10 Project Management Tips for Startups

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Why is project management especially relevant to new businesses? Well, as a startup your flexibility is an asset, allowing you to change direction quickly, responding to gaps in the market or exploiting a new technology. The temptation is to go on believing that this fast moving, fly by the seat of your pants approach will deliver results forever (here’s a clue – it won’t).

When it comes to managing projects, planning and preparation are everything, whatever the size of the project. The reasons are to do with scope, communication and control. A project without a clear scope will drift; requirements will grow continuously and no one will know when it’s complete. Project management also facilitates communication with the team and, importantly, with stakeholders. Control is perhaps the most underestimated aspect; it’s essential to measure how the project is progressing and to make adjustments.

Businesses that have survived (and flourished) for more than a couple of years know these reasons. They are relevant for SMBs and Enterprises who will have trained their project managers on a specific methodology. They are especially relevant to startups, as they lack the experience in defining and running successful projects.

Here we offer 10 tips for project management, particularly aimed at startups and entrepreneurs, but also relevant to businesses of all sizes.

1. Choose the right project management methodology

Project management methodologies have been practised for decades, their use increasing as more projects were completed successfully. Different techniques evolved to suit different industries and goals, with new techniques being pioneered and older ones abandoned.

Waterfall was one of the first methodologies, heavily based on gathering requirements upfront and with little flexibility for changes downstream. Agile and Scrum are relatively new techniques, evolving to meet the need for rapid software development where initial requirements are vague.

PRINCE2 is the most widely used and respected methodology, having been used on thousands of successful projects in different industries.

2. Define your goals

“Many people fail in life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they have never organised their energies around a goal.”

– Elbert Hubbard.

The critical step in shaping a project is to define its goals or vision. There is a huge temptation to just get started on development, but calm deliberation at this stage will reap rewards later. The goals must be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

The goals for a startup project will include the types of clients being targeted, costs, revenue and business growth. There may also be personal goals such as how hands-on the partners intend to be. Measurable goals can be checked at a specific point in time. When setting a goal, plan ahead – when will you check and how will you know you have achieved it.

3. Identify stakeholders

A stakeholder is anyone with a stake in the project. This may be a customer who is putting money into a bespoke product or new technology, a financier, or a technology partner. Identifying and meeting stakeholders at an early stage helps to secure agreement on how they will be involved.

They may wish to just see monthly reports on progress, or they may need much more involvement, reviewing and possibly approving specifications, trialling early versions of the product and signing off the final deliverables.

4. Create an outline plan

The project plan will begin with an outline that can be shared and agreed with stakeholders. It should include a definition of the key deliverables, the overall timescale for the project, with any critical interim deliveries, costs and resources. It should identify the project management methodology to be used; this will give shape to reporting and the management of risks.

5. Develop a detailed plan

The plan will mature as more detail is added. The deliverables will be broken down into tasks with estimates. These are normally organised into a work breakdown structure, using a tool such as a Gantt chart. Use the tool to identify the dependencies between tasks and to calculate the critical path for the project.

Critical path is the shortest possible time to execute the project, derived from the length of time for dependent tasks or the time available from a specific person. Possibly both. Keep the plan realistic; don’t just go ahead with your fingers crossed. Adjust the plan to build in flexibility and negotiate with the stakeholders if necessary. Update the plan whenever there is a significant change.

6. Communicate

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

– George Bernard Shaw

It’s vital to communicate properly with the team, even if they are all in the same office. When people are focused on their tasks, they don’t necessarily take in what is being said. Make time for team talks, perhaps as a stand up meeting at the start of each day. Make sure everyone speaks. Allow time for longer team meetings where there is a chance to discuss on-going issues and for team members to share progress.

Communication with stakeholders is also essential. Keeping them up to date on progress will give you more currency with them if you need to negotiate on scope or timescale later. Whether you need to communicate with your team or stakeholders, mass communication technology can be a great way of making sure everyone is on the same page and can mitigate any communication breakdowns

7. Team

If the project involves new faces, give them the opportunity to gel. People are individuals and it takes time to work really well together. Consider team building as passing through phases – Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Keep your eye on the storming phase, and see who is showing the ability to lead.

8. Project management tool

Choose which tool(s) you will use on the project. A good tool will:

  • Allow you to control the project
  • Collect actual data on progress with minimum effort from the team
  • Facilitate moving tasks between team members
  • Provide project reports for stakeholders

9. Monitor progress

By talking regularly with team members and monitoring the project management tool, you will have a good idea as to how the project is progressing. Schedule regular meetings based on project cycles to review progress more formally and adjust where needed.

10. Close out

For a startup, completing the project should give everyone a buzz. Plan to make this a positive experience by rewarding the team’s hard work. Schedule a special team meeting to close out the project and share lessons learned. Make sure everyone has the chance to speak because feedback from the team will help to guide the next project.