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8 Steps to Overcome the Challenges of Managing a Larger Project

Managing ProjectsMany project managers have experienced it – and transitioned through it. They have worked on a series of smaller or medium-sized projects for a couple of years and are now getting involved in bigger projects. The new challenge is exciting, but also daunting, especially when they don’t have a host of experienced projects managers or mentors to lean on.

In this post we look at the implicit challenges of stepping up and managing larger projects, and how to overcome these challenges.

1. Larger projects need more control

For the most part, bigger projects are more complex, uncertain and risky, either because the technical domain is more obscure, the impact of the project is greater, the scale of the team is larger or because there are more users and stakeholders.

In order to manage this added complexity there is a need for the project manager to utilize a mature project management method so that they can exercise a greater level of control. Let’s face it. Project management is a set of methods and approaches that allows us to control a risky and uncertain initiative.

The more complex and uncertain the project, the more control and structure we need.


2. Find the right experts

Let’s first look at the implications of running a project that is technically more challenging or that has a more complex domain.

This could be a project where you are using new technology, new materials, new processes, new designs or new techniques. This is clearly a step up in complexity from your smaller or medium-sized projects where the project manager sometimes double-up as subject matter expert.

When the domain is more challenging, you will need a team of experts to help you deliver – not least will you need a subject matter expert who is responsible for specifying what it is that needs to get built. This person could be an end-user representative or a business analyst who understands the user’s needs and who can document and articulate them in a way that enables the rest of the team to design or produce exactly what is required. You may also need a designer or an architect who can design the solution, as well as a technical expert who is responsible for producing the product.


3. More testing is required

A more technically complex domain also means that more effort is required to QA and test the product or service that you are going to provide.

Make sure everyone on the team understands how the product will be quality assured and what is required of them. You need to agree whose role it is to create the test plans and who will be carrying out the actual tests. Wherever possible, involve the end users in the testing in addition to the project team.

Other methods that can help you reduce risk is to prototype the solution and to roll it out gradually. Prototyping is a great way to trial whether your product is going to fly, and it gives the users sight of what will be. Gradually releasing or rolling out your product to different user groups or market segments, further helps you curtail risk and control the project.


4. You have a team that needs your leadership

Project ManagementAnother significant change when running a bigger project is that you now have a team.

This means however that there is a need for you to step up and be a real leader – not just a taskmaster. A team needs to be lead by an inspiring PM who makes them feel that they belong in the team and that their contributions matter.

Set time aside for one-2-one conversations, team building activities and make sure that you truly engage people in the project. If you have never worked in a bigger team before or been responsible for guiding others, seek advice from a senior manager within your organisation or find a mentor who you can meet with on a regular basis. There are also lots of podcasts and books on the topic of building great teams.


5. Analyse and mange the stakeholders

On bigger projects you are also likely to have more stakeholders to interface with – that’s people who have an interest in the project or who are affected by it.

To get your head around all the stakeholders you need a formal approach for understanding who they are, what their needs are and how to best involve them and communicate with them.

As you start the project, make a conscious effort to first identify all the stakeholders and then analyse each person. Seek to find out what each person’s stake or interest in the project is, what a successful project looks like to them and how each person would like you to communicate with them. Some people would be happy to receive a weekly status report, others would prefer a regular meet-up and others again demand that you call them whenever something significant happens.

Make an effort to tailor your communication to each of the key stakeholders.


6. Put in place formal governance

On a bigger project you also need a formal governance structure and escalation path, as it may no longer be appropriate to just walk into your boss’s office to get guidance. A governance structure is all about agreeing who should attend the weekly working group meeting and who sits on the steering committee. Whereas the working group will meet weekly to work through the detail of the project, the steering committee is a monthly forum for the project’s senior decision-makers.

This is mostly a place where you inform the committee about progress and where you seek guidance around major risks or issues that are beyond your remit.

As you present to the steering committee, be aware of the politics in the room and what each person is looking to gain from the meeting. If some of the steering committee members have a tendency to derail the meeting, make it a habit to meet with each person beforehand to prepare them and to talk them through any sensitive topics. In that way you are better able to anticipate concerns and curtail disruptive behaviour.


7. Control scope

As there are more moving parts on a larger project – more dependencies, more stakeholders and more uncertainty – it also means that scope is more likely to change as you progress through the project.

Changes to scope aren’t necessarily a problem as long as you are on top of them and ensure that the changes make sense and don’t erode the business case.

The way to do that is by implementing a simple yet effective change control process which helps you log the changes and analyse the impact they will have on the project’s time, cost, quality and business benefits.

Many project managers get stressed when their clients ask for a change, but remember that as long as you carry out a thorough impact analysis and clearly communicate it, you are on the right track. If the change is worth implementing, then get it formally approved by the steering committee and ensure that extra time or budget are allocated, as you may otherwise be forced to cut back on quality in other areas.


8. Stay on top of the risks

We have already mentioned that the level of risk is likely to be much higher on a larger project, and that for this reason you need a more formal and structured project management approach. One of the elements that form part of such a structured approach is a formal risk management process that will help you stay on top of it all and do something about the many things that could go wrong. Many project managers make the mistake of treating risk management like a tick-boxing exercise as they know that they need a risk list, but just coming up with a risk list isn’t sufficient to effectively manage risk.

The first step in staying on top of risks is to make it a joint responsibility of the entire team.

You can do that by organising regular risk management workshops where you ask your team to brainstorm everything that they worry about going wrong. Most people love to predict doom and gloom, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting them to engage.

Secondly you jointly assess each risk in terms of how likely it is to happen and what the impact is in case it were to happen. After determining what the top risks are, decide what to do about them and assign an owner to each. In this way you create a risk culture, which everyone is a part of and were you personally don’t end up owning all the risks.

When you make the transition from managing smaller and medium-sized projects to larger ones, you will need to employ a more structured project management approach, as larger projects contain more risk and uncertainty.

You are not alone however in lifting this task.

Find the right experts who can help out and spend time winning the support of the stakeholders.

You should also focus on creating a collaborative culture whereby you jointly agree how to assure the quality of your project, control scope and manage risks. You see one of the secrets to running larger projects is to get better at spreading the workload.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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