4 Project Management Tips From the Pros

Successful project management doesn’t just happen overnight. But if you can master the skill, it can improve IT decision-making and communication, and help foster an effective work culture. In fact, a 2008 study from the Project Management Institute found that the more mature the project management in an organization, the greater the number of intangible values that came out of it -- not to mention that companies at every level of maturity that used project management in the study saw tangible benefits.

No matter what the project, these strategies will help you be the best project manager you can be.

1. Streamline with simplicity.
Have a detailed breakdown of all the elements in a project -- data, products and services -- so you know you’re not overlooking anything, suggests Ginger Levin, PMP, a consultant who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “Assign each work package to a specific individual or organizational unit to complete,” she says. “Then, list activities to be done to complete each work package, determine resource requirements, determine cost estimates, identify risks, and identify possible needs for outside procurements.” Keeping track of every detail will help you stay organized and on top of everything that needs to be done.

2. Identify all stakeholders.
Don’t procrastinate when it comes to involving stakeholders. When implementing a new project, you’ll probably have a list of obvious stakeholders, but it’s the people you leave off the list that can throw a wrench into it in the long run, says Albert Lee, lead analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, an IT research firm in Boulder, Colo. “It’s not just the IT people or management you need to worry about,” he says. “You also have to think about everyone who is going to interact with the project in the long run.” End users should be consulted, he says, as should outside contractors who might be affected by the new project.

3. Set a vision for the whole team.
What will your project mean to the IT department? The answer is probably very different from what someone in customer service or finance would say. This is why you need to make sure everyone on your team, including customers, has the same vision for your project, says Levin.

“Ideally, it should be done at the kickoff meeting with the customer,” she says. “Then, when a scope statement is prepared, include the vision and make sure everyone signs off on it.”

This should include bringing together representatives from every department and making sure they communicate from the start with IT and with each other. “Recognize that communications represent 90 percent of the project manager’s job,” says Levin.

4. Keep an eye on time and budget.
Before starting any project, create time and cost estimates for your project. Make sure you’re tracking progress of both on every task, even those that don’t seem critical. The sooner you can spot time or cost creep, the sooner you can squelch both or readjust stakeholder expectations. “You’ve got to track everything to make sure the process is smooth for everyone involved,” says Lee.

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The Drive for Real-time Collaboration

It's becoming a familiar scene in companies of all sizes: A team works closely together, jumping from instant messages to video conferences to over-the-phone meetings. They collaborate and accomplish goals side-by-side every day -- without ever actually meeting face-to-face.

Real-time collaboration tools not only connect teams more effectively, but also provide considerable cost savings to your organization. As a result, IT managers are increasingly recognizing the need for real-time collaboration among team members -- no matter their location. "The value of collaborating is about community. You have to be where people are to make it work," says Jon Arnold, an analyst and principal of J Arnold & Associates.

According to Ted Schadler of Forrester Research Inc., what’s driving the need is the growing trend of distributed organizations, the rising number of remote workers, and the upsurge of business-to-business teams. Here's what experts say you need to know about real-time collaboration tools and best practices for implementation:

1. Know the real-time collaboration tool landscape.
When it comes to real-time collaboration tools, the theme is "synchronous." Tools need to allow teams to truly communicate in real time. Among the real-time technologies becoming mainstays in many organizations are:

  • Advanced messaging. IM has grown beyond chat. Now, employees can send each other files without size limits, switch into video chatting or create a live conference with multiple co-workers on the spot

  • Smartphones. Employees can now stay seamlessly connected to their team via email, texting, document sharing and calls -- all on their smartphones

  • Screen sharing. These tools allow teams to actually see each other’s desktops at the same time. Some services even let you take control of someone else’s desktop, making it easy to work on projects at the same time, on the same screen

  • Virtual whiteboarding. The entire group can share a common sketchpad, easy for sharing ideas and files on a blank canvas

  • Telepresence or Web conferencing. Emerging telepresence tools create the illusion of teams interacting in the same room, even when they are miles apart. Webcams that enable one-on-one video conferencing also fall into this category. Many programs now offer recording features too, which are useful to play back later to note explicit directions and follow up with others

2. Know how tools solve common problems.
All teams don't need all real-time communication tools. And each communication tool does not need to have all the above features. The key is to offer and support the right mix that increases productivity (and ideally lowers costs) without creating distractions. "Look at key processes that can be improved by real-time collaboration," says Smith. "Maybe it's customer service -- like you can speed up the time it takes to answer clients.”

3. Know who is driving virtual collaboration.
Forrester recommends taking stock of so-called "alpha collaborators," or employees who are already using collaboration tools. “They are your greatest resource for identifying new tools, driving adoption and testing new scenarios," reports Forrester.

For employees, the expectations for real-time collaboration tools will only continue to expand. “People are living with these tools in their personal life,” says Arnold. “And they are bringing those expectations to the workplace."

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Instruction 101, Part I: Get Your Message Across

It’s a moment many geeks dread. At some point in your career, it’s likely you’ll have to teach your peers -- or worse, your non-technical co-workers or customers -- about a new technology.

Doing so can be a real boost to your career, not only because it gives you great visibility within your organization -- and sometimes beyond it -- but also because it will help you increase your expertise. “You never truly master something until you teach it to someone else,” says Jeremiah Dunham, president of the IT support company Design-PT and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

Teaching is daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. Here are four keys to making sure you come across like a pro:

1. Know your audience. Find out who’s likely to be there, and most important, what they’ll want to learn from you. This is especially vital when teaching a non-technical audience about technology. You may love the new technology or product for its elegant design and functionality, but that’s unlikely to matter to a lay audience that will only want to know how the product can help them do their jobs more easily, increase revenues or save the company money. They may also be worried that newer, more efficient technology will result in layoffs, so make sure you’re sensitive to those concerns.

2. Set the stage. Finding the right location for your teaching session can be tricky. You want a setting where you won’t be interrupted or distracted by nearby noise. “A lab type of environment, where everyone has their own computer, is the most effective setting if you’re teaching a new piece of software,” notes Dunham.

Always visit the room beforehand. “If you’re in a new venue, you need to check out every aspect of it: room size, chair arrangement, lighting, acoustics and any technology you’re going to use,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “If you have a glitch because you didn’t prepare, you can undermine your own effectiveness.”

3. Dress the part. Your audience will feel more comfortable with you, and thus be more receptive to what you say, if your attire reflects theirs. In most cases, this means that you, as a geek, will have to look more formal than usual. But the reverse can also be true.

Early in his career, Lawrence Burgee, department chair of Information Systems at Stevenson University had to make a presentation to 500 public utility workers. He arrived dressed for business, as was required in the company’s headquarters offices, where he worked. But the utility workers, who spent their time out in the field, were wearing jeans and T-shirts. “As I walked through the door, I heard one audience member tell his neighbor, ‘Here comes another suit!’” Burgee recalls. “I set the wrong tone by dressing wrong.”

4. Plan to record. “We encourage everyone we deal with to at least consider recording their presentations,” says Scheuermann. “It provides a great benefit for audience members to be able to go over the material again, whether or not they attended the session face-to-face. There are vast numbers of technologies that let you record with different feature sets, and the less expensive ones can be just as effective. It’s a best practice to always make a recording.”

Mastering these steps should give you as much confidence in your presentation skills as you have in your tech know-how.

Coming next month: “Instruction 101, Part II: Keep Your Audience Engaged.”

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