Project Management can be intimidating for internal project managers, but for an external consultant the challenges are amplified. In addition to the typical responsibilities of defining tasks, resources, durations and dependencies, consultants also must address client policies, procedures, organizational structures, and the ever-present internal politics, while remaining focused on the project deliverables.
The following provides some suggestions for achieving success as a consultant project manager.
- Every organization considers themselves unique and different. It is critical for you to understand what makes this specific entity different in their eyes. It might be the organizational structure, their culture, or their operating philosophy. A good place to start your search for these answers is to review the company’s annual report and/or its website. Look for their Mission Statement, Investor Relations, Company History, and Goals & Objectives. If at all possible, you should do this research before your first day at the client
- When you start any consulting assignment, it is imperative to identify the key individual who is responsible for you being there. This person may not always be the project sponsor, so you need to take the additional step of determining who has the final decision-making authority for the project and introducing yourself to them. This person is typically at an executive level, so getting an audience may be difficult. Ask for the meeting by providing a clear objective to the sponsor. For example, “I would like 15 minutes of your time to introduce myself and discuss your specific goals for the project including how you would like me to communicate with you going forward.”
- The odds are good that you will not be the only resource working on the project. How you manage the pool of resources that is available to the project is arguably the most challenging aspect of project management. They normally have full-time jobs, and the project work only adds to their workload. They also possess the expertise and skills necessary for project success, or at least their management thinks they should or they wouldn’t be assigned to the project. As project manager, you are expected to make this group of individuals into a team with a focus on achieving the project goals, but as an outside consultant, you will not have any context from which to determine a person’s capabilities or performance. An excellent way to assess the available talent is to have them provide input into the detailed project plan. I will explain how to do this in more detail in the “Project Methodology” section below, but people will typically perform at a higher level when they not only understand the goals, but have helped to define what needs to be done to achieve those goals. If some tells you what, when, and how they are going to do something, they will feel a sense of ownership much more than if someone else just tells them what to do.
- There is a myriad of tools available to manage a project. The most common is Microsoft Project, which contains all the functions needed to manage a typical project. While I strongly recommend developing an expertise in MS Project, I have also found this tool can be overwhelming for non project managers. Just because you need a good project management tool to do your job, don’t force it upon everyone else involved. As indicated above, you should already know what your Project Sponsor is looking for in terms of communications, but also find out what the management team and the project members want in terms of details and determine what the organization uses for these types of communications. It may be Excel, Word, or maybe even just email. Whatever it is, use it! You should structure your project using phases, summary tasks and milestones so you can easily report at the level of detail needed. I have found a simple Excel file with four spreadsheets in it is a great way to communicate key project items. The document is called a RAID. This is an acronym for the four sheets: Risks, Action Items, Issues, Decisions. The actions items come straight from the project plan, but lists only key tasks in the period being reported. The risks, issues, and decisions tabs provide a historical record of those key areas that make or break any project. Whether you use Excel as I do, or some other tool, these four sections are important ones to communicate.
- If you have taken all the above steps you are well on your way to being a successful project manager, but there is one last area that pulls all this together: the methodology you use to define and manage the project. I am a strong proponent of having an involved project team. The best way to get and keep people involved is to provide an environment that fosters participation, ownership, and responsibility. Here is an approach that has served me very well:
- Clearly define the project goals. (Remember your meeting with the project sponsor?)
- Gather the management team and define key project milestones and resources.
- Invite the project team to a kick-off meeting where you should explain the goals and the key milestones, and use this meeting to define the key tasks necessary to achieve each milestone. Once a task is defined, ask who should perform the task. As the group dynamics take effect, it will be easy to identify the leaders, the followers, the supporters, and the detractors.
- After the kick-off meeting, publish the basis task plan showing the key milestones with the tasks and resources supporting each to the project team. Ask each person to provide a time estimate for each of their tasks, and a list of what they need in order to complete them.
- Once you have the above information, you have everything you need to develop your detailed project plan with resource assignments, durations and dependencies. If you use MS Project, gaps and conflicts will be easy to identify and address.
- Now you can publish the detailed project plan to your team for final review before it goes out to the management team.
As a Consultant Project manager, you may face some additional challenges, but I trust that the above is useful in helping you to overcome them and keep you on track for achieving customer success.