Lessons Learned – The Ups and Downs of Projects

I recently wrapped up a project that has taught me a lot of lessons in project management. The project itself was a relatively small, but was interesting and has huge potential. Kickoff to launch was scoped out to be approximately 60 days.

For the most part, things went incredibly smoothly until we were 75% of the way through the project. Then issues started cropping up while we were testing, implementation of certain features didn’t go as smoothly, some of the scope deviated from the original plan, and bugs were cropping up as quickly as we were resolving them.

Despite the challenges that were thrown our way, I would still say that this has been an enjoyable and successful project. However, it did have its ups and downs and from it I learned lessons to apply to my future projects.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

This is one of the most important lessons I learned from the project. I like to be able to control every circumstance and for everything to follow the plan that was set out to a T. But projects rarely work 100% the way you think they will, even if you believe you’ve thoroughly planned out “every scenario that could possibly happen” at the beginning. It’s stressful when projects go a little bit sideways, but it is what it is. Be prepared to handle things going wrong. It will be okay.

Be proactive.

The scope of a project may change during the course of development, but the best way to make sure that you and the client are both on the same page is to be the one that keeps the UAT (User Acceptance Testing) document and take on the responsibility to keep it updated, should any changes occur. That way, when it comes time to test the application, you and the client will both be aware of what should happen.

Consistency and checking in

Budget and timeline are two of the most important things to be aware of as a project manager. Clients don’t ever want to go over budget, nor do they want the project to drag on with no delivery date in sight. I’ve made a habit of doing a weekly budget check to make sure the project is not going over, to notify the clients if it looks like it’s going in that direction, and to send out a weekly summary. The summary can be short and sweet or long and descriptive, depending on the pace of the project. On slower-moving projects, I think it is perfectly acceptable to have the same summary each week if nothing has happened. It’s better to keep the habit of doing it than to go weeks without checking in or giving the appearance of being out of touch.

Be diligent in keeping up with management tools.

At Tivix, we typically use Pivotal Tracker to keep track of open items that need to be worked on and assign them to team members. With this recent project, however, I used JIRA, an issue and project tracking platform that I am not as familiar with. There was definitely a learning curve on this and it took me a while to get a hang of it, resulting in less-than-optimal tracking, at least at first. This highlighted the importance of issue tracking in a project, since it keeps all changes and decisions made during meetings and via emails and other communication tools in one place.  

Communication is always key.

We have daily standup meetings when a project is in full-swing for a quick internal team check-in. During the UAT phase, however, we started having fewer meetings, which resulted in the ball being dropped a few times. I’ve come to believe It’s better to have too many meetings than too few, from the beginning to the end of the project, and to cut back as necessary. This will ensure effective communication between all parties and across time zones so that everyone is on the same page when working on the project or talking to the client.

Experience is a great teacher. Bad experiences might have the most to teach, but even smaller projects that mostly go smoothly have lessons for us. In the case of this project, I’ve learned some new things, and had some familiar lessons reinforced for me. These are things I plan to keep in mind on future projects, and I think there’s value to be found here for all project managers: Be flexible when things go wrong. Take responsibility for keeping everyone in the loop and on the same page. Make good habits for yourself and stick to them. When in doubt, over-communicate.

For further reading check out Łukasz Tarka’s blog post on the keys to good project management.