Project Management: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

by Hannah Murphy

When it came to Data School projects, my only understanding of Project Management was what I had watched on The Apprentice, normally a lot of fighting and attempting to shift the blame for a less than successful project. Unfortunately, my time as Project Manager was not marked as an overwhelming success and although this was disheartening at the time, this was a great opportunity for myself and the team to learn from our mistakes and do better in future projects. The purpose of this blog is outline some of the mistakes we/I made and the lessons we learned as well as some of the tips that I picked up over the 8 week project period.

Trust your Team!

It is very easy to become weighed down with the stress and the responsibility of managing your first project, however it is also important to remember that you cannot control every aspect of that week and you need to place a large amount of trust in your team.

We are all guilty of being competitive every now and again, and I'm sure a part of every one wants their project to be the most successful (however you would define successful). However, this is very much a team sport and putting unnecessary pressure on your team can only have the opposite result. Going into my week as Project Manager, I was very aware that I may have the tendency to micro-manage and whilst I did my best to take a hands-off approach, I was still more involved than Project Managers before and after me. I think it's important to find the balance that works for yourself and your team, and that comes from experience.

Get involved...but how much?

On the subject of involvement, whilst some believe that it is not the job of a Project Manager to get involved in the nitty gritty of a project, I would disagree. I don't know of an instance where someone has successfully managed whilst having no understanding of the job that needs to be carried out, and whilst I'm sure there is always an argument for the contrary, it is my belief that a Project Manager should have a basic understanding of the data and requirements so that they can offer advice and help when needed.

That being said, it is important that you do not take over and over-exert your influence. The Project manager should not be doing any of the work themselves and are instead there to offer help when needed, be that generating ideas or troubleshooting workflows and dashboards.  At the end of the day, each person in your team is responsible for the work they create and if you do your job correctly, everyone should be confident in what they are doing and feel supported, not pressured.

Do your Research...and PLAN!

My advice would always be to familiarise yourself with the project ahead of time. Whilst no one is expecting you to know everything ahead of the Kick-off call, it is always a good idea to research the client, the industry they are in, their values and any other information you can find on them. However, remember that you are not the expert in the room. It would be a mistake to try and tell a client about their own company. Explaining your understanding and asking for clarifications seems like a happy medium.

If the client has sent a brief or any documents over ahead of time then spend some time reading them, make notes of any initial questions or errors have identified and consolidate this information for the rest of your team.

Spend some time thinking about how your week is going to look, what goals do you want to set for each day and how will you distribute the workload. It's good to have a general idea of how you want to structure things but remember this may need to be re-evaluated after the initial call.

Learn from others

After each project, you as a team should be reflecting on how the week went and giving feedback to the Project Manager on what went well and what didn't. This provides a good foundation for the next Project Manager to build on. There is also a surplus of blogs and reflective logs to gain inspiration from.

Everyone has their own ideas on how a project should be managed, which normally reflects their own working style. For example, I found lengthy zoom calls and team meetings difficult as I am used to working independently. This was a massive learning curve for me both as a member of the team and as Project Manager as I learned the importance of team collaboration and constant communication, especially when working remotely.

Communication

Managing Communication lines is a key part of being Project Manager and something we had not been doing enough of in previous projects. This is why for my project I created a Convo group and tried to be as strict as possible in keeping all communication on that group. This is something I would advise for all projects. Furthermore, you should be posting on Convo as much as possible, my project was internal and so forced interaction with the whole of The Information Lab, but even struggles with banking terminology, for example, can be easily resolved by using the resources and knowledge available to you.

I found the change in team dynamic quite difficult to adjust to, going from being a team in training to managing my peers was a strange shift and I found myself questioning myself a lot. I tried to keep an open channel of communication, asking the team for feedback as we went through the project rather than at the end. The idea behind this was that I could make adjustments according to what was working for them and what wasn't. I am unsure as to how successful this was, I think you rely on honest and sometimes critical feedback that we were all reluctant to give at the start.

Where I failed in terms of managing communication was that I did not check in enough on the rest of the team and so there were frequently problems happening in the background that I was not aware of and therefore couldn't help resolve.

Communicating with the Client

As Project Manager you will be expected to take charge in meetings with the client. This can be intimidating but is nothing to worry about, greet the client and ask for some background on what they do, the project and the requirements. From there, the meeting should run smoothly so long as you ask plenty of questions!

After the call, reconvene with the team and make sure you understand the requirements, the priorities and the general structure of the project. This is where you will have to plan again!

Throughout the week you may find additional issues and questions arise; as Project Manager you are the middle-man between the team and the client and so it's a good idea to get at least one email address where you can send questions or requests for additional data.

It is also a good idea to set up a call with the client, normally on the Wednesday where you can ask your questions and present you ideas so far. This gives you the chance to check the project is going in the right direction whilst leaving time to make any changes.

When reflecting on my project week, there are definitely a few things I should've done or could've done better:

  • Run Through - I think it's very easy to get caught up in the time pressure of Project Week and a lot of us did not want to take the our or so to do a full run through of our client presentation. However, I would always say this is time well spent. Not only does it help in the overall appearance of the presentation, allowing things to seem more polished and professional, but also this is the opportunity to spot mistakes. It is in the projects where we didn't do a run through that spelling mistakes, typos and incorrect calculations slipped through the net. As Project Manager, I should've insisted we did a run through before the presentation as it definitely showed.
  • Check the details - I think this ties in with a lot of what I have said above. During my project week I missed several details that led to a dashboard being created on the wrong topic and therefore requirements were missed. This was due to my own oversight when talking through dashboards with the team but also perhaps not clarifying the requirements enough in the initial kick off call.
  • Set targets and get updates - I have already talked about the importance of Convo and communication and whilst I tried to keep in contact with the team, this was definitely an area of improvement for me. What we did in the following weeks was to write a list of targets in the morning and provide updates on how far we were to reaching those targets at the end of the day. This would've been helpful in tracking our progress throughout the week and could have potentially avoided a last minute scramble on Thursday and Friday. Furthermore, it would've helped me keep track of what everyone was doing and have a better idea of who needed support.

Presentation

It's your job to kick off the Friday presentation with the client. Sometimes this will include people from the client company who you have not had contact with throughout the week so be prepared to introduce yourself and the project to any new faces. This is a good chance to talk about the division of work, the questions you aim to answer, any challenges you faced and any further steps you would recommend....remember we're consultants too!

Final Words

Project Week can be an intense and stressful week but it's nothing to worry about. It's a fantastic opportunity to find your management style and learn in real-life situations and so mistakes will be made. I think it's more about how you handle these mistakes and learn from them as much as it is about what you produce. That being said, you should always be giving 100%, be it as a member of the team or as Project Manager...it definitely isn't the easy week you may think it will be!

The main thing is to look after your team, make sure you are using your time efficiently and block any obstacles that might hinder your progress.. You are in charge that week so follow your instincts and push back when needed. So long as you keep calm and work as a team, no matter how stressful things may be at the beginning of the week, everything will be okay come Friday!