Staying Agile Part 2: Jack Be Nimble

Jul 06, 2015

BY ANNA LEITHER – DIRECTOR OF CLIENT SERVICES

“Plan the work; work the plan.” As someone who loves order, organization, and predictability, I love this concept! But what happens when projects actually occur in the real world, where not everything always goes according to plan? Jack be nimble, jack be quick…

In my last post, Calling the Play, we talked about two important steps to take at the outset of a project to set yourself and your project team up for success. Now let’s talk about some techniques to stay agile as a project progresses, to ensure a successful outcome in the face of inevitable change.

1. WASH, RINSE, REPEAT

All too often, trusty project plans are revealed at a kick-off meeting and then disappear until the project is nearly over and people start to panic about getting everything done on time. Well-managed projects rely on a project plan to keep forward momentum throughout the entire project and to avoid the eleventh hour panic. There are two critical components here, both of which require frequent repetition.

First, the project manager must revisit the project plan on at least a weekly basis to adjust for new accomplishments and issues. It also gives them a chance to iron out the detailed activities needed for the next 2-4 weeks. Second, the game plan needs to be reviewed with the project team on a regular basis, but distributing a lengthy Excel document typically isn’t a good way to go. Instead, communicate only the salient details, and follow up individually with team members who may need more specificity to stay on track with their responsibilities. Err on the side of over-communication, but focus on frequency rather than detail, with the goal of keeping the team aligned to short-term plans while you focus on managing the big picture.

2. DON’T TRAP YOURSELF

Project managers love order. It’s so comforting when we can tell the client exactly what to expect and deliver exactly what they’re expecting! It’s so easy to keep everything on track if we avoid distractions! But business value often shows up in great ideas that might feel like distractions at first. Great project managers aren’t afraid of a little chaos; they figure out how to make sense of it, and either adjust the plan or determine the disruption poses too big a risk to critical milestones.

To allow room for some creative chaos, it can be useful to distinguish between critical and flexible milestones at the outset of a project. It’s important for the project manager and client to have a shared understanding of the “must have” deadlines vs. those that can be adjusted as long as the SOW is still met in full. Further, once you get going on something, it’s not uncommon to decide that some of the tasks planned are actually non-essential. Stick to the essential activities; you can always come back to the other ones later, time permitting.

3. THINK POSTMASTER

You know what’s great about the postal service? Mail shows up in my mailbox every day but Sunday and holidays. It’s predictable and consistent, and I love going to the mailbox, even if I’m not thrilled with what I find. Project managers are postmasters; they’re responsible for ensuring that the project team delivers content on a steady basis. This doesn’t mean that teams should be forced to deliver new content every week, but it’s generally a good idea to deliver something on a regular basis—whether it’s a final deliverable, a work-in-progress, a methodology overview, or just an update on progress. Deliver early and often to keep stakeholders informed and engaged, and catch differing expectations before too much time is spent with the wrong expectation in mind.

In combination with the suggestions in my last post about successful project kick-off (mapping out major milestones and taking time to ensure alignment across teams before starting work) these agile project management concepts will help teams adapt to new circumstances throughout a project and remain accountable for their work promises. Best of luck clearing the next candlestick in your path!