Good Project Management Is All About The Middle-Work

project management students

Projects are the bread and butter of the working world. Regardless of industry, if you’re a knowledge worker there’s a good chance that you’ll be managing or working on a project– today, work management and project management are synonymous.

Whether you are a trained project manager or not, learning how to successfully manage projects, and ultimately your work, is going to determine a lot of your personal success along with the success of your team. But our research shows that many businesses are operating under a ‘resource recession,’ struggling to get experienced project managers on projects and provide the right technology and support to employees, causing teams’ output to suffer.

And this is a more widespread issue than you might think. An overwhelming majority (91%) of employees told us their organisation faces project management issues, three-quarters (80%) say they’re responsible for managing projects, even if it isn’t in their job description, and a similar proportion (85%) say they are overwhelmed by project pace and deadline.

This paints a pretty clear picture; thanks to the resource recession, project management is broken. Right now, teams aren’t getting the support or tools they need to be successful. The negative effects of this are very real– from direct career consequences, like employees looking for another job or missing out on a promotion, to awful emotional consequences, with employees reporting that they struggle with frustration, burnout and apathy. The good news is there are ways to move forward and turn the resource recession into a resource revolution.

Shift the focus from deadlines 

Deadlines are a double-edged sword: on one hand, they can feel incredibly constricting and stressful (especially when they’re tight). On the other hand, they are essential for driving motivation and accountability. Regardless of how they make you feel, most projects are built around deadlines.

But our findings show that deadlines aren’t the make-or-break factors in a project’s success. What matters is how teams accomplish the work. The middle work, or the work that happens day in and day out, is what our data has shown to be critical to project success. The most important components of the middle work include establishing workflows, incrementally completing smaller tasks, communicating well, and collaborating as a team.

So, a project’s success really depends on removing the hurdles to the middle work so that teams can focus on achieving goals instead of worrying about the consequences that can happen when things break down.

The most common project issues include duplicating work that has already been done (37%), throwing out unneeded or irrelevant work (27%), and sending out outdated or incorrect information (23%). Irrespective of deadlines, we found a clear connection between effectively managed projects and stress, with over half (54%) of employees reporting that when projects run smoothly their stress is lower.

The importance of visibility and knowledge sharing

So, how can you optimise your team’s middle work to ensure projects are managed effectively? First and foremost, there needs to be a change in mindset. Teams need to abandon their deadline fixation and focus on running projects effectively throughout its lifecycle. As mentioned above, things like establishing reliable workflows, completing smaller tasks, communicating well, and collaborating as a team are all pivotal success factors.

This, of course, is far more achievable when there’s an experienced project manager at the helm, and our research found that, across roles, respondents agreed work was more efficient (49%) and the quality was higher (57%) when projects were led by an experienced manager.

However, it’s clear from our findings that there may not be enough well-versed project managers to go around. Given this experience deficit, organisations need to make sure that they’re taking advantage of projects that have been successfully run in the past by sharing lessons learned across the business, so that teams can establish repeatable and scalable processes to give all projects a greater chance of success.

Unfortunately, good knowledge sharing practices is another area where businesses are falling down. If the information is available, 85% of employees say they run into challenges accessing it, while 35% say information around project processes is not shared across their organisation at all.

Thankfully, this issue can be easily remedied through implementing collaborative work management software to increase visibility. A work management system can serve as a central hub, giving teams visibility into all work happening across the organisation and providing a place to house and archive past project information, making it easily accessible. Adopting this technology will enable teams to have reliable and easy access to past projects, empowering them to review what is and isn’t working, and help create streamlined, repeatable and scalable processes.

The future of project work

Project-based work is not going away anytime soon, and these project management challenges will not miraculously fix themselves. In an ideal world, all projects would be run by experienced project managers, but clearly there’s an imbalance between the volume of projects and availability of those managers. That means businesses will have to make sure they’re being as efficient as possible with the resources they have.

Shifting focus beyond simple deadlines and creating a sturdy framework of repeatable and scalable processes should be the first call to action for any business struggling to deliver project work successfully. Aided by technology designed specifically to ease the burden of common project challenges, even the unofficial project manager can be set up for success, delivering strong work even as their own skill sets develop.

Sarfraz Ali is VP and Head of EMEA, Smartsheet.

Sarfraz Ali
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