Project management is an essential practice in business today. It involves certain trained individuals overseeing a scope of work from the concept-stage all the way through to its conclusion. This may include tasks such as assembling the right team, developing a budget, setting timelines, managing deliverables, communicating with stakeholders, and much more.
Individuals in this field often acquire the tools and strategies to be effective in these demanding roles through the pursuit of an advanced degree in project management. However, even the most well-trained project managers face unexpected obstacles in their work that can result in less than ideal project results.
One of the most common obstacles project managers face is poor time management. Whether rooted in problems with the team, the stakeholders, or the number of hours allotted to complete the project itself, timing issues have the power to derail a project and make a lasting negative impact.
Read on to explore some of the most common time wasters in project management, and the best strategies project managers can use to overcome them.
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Time Management Strategies For Project Managers
In the scope of project management, time management is about using the amount of time allocated to a project wisely in order to meet scheduled deliverables and conclude all work by or before the project completion date. It requires project managers to keep their teams organized, productive, and prompt at all times, and it’s a practice all project managers need to be comfortable with.
“Time management is essential in project management [because], often, time is a project manager’s scarcest resource,” says Christopher Bolick, lead faculty in the project management programs within Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.
Bolick explains that project managers are “always in a time crunch or trying to beat the clock in order to deliver what a customer is after in a certain time frame.” For this reason, many of the strategies that have to do with this practice often involve organized schedules and proper communication when deadlines are at risk of not being met.
However, there are many other aspects of time management that are less related to directly meeting individual deadlines, and more about keeping the overall flow of a project moving steadily and successfully toward a conclusion. Below, we offer five project management strategies that can be used to keep any project on track.
1. Have a well-defined project plan.
Bolick identifies a well-defined project plan as the number one most effective strategy for time management because it can have an impact on all phases of the project from start to finish. “When you start to execute anything without a plan, you spend a lot of time discussing what to do, how to do it, what it should look like, and so on,” he says. This chaotic approach is often the leading cause of misused time in a project, because when a project remains in the concept stage, nothing tangible can actually be accomplished.
Bolick suggests that, instead, project managers should skip this type of theoretical conversation and invest their time into setting a proper project plan in place. By doing so, project managers are not only leading a productive and calculated conversation with stakeholders and other team members that will set the structure of the project to come, but they are also actively taking steps to eliminate many of the common time wasters that may otherwise occur down the line. This includes, most notably, the need for unnecessary rework at future project stages.
To help understand the necessity of this plan in the overall scope of project work, Bolick compares project management to the process of building a house. “You wouldn’t [start] to build a house without having a detailed blueprint showing the contractor how to begin,” he says. “So the planning phase is [similar to] all the work that goes into creating that blueprint, [including] working with the architect, zoning officials, and customers to make sure that all requirements are addressed.”
The Components of a Clear Project Plan
The most effective plans include basic project information—including what tasks need to be completed and the necessary deliverable dates—but should also dive more deeply into the breakdown of the team and the overall project goals, as well.
From a team perspective, having a clear understanding of the various individuals that make up the group—and their skill sets—can go a long way in properly and efficiently assigning tasks. In this same regard, it’s important for a project manager to review who on the team is responsible for each specific task in a project plan to avoid confusion and missed deadlines.
Similarly, setting a clearly defined scope statement with the stakeholder or customer involved in the project during this planning phase will go a long way in eliminating rework, a practice often born of unclear expectations. This scope statement should define what they presume will be completed at each stage of the project, as well as what the end result will look like.
When these types of standards aren’t set, project managers risk both their relationships with stakeholders and the outcome of their project. For example, a stakeholder may get upset if they don’t understand the realistic timeline of a project’s work, and expect to see a completed project at an earlier stage than the team produces it. Alternatively, from a project standpoint, an uninformed stakeholder may also delay the conclusion of a certain phase of work or even the entire project if they don’t understand the process, and try to layer in new or unscheduled requests.
Overall, Bolick explains that having this type of clear project plan in place can go a long way in making sure a project is completed both successfully and on time.
2. Engage and communicate with stakeholders effectively.
Some of the biggest time-related issues project managers face are delays in communication, and more often than not, those delays are not happening within the project team itself. Instead, stakeholders who were so invested at the beginning of a project are often the first to go silent after time has passed, and their priorities—and attention—has shifted onto new tasks.
The best way to maintain stakeholders’ timeliness is to find ways to keep them engaged with the project, Bolick explains. Sending weekly or monthly emails with an overview of the tasks that have been accomplished during that period is one such approach to remaining top-of-mind.
Being able to analyze a stakeholder or organization’s preferred methods of communication is another powerful tool in keeping the necessary groups engaged. Where some projects may include work with organizations that are structured to allow for in-person conversations and quick decision-making, others may be remote and require detailed planning of proper times to talk through even small issues. Project managers should be sure to recognize these trends in each organization and adjust their approach accordingly in order to capitalize on the stakeholders’ available time and use it wisely to meet the needs of the project.
Maintaining these relationships with stakeholders is a very important aspect of a project manager’s work and the benefits of doing so successfully extend far beyond the reduction of wasted time in a project. “A lot of a project manager’s time should be spent…communicating and networking,” Bolick says.
3. Remain flexible, yet attentive.
“As project managers, we often thrive on a solid plan,” Bolick says. “But when actively managing a project, there is rarely a day that goes by [when] everything goes according to [that] plan.”
For this reason, project managers need to approach every situation with an equal amount of preparedness and adaptability. They should be able to move around priorities and address issues as they come up, without losing sight of original project or personal time commitments.
The key to doing this well is based on learning how to “communicate effectively and concisely with stakeholders,” Bolick says. Often these individuals must be told in clear terms exactly what is needed of them in order to allow for the type of time-sensitive decision-making that is often necessary to get a delayed project back on track.
When project managers are able to communicate this situation clearly and concisely to the customer, while also finding a way to adapt their approach depending on the stakeholders’ previous reactions to high-stress situations, they are much more likely to achieve effective results.
For example, if a project manager knows their stakeholder is easily frustrated by delays in the project, he or she may choose to reach out directly and frame their need for the stakeholders’ quick decision-making in a way that reminds them that their brief focus on this work will get the project back on track all the faster. Opposedly, if the stakeholder in this situation is notoriously flighty and hard to engage, tracking them down in person and asking for a few, focused minutes of their time to address the issues may be a better route. Being able to adjust their approach to both the situation and the people on the team in this way is a crucial skill for project managers.
However, despite these clear benefits of strong flexibility, Bolick also stresses that, in some situations, project managers should have the strength and confidence to encourage their team to stick to a predetermined plan or process, even in times of high-stress. He explains that doing so is often more effective than making spur of the moment decisions, and it’s up to the project manager to determine which scenarios call for a strict process, and which are dire enough to deviate from it.
No matter the approach, project managers need to ensure they are always making decisions with the project’s timeline in mind. “In the end, the goal is to prevent scope creep on our projects,” Bolick says.
4. Develop a proper work breakdown structure.
In project work, a lot of pressure falls onto the project manager to not only deliver on important deadlines themselves but to also manage their team appropriately to do the same.
“Often when we step back and look at what is required for many projects, it is easy to become overwhelmed,” Bolick says. “As a project manager, it is important to be able to work with the project team to deconstruct large deliverables of processes within the project into manageable and measurable tasks.”
In Bolick’s example of building a house, for instance, he compares this practice to that of installing utilities. “You would not be able to effectively manage and measure a task associated with installing all the utilities because there are too many stakeholders and resources involved,” he says. “Instead, you would want to break the deliverable into manageable components associated with the specific utilities—electrical, HVAC, plumbing, water, and so on.”
This process of breaking down large tasks into smaller, more easily handled ones can be completed most effectively through the development of a “work breakdown structure.” According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a work breakdown structure (WBS) is “a guide for defining work as it relates to a specific project’s objectives. Project professionals use a WBS to define project deliverables and establish the structure to manage work to completion.”
Project managers should lean heavily on work breakdown structures during the planning phase of their projects in order to minimize wasted time when it comes to completing deliverables. Alongside helping to alleviate the stress that accompanies large-scale deliverables, Bolick explains that a work breakdown structure can also “help the project manager and team be able to effectively measure the project progress and see where there are opportunities to gain time within the project.”
5. Avoid meetings without a purpose.
Unnecessary meetings are one of the most common time wasters in projects across industries. These may be meetings that were scheduled at the start of a project but became less necessary as time went on and were never struck from the calendar, or regular check-ins that were scheduled so frequently there is no real progress to be reported between sessions. No matter the format, these types of meetings can cause a great deal of wasted time, and it’s a project manager’s responsibility to either keep them productive or find new, more efficient ways to communicate.
There are a few key steps project managers can take to address this time-waster. First, the project manager must evaluate if an in-person meeting is the best format for communicating the needs of the project. If everything that would have been discussed in a scheduled status meeting can be effectively covered in a status email, for example, then switching from in-person to online updates can effectively save a group a lot of time and energy that can be instead put toward completing deliverables.
If a project manager determines that an in-person meeting is still the best route for this particular team or group, on the other hand, it’s important that they follow a few key steps for keeping the meetings efficient:
- Take time to establish an agenda pre-meeting of exactly what needs to be addressed. This will not only eliminate time wasters—like segue questions, updates that are not on topic, or one-on-one conversations between two team members that could have been completed outside of the larger meeting—but ensure that there is time to go over everything that needs to be addressed in that time.
- Ensure that the reason each person in the meeting has been included is obvious. If it’s not, the project manager should consider removing that person from the list, saving the group and the individual from wasting their time.
- Designate someone to be the note taker and provide a list of action items for the team post-meeting. This will ensure everyone is not only on the same page about what has been accomplished already, but that they each know what they personally must work to accomplish before the next meeting. This, in turn, can ensure that future meetings continue to be productive down the line.
Mastering Time and Project Management
Time is a key element in any project’s success, so putting this type of effort into eliminating time wasters and keeping a team productive can go a long way in a team’s journey toward successful project completion.
Optimizing time is just one of many strategies skilled project managers know how to execute in order to guide a team toward their project’s goals, however. Individuals hoping to uncover the full toolbelt of strategies and practices that can be best applied to this work should consider a master’s degree in project management. In Northeastern’s program, for example, students have ample opportunities to learn about a variety of effective project management approaches and methodologies, and apply what they learn in the classroom to an array of experiential learning opportunities, all under the guidance of top industry professionals. Browse through Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program page for more.