When Pete downed his first pint in a little over 10 seconds I knew he needed to talk. He and his wife Sue had just spent the afternoon decorating their house and they’d driven each other up the wall with their bickering.

When he told me his story I was reminded of how basic project management principles apply throughout our lives from building a house to writing a business strategy. Such principles are the fundamental difference between success and failure in any project.

The first principle is to take your team with you. The problem was that Pete didn’t want to do the work but was told by Sue that he was there instead to help her. To Pete, this raised the question – who was he doing the work for? Both of them or just Sue?Being told to do a task wasn’t a good way to engage him if you wanted to motivate him to get the job done. Like all of us, he needed to be given a vision of what he was being asked to accomplish that would give him reason to commit his time and effort to completing the task. In a work setting, if your project delivery team doesn’t have that vision, you risk demotivating them, resulting in poor quality work.

The second principle is to agree what you need to achieve with your client and get it in writing. Getting an agreement between Pete and Sue on which part of the house they were going to paint (let alone the colour), took four attempts. Each time, both of them misunderstood what they were supposed to do.

Finally, Sue had to resort to writing a list of items to be painted that they could both agree to. In the same way, a lack of defined scope in project management can be disastrous. In a previous role, because the remit for a project I took on was so badly set out, it took two years longer than it should have done at great financial expense to the company.

So you need to:

  1. Put in writing what the scope of the project should be, based on client conversations
  2. Outline what the scope should not include in order to define project boundaries
  3. Communicate both 1) and 2) with the client
  4. Amend the scope based on their comments
  5. Repeat step 1) until the client is satisfied
  6. Get an explicit agreement that it’s the right scope

The third principle is to balance the cost of resources with the benefits gained. Sue wanted the job done quickly. She had a friend living nearby who could have helped, but Pete didn’t want them to. He thought that if there were more paintbrushes and rollers he’d have more to clean up at the end. Contrary to what you might think, though, he raised a good point. In project management, it’s tempting to throw more resources at a job to get it done quicker. But those additional resources come at cost that should be considered against the end benefit.

Maybe the resource has limited use or requires a skill that you’re not confident using? So, while on the face of it the resource may offer benefits, it also carries additional risks.

The fourth principle is to monitor progress and provide prompt feedback. When delivering projects you need to know what’s going on around you and to deal with problems as they arise. Leaving them until the end only adds to your work load. In Pete’s case, he spent ages painting a ceiling only for Sue to pass by and say the immortal words “you’ve missed a bit”.

Having finished his story, Pete sat back and sighed. At which point Sue entered the pub. She scowled at Pete, slumped in his chair, looked at me and said: “So, Tony what do you think would look better in our house, sandstone or beige?”

To which I swiftly replied: “Err…let me get another pint.”

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