception. If you decide to use overtime hours to meet the schedule, you must weigh that against the limitations of your budget.

Detail the Work

What are the major pieces or components that have to be created to complete the project? For example, a wedding reception requires at a high level: a reception hall, food, drink, a cake, guests, and entertainment. Of course, each of those larger items can be broken down into many additional items. That is the next step. 

In the wedding reception example above, you likely have a team or person in charge of different components. Work with your team members to spell out the details necessary to achieve each major item.

The person in charge of food must understand the options, the cost limitations, and make selections that support achieving the scopeList the smaller steps in each of the larger steps. How many levels deep you go in detailing steps will depend on the size and complexity of your project.

Develop a Preliminary Plan

Assemble all your steps into a plan. A good way to do this is to use a precedence table identifying what items must precede other items. Formal project management practices call for developing what is termed a network diagram and identifying the critical path. While this may be beyond your needs or knowledge level, the core issue is to sequence the activities in the right order and then allocate resources to the activities.

Questions to ask include: What happens first? What is the next step? Which steps can go on at the same time with different resources? Who is going to do each step? How long will it take? There are many excellent software packages available that can automate a lot of this detail for you. Ask others in similar positions what they use.

Create Your Baseline Plan

Get feedback on your preliminary plan from your team and from any other stakeholders. Adjust your timelines and work schedules to fit the project into the available time. Make any necessary adjustments to the preliminary plan to produce a baseline plan.

Request Project Adjustments

There is almost never enough time, money, or talent assigned to a project. Your job is to make do with the limited resources you have. However, there are often limits placed on a project that are simply unrealistic. You need to make your case and present it to your boss and request these unrealistic limits be changed. Ask for the changes at the beginning of the project. Don't wait until it's in trouble to ask for the changes you need.

When you have started acquiring resources and procuring necessary materials, you're in the execution phase. In this phase, you are also:

Assembling Your Project Team

Get the people on your team together and start a dialog. They are the technical experts. That's why their functional supervisor assigned them to the project. Your job is to manage the team.

Work Your Plan

Making the plan is important, but the plan can be changed. You have a plan for driving to work every morning. If one intersection is blocked by an accident, you change your plan and go a different way. Do the same with your project plans. Change them as needed, but always keep the scope and resources in mind.

As your plan unfolds and work is accomplished, you enter the monitoring and controlling phase. In this phase, you work to control costs, resources, and quality as well as:

Monitor Your Team's Progress

You will make little progress at the beginning of the project, but start then to monitor what everyone is doing anyway. That will make it easier to catch issues before they become problems.

Document Everything

Keep records. Every time you change your baseline plan, write down what the change was and why it was necessary. Every time a new requirement is added to the project write down where the requirement came from and how the timeline or budget was adjusted because of it. You can't remember everything, so write them down and you'll be able to look them up at the end-of-project review and learn from them.

Keep Everyone Informed

Keep all the project stakeholders informed of progress all along. Let them know of your success as you complete each milestone, but also inform them of problems as soon as they come up.

Also, keep your team informed. If changes are being considered, tell the team about them as far ahead as you can. Make sure everyone on the team is aware of what everyone else is doing.

Follow the Steps

You do not have to be a formal project manager to lead a project initiative. However, you should apply the tools, logic, and steps of project management to clarify your objectives, detail the work and build a team to execute while you manage it all.