Business is booming. After lots of hard work you’ve found your product-market fit, and your wares are selling like gangbusters.
There’s a problem: you’re having a hard time keeping up with all this growth.
You’re losing supplier and wholesaler emails. Your team (which has grown a ton in the last few months) isn’t quite sure who’s doing what...so some things aren’t getting done. Overall, you’re tripping over your own feet on the path to success.
What’s the answer? Better project management.
What is Project Management, Anyways?
Project management is the discipline of carefully projecting or planning, organizing, motivating and controlling resources to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria.
... The primary challenge of project management is to achieve all of the project goals and objectives while honoring the preconceived constraints; these information are usually described in a user or project manual, which is created at the beginning of the development. The primary constraints are scope, time, quality and budget.
In simple terms, project management is the art of getting something done ahead of deadline, up to quality standards, and at or under budget.
You don’t need to hire a full-time project manager to up your project management game, either.
There are plenty of places you can start — from helping your managers to become better at project management, to getting all communication inside one place, to becoming better at planning or improving internal processes.
Popular Project Management Methodologies
If you want to start improving your internal processes, there are plenty of places to look for inspiration. Three of the more popular methods are covered below, along with the pros and cons of each.
It’s worth noting that it’s often difficult to adapt one specific project management methodology wholesale into your business — you might have to mix and match, or tweak certain rules to make it work better for your business model and team.
Lean Project Management
Lean product development and project management methods are iterative, and usually involve creating some version (even if it’s a very basic version) of the final deliverable in each cycle.
For the kinds of projects you’ll be working on in your business, that might not always apply — but you can take that idea and tweak it. As an example, rather than creating a year-long marketing campaign, you can create a 30-60 day project to test a specific marketing technique for your business, then measure its effectiveness before moving forward with it.
A fundamental idea of Lean methods is to get rid of the waste in the process; Cut out useless meetings, don’t require wasteful deliverables — focus on the deliverables that move your business forward, like a prototype of a new product or an improved shopping cart experience.
When it comes to Lean, anything worth doing is worth doing fast and right.
Other facets of Lean philosophy include:
- Avoiding rework by clarifying objectives and goals (and doing it right the first time).
- Always keep an eye out for bottlenecks in the work and process — places where projects tend to get stuck, like one person needs to give their approval (and always takes weeks to do so).
- The last planner principle, which means that you’ll plan in greater detail as you get closer to actually doing the work. Rather than planning out an 18-month marketing calendar in great detail, you’ll plan the first three months in great detail, the next 3-6 months in medium detail, and the next 9-12 months in broad brushstrokes. You’ll also create plans with the people who will do the work, giving them a better understanding of the work to be done.
Agile Project Management
Agile started around 2001 with the Agile Manifesto, and gained popularity fast.
It’s a variant of iterative methods — in a true iterative method, a version of the final product is created in each cycle. In Agile, small portions of the final project are created in each cycle, and the project course is modified based on feedback given to those smaller pieces of the larger project.
Depending on the specific project you’re working on, Agile might be more useful than Lean, so it’s good to have both of them in your toolbox. For example, if you’re working as the project manager on a new product launch for a potential flagship product, you can use Agile to help make sure the product is worth putting the bulk of your resources into.
- Use the Shopify buy button to test sales velocity and response natively on a niche partner’s website.
- If sales are strong, see how a targeted, limited test run with the Twitter Buy Button goes.
- If that’s successful as well, test on a Facebook shop with ads.
- Use the feedback loop from each channel to improve the messaging and positioning with each mini-launch. After you have a few rounds of statistically significant feedback, go into full-on launch mode, and have a more successful launch than you would have otherwise.
With a little extra work, you can create more successful product launches this way.
Out of these methods, Agile is the only one that’s almost exclusively used in the software development world (Lean and Waterfall both started in physical product manufacturing), but as you can see, it’s still useful for people outside of that realm.
Waterfall Project Management
"Waterfall model" by Peter Kemp / Paul Smith - Adapted from Paul Smith's work at Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons.
Waterfall is the oldest of these methods, and in many ways has fallen out of fashion. The difference between Waterfall and the other methods covered here is that Waterfall is sequential, not cyclical or iterative.
That means that you plan the whole project at the beginning of the project, start to finish — for example, everything from R&D to product development to bringing a product to market and launching it. Then, you follow those steps through until the project is done.
That sounds like how most people approach planning, right?
The downside of this project management style is that it can be inefficient and it relies on all of your assumptions about the project being correct. If you assume it will take three months to develop the product and get it from manufacturers, but a simple miscommunication adds and additional three months, you're now forced to re-plan and coordinate with every key stakeholder.
Or, for another example, if you assume that your customers want Feature A, then you do user research and find out they actually want Feature B, you’re forced to revisit your timeline.
Every time something like this happens during the course of the project, you spend more and more time planning and replanning, and that can add up to a lot of lost time and effort over the course of the project. Because of this, detractors to the Waterfall method will argue that it’s inefficient.
Good Communication Makes for Good Projects
There’s more to project management than implementing Lean or Agile with your business. Without some ground rules in place, using Lean or that shiny new productivity tool won’t make any difference and you’ll still find your projects out of scope and running behind.
A huge part of this is avoiding miscommunication or bad communication habits, which can easily throw a project off track. Feedback is one place this comes into play. If you have too many project stakeholders, you’ll run into “death by committee” syndrome — where nobody has the final say, nobody can agree, and the result is an over-compromised mess.
The first step to managing feedback better is to minimize the people who get to make decisions in the project. Fewer stakeholders means less feedback for the team (and the project manager) to manage. The second step is to make sure that all stakeholders have chimed in before implementing the feedback. We’ve all been on that project where Person A wants this change, so that change is made, then Person B wants it a different way, then Person C wants it to go back to the way that Person A wanted it — by waiting until everyone has chimed in, you’re avoiding that outcome.
Last but not least, the team leader or team member that’s implementing the feedback should summarize and repeat the feedback before implementing, to make absolutely sure everyone is on the same page.
This is a good communication practice in general, because what one person says is not always what another person hears. A simple email along the lines of,
“Based on our meeting, I’ll be making these changes to the marketing campaign...”
...can save a lot of time and energy.
Email communication (or lack thereof) is another place where problems can crop up. Writing emails in an “if this, then that” format can help.
For example, instead of sending an email to your social media coordinator that says, “Are you asking if you should be posting eight times on Twitter tomorrow?” you can say, “If you’re asking if we should be tweeting eight times tomorrow, the answer is yes — tweets are in this spreadsheet...
...If you’re asking if we should be posting on Pinterest eight times tomorrow, no, but we are posting six times and the materials for that are in this Google Drive folder.”
There are more tips on better email communication here.
Similarly, when you’re delegating a task, try to foresee questions and answer them ahead of time (whether that’s via email or in internal documentation/FAQs that you create). This is even more important if you work on a remote team, where your team members can’t just pop by the cubicle and ask you questions.
Working across time-zones can add to project delays — they ask a question during their office hours, then it’s another 8-12 hours before it’s your office hours again and you answer it, then it’s another 8-12 hours before they can use that answer (or ask follow up questions).
It’s easy to see how all those hours of asking or answering questions, or waiting on questions/answers, can throw a project off track over the course of a few weeks.
Three Project Management Apps to Keep You on Track
Personally, Asana is my favorite, not least for its flexibility — it can work just as well for teams of one or three or five as it can teams of twenty. It offers comments, file attachments to tasks and comments, recurring tasks, and color coding (and calendar views!) for the visually-oriented members of your team. It’s free for teams of up to 15 people, and after that starts at $8.33/user/month.
Basecamp was one of the first online project management tools on the scene, and it's renowned for its ease of use. You can comment on tasks, projects, and files, upload files as attachments to projects or tasks, tag team members to make sure they get notified, create text documents inside projects, and color-code projects/tasks/documents.
The one potential issue with Basecamp is that it’s really set up more for one-off, finite projects than ongoing projects (as of writing, there’s no recurring task functionality, for example). It makes sense given that Basecamp started within the agency world and was designed for working with clients on projects that had a defined start and end date, but that might mean it’s not as good a fit for your business as some of these other options. At any rate, Basecamp is $29/month for teams.
If your team is a little less tech-savvy, or needs something very visual, Trello could be a good bet. Rather than being list-based, as Asana and Basecamp are (at least in their default views), Trello gives you boards with columns on them, and tasks are created as individual “cards” that are moved from column to column depending on their category or their progress. The look and feel is also very customizable, as you can see in the example above.
Trello has a very robust free plan and a paid upgrade option ($8.33/user/month) that unlocks extra features like app integrations and larger attachment sizes.
Running a business is always going to be challenging, but staying organized can make it less so. Stay tuned for more tips on training your managers and employees to be better at project management, learning how to communicate better, and more.