What Are Best Practices in Project Management?

“What Are Best Practices in Project Management?” on Smartsheet, September 10, 2021

Below, we’ve compiled the 15 best practices in project management that experts say are vital to ensuring your project’s success:

Hold a Kickoff Meeting — Or Two — with Internal Team and Clients

It’s important to hold a kickoff meeting in which you explain the overall goals of the project and how the project fits with the strategic goals of the organization. You should also provide an overview of the work and the timeline.

Alan Zucker, a project management consultant and founding principal of Project Management Essentials, says you should do the following in the kickoff meeting:

  1. Establish ground rules for how the project will move forward.
  2. Establish clear expectations regarding roles and responsibilities.
  3. Set the project’s objectives and goals.Some experts say you may want to hold two kickoff meetings. The first meeting should include any client(s) for whom you’re doing the work, important external stakeholders, and your staff. The second meeting can be for the internal staff assigned to the project.

    Still, some experts emphasize the importance of that all-hands kickoff meeting with your staff, the external client, and important stakeholders. That allows your clients or stakeholders to become familiar with the project team and enables the team to gain a fuller perspective on a client’s needs and goals.

Consolidate, Track, and Report on Project Information Using One Easily Accessible Database

Tools that provide this sort of tracking and reporting are continually changing. And some don’t focus as much on words and detailed reports as they do on visuals, says Zucker. (Learn more about new types of visual project reporting below.)

Check-In Regularly with Clients and Key Stakeholders

It’s vital to check in regularly with clients you’re working for, as well as with other key stakeholders. These check-ins will allow you to give an update and get their opinions.

“Seek regular feedback from customers and key stakeholders,” says Zucker. “Show them what you are developing. This reduces gaps in expectations of delivery.”

Pourkermani also suggests holding periodic meetings with the full team, including clients and important stakeholders. If the full team includes hundreds of people, those meetings may happen only about once every three months. If the team includes a dozen or so people, hold the meetings every two weeks or month.

“The purpose of [these meetings] is just to stay aligned and synchronized as a project team, with your stakeholders and customers,” he says.

Continually Review and Make Needed Changes to the Project and Your Processes

You must do more than embrace change in elements of your project as you’re doing the work — you must also be willing to make changes in your processes.

Zucker is an advocate for Kaizen, a Japan-born practice that focuses on continual process improvement. The Japanese word translates into “change for the better,” and organizations use the practice in project management, manufacturing, and other areas.

“Kaizen is a concept that came out of Toyota and the company’s Lean production system,” Zucker says. “It was the idea that teams of workers that were building cars could identify ways of improving the process, and those changes were actually implemented. That whole idea of continuous improvement — in scaled Agile they call it relentless improvement — is the idea that at the end of our sprints, we have our sprint retrospective, where we identify ways of improving. And we actually implement those improvements, or some of those improvements, in our next iteration or our next sprint.”

Develop a Process to Escalate Problems and Issues Appropriately

Issues and problems often fester at the lower levels of a project team. Lower-level workers don’t want to tell senior project leaders, clients, and key stakeholders of the issues for fear of rebuke or censure.

At the beginning of your project, create an issue escalation matrix that identifies the level of importance of an issue and the appropriate escalation path for different types of issues.

Zucker also says that escalation can happen less formally — if you have daily stand-up meetings and follow-up meetings that are part of Agile and other project management methods.

“Create processes so that problems and issues are solved quickly,” he says. “Identify issues in the daily stand-up meeting and resolve them immediately in the meeting after.”

Understand the Importance of Context

Every organization and every project is different. Even a similar project within the same organization is different when it occurs at a different time.

The bottom line is that the environment and context a project exists in are very important. Keep this in mind as you consider which best practices are essential to follow for your project and which you can leave behind.

“One of the things that I spend a lot of time talking about when I’m teaching is the idea that context counts,” says Zucker, from Project Management Essentials. “Every project, every organization, and every industry is somewhat different. Recognize that projects and project management are not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. When you’re making decisions as project managers, you need to understand the environment that you’re operating in, and then make decisions accordingly. That is very valuable.”

Fund the Team, Not the Project

Once you have put together a good team, you don’t want to dismantle and change it for every project that comes along, Zucker says.

He cites Tuckman’s model of group development, a model that psychologist Bruce Tuckman wrote about in the 1960s. The model cites four stages that groups move through: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Each stage represents a step in the team getting together and then learning to work well together.

Zucker says that once the team gels and begins to work well together, you shouldn’t disband it just because the project ends. Instead, the team can work together on ensuing projects.

He says: “Fund the team — not the project. Build high-performing teams. Keep the team intact and funnel the work to the teams.

“The idea is we begin to build long-standing, persistent teams, where we’ve got a team that’s together, and then the team develops their performance and knows how to work together. If we keep forming new teams, we’re always going back to the beginning,” Zucker says.

Create an Environment Without Fear

Team members have to feel free to propose ideas, as well as to raise concerns about things that aren’t working, without team leaders ignoring, belittling, or admonishing them. They must know they can make mistakes if they come from good intentions.

“Embrace diversity and create an environment without fear,” Zucker says. “Everyone and all ideas are welcome. No one goes to work planning to screw up. Use mistakes as teachable moments.”

Tracking and Reporting Through Simpler Visuals and Graphics

Zucker says many project management teams are moving away from traditional written status reports, “which were usually poorly written and rarely read.” Now, more teams are showing progress on a project more visually. Examples include Kanban boards, whether in the office or through online portals.

“The things I like about Kanban boards is that they’re clear and they’re visual,” Zucker says.

Maintaining the Same Teams for Different Projects

In a former job working with financial systems for a telecommunications company, Zucker oversaw a team that managed about two dozen software applications.

He built long-standing teams of the same people to continually work on various projects. “If you keep forming new teams, we’re always going back to the beginning. It makes it very difficult for us to become a high-performing team.”

He said the team might be reconfigured in minor ways for specific projects. But most of the team stayed together to work on project after project.

“We understood our strengths and our weaknesses,” Zucker says, “and developed the camaraderie. You developed that communication that teams get — which is you can say three words and those three words have a much greater meaning. You knew who to talk to. You weren’t afraid to ask questions.”

Displayed Kanban Boards to Show Progress

Zucker remembers working with an IT vice president who was new to the organization at a large nonprofit. He helped the VP put together a Kanban board on her department’s portfolio of projects, using sticky notes and painter’s tape.

She had told him that people throughout the organization had been asking her what her department was working on, along with updates on specific projects.

He noticed a large whiteboard she was using in her glass-walled office. He suggested that she put her Kanban items on the board and flip the board so that anyone outside the office could see the board — and the progress on the department’s projects.

“Anybody that’s walking by can say, ‘Hey, this is what technology is doing. Here’s Project A, B, and C. And here’s the prioritized list. Here’s the backlog of things that they’re going to be working on next.’”

The display proved helpful for everyone in the organization, enabling them to understand what projects the department was working on and their ongoing progress, Zucker says.

Discuss Problem Areas in Organizational Project Management, Production, and Other Processes

Surveys over the past decade or more generally show that only one-half or less of projects are completed on time and within budget. The Standish Group’s 2015 CHAOS report — well-known within the industry — found that 36 percent of projects were completed successfully. The 2021 annual report from the Project Management Institute found improvement in project success in recent years. But it still found that only 55 percent of projects were completed on time, and 62 percent were completed within the budget.

As a result, Zucker asks clients directly: “How satisfied are you with your projects?”

He says that anecdotally, “even organizations that have been executing projects — most of them have pretty bad experiences.”

Zucker and Pourkermani say that helping organizations understand and acknowledge their issues is the first step to getting them to implement some practices that can improve their projects.

Reassure Clients That They Can Customize Project Management Practices to Their Situations

Some organizations may be reluctant to incorporate best practices that don’t fit with the organization, its culture, or the industry. Experts say it can help to assure organizations that all best practices can and should be modified and implemented in a way that fits the organization.

“One of the things that I tend to focus on is that we’re not going to come up with a standard — because there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for every project,” Zucker says. “One of the things I really like to talk about is establishing consistent, repeatable practices that you can then mature over time to improve your organization’s project execution.”