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By Brad Egeland

I think best practices as they pertain to project management can be just about anything that makes sense, gets the job done efficiently, keeps your projects on track, and your customers happy. That said, not everything applies. Giving each customer Starbucks gift cards is a nice gesture, but doesn't really fall under "best practices."

Pure and simple, there are some fundamental concepts on how to best proceed on an activity. The concepts lead to a better final outcome when most or all are put into practice the right way. They differ from activity to activity, but they are there. Project management is no exception. But specifically looking just at project management – what are these PM best practices, in general?

When we lead projects and skilled technical teams, what consistent tasks and actions do we take so our projects are as successful and productive as possible?

There are likely almost as many best practices as there are project managers in the world. However, there are definitely a few 'core'project management practices that most will agree fit the bill.

While this is in no way my all-inclusive list, here’s my take on some key project management best practices…

Effective and Efficient Communication

Communication is key on any engagement. It is the #1 responsibility of the project manager.

Communication – when practiced effectively and efficiently on a project – ensures that all team members and the customer know the project status at all times. They know what's expected of them. They know the requirements, issues, and risks involved.

Including Proper Planning Time in the Schedule

Up-front planning is the key to documenting proper requirements for every engagement.

It's easy to make a project look better on paper to meet customer and executive management's wishes if planning is compressed to match a shorter project timeframe and lower budget. However, it will not satisfy anyone in the long run.

A project without enough up-front planning is nearly always doomed to fail in at least one of the major success factor areas: time, budget, or satisfaction.

Solid Budget Management

In matrix-type organizations, most project managers are overseeing multiple project teams that comprise various skilled professionals who themselves are also working on several different engagements.

The key is to be the project manager who cares the most about your budget.

If your project team members know you care and you're tracking the project budget closely, then your project will not be the one that gets their 'extraneous' hours.

Let's face it we've all been there. You’ve worked a hard 50+ hour work week on multiple projects and it's Friday afternoon and time to sort out your hours and submit detail on what you worked on during the week. Most of it we can explain accurately. But there are always those 5-6 hours that you know you worked but don't seem to fit into the activities you worked on.

It has to go somewhere…where does it go?

If you're like most team members, you take your best guess OR you charge to a project that you know you can charge it to without getting backlash from the project manager. I guarantee you if you're watching your project budget and your team knows it, you won't get those 'extra' hours charged to your project.

Likewise, a closely monitored budget rarely gets too far out of hand without the project manager knowing it. And correcting a 5% budget overrun is a lot easier than correcting a 40% budget explosion. It can mean the difference between success and utter project failure.

Good Scope Management

Change control is critical when you're running projects for your internal or external customers. It takes a stubborn and well-organized project manager to manage project scope and take a firm stand when the line in the sand gets pushed.

Don't be afraid to yell 'out of scope!' and to document changes your customer is requesting that do not fall within the agreed-upon project requirements. If you keep a firm grip on the project scope, document changes and negotiate well with the customer, you can usually experience double success.

You can get increased project revenue through change control. And you can have satisfied customers through meeting their needs and the true needs of their end users by delivering a workable solution.

Continual Attention to Risks and Issues

Good project managers organize their teams and customers early in the project to focus on the identification of potential risks. Then, throughout the engagement, they continue to lead the team in practicing risk avoidance and risk mitigation activities.

Along with that, it is also critical to manage all issues on an ongoing basis. This means assigning them to team members (both on the delivery team side and the customer side) just as you would all tasks on the project. Then continually review and revisit them on an ongoing basis.

Ideally, these ongoing issue and risk review activities become part of the weekly status meetings on the project. That way they stay in front of everyone and are monitored closely and routinely.

Summary

These are just five fundamental 'best practice' activities that all project managers should be using on their engagements. There are other obvious ones that I didn't mention  producing weekly status reports, holding weekly project meetings, and revising the project schedule on a regular basis. Those are also best practices and need to happen, but most are aware of this.

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