How to Create Better Project Management Habits in Your Employees

How to Create Better Project Management Habits in Your Employees

You know the basics of project management - but does your team? 

We don't learn usually learn project management skills in school - especially in creative industries. But having those skills can make the difference between a team that works together like clockwork, and one that’s constantly over-budget and behind schedule. 

So, where to start?

Better Project Planning (As a Team)

Planning is a huge part of project management, but it’s not something most people are naturally talented at. We all know how to write things down on a numbered checklist, but that’s not planning any more than throwing ingredients into a bowl is cooking.

To plan well, you have to walk a fine line. If you plan out every little thing from the very beginning of a project, you’re in trouble if (or more accurately, when) things go off the rails later. You’ll wind up re-planning throughout the project, scrapping your original plans (and wasting all the time and effort that went into them).

On the other hand, if you fly by the seat of your pants for the whole project, you’ll spend a lot of time being disorganized and stressed out, which will in turn stress out your team, and almost guarantee scope creep.

The best way to compromise is to create milestones based on the project goals and objectives, which should be outlined during a kickoff meeting.

Let’s say the project is a 90-day content marketing campaign. The goal? Increase website visits by 200% and customer conversions from blog content by 300%. Milestone number one could be having 24 pieces of content (videos, blog posts, etc.) outlined, created after doing competitive analysis on what type of content marketing is working in your industry, and having four of those pieces of content written/created.

The important thing is to make your milestones concrete. Too often, people add in something like “25% done” as a milestone. Okay, but what does that look like? How are you going to know you’re 25% of the way to the project being done?

Break your project into approximately four milestones — more milestones is okay for a bigger project, but four is fine for most of them. As you near completing one milestone, plan the next milestone in detail.

With the above example, you’d create four milestones, then create a detailed plan to get you to milestone number one, and then plan the rest of the project in broad strokes. When you’re close to hitting the first milestone, then it’s time to plan the next milestone in detail.

The idea here is to avoid creating an intricate plan that’s going to hold you back when something shifts in the project, based on what you’ve learned or the results you’re getting.

Using the above example, if you get a third of the way through the campaign and find that short video posts are outperforming longer text posts, you can shift the rest of the new posts to be video.

This lets you get the best results from your campaign, without forcing you to create a whole new plan from scratch. Everyone’s time and energy is conserved. 

Train Them to Create Better Time Estimates

Do you have team members who are great at what they do, but consistently running right up against deadlines, or even miss them on occasion?

They might not be lazy — they could just be bad at creating time estimates.

In general, humans are just not very good at knowing how much time something will take. We consistently underestimate how long a task or project will take — even when we have data on how long similar tasks/projects have taken in the past.

Aside from that, another potential contributor is the flow state. You’ve probably heard of this before (or if not heard of it, at least experienced it): it's the psychological term for when you’re engaged in what you’re doing, slightly challenged but not so much so as to be frustrated. You immerse yourself in a project, look up, and three hours have gone by.  

In general, flow state is awesome. It’s similar to meditating in that it can help decrease anxiety levels and increase overall feelings of well-being. Plus, you’re more productive and creative when you’re in a flow state, and the quality of work that you’re creating is usually higher.

The downside of flow state is that we lose track of time. Distorted sense of time is actually one of the hallmarks of flow.

So, when you take engaged employees who are working on things they’re interested in (which is every manager’s goal), and then ask them to create time estimates of how long those things will take, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

One last factor that we don’t usually take into account is the switching cost between tasks. When you stop doing one thing and start doing another task, there’s a period of time (usually 15-30 minutes) where you’re not working on Task A any more, but you aren’t fully engaged in Task B, either. This is one reason why multitasking is such a bad idea — you’re not actually doing two things at once, you’re rapidly switching between the two while being fully engaged in neither.

That’s the trifecta of time estimate enemies:

  • The planning fallacy
  • Flow state
  • Switching cost

Given that, what can you do to combat those enemies?

Make Sure Every Single Task is Included

When you’re creating time estimates from a task list, it’s easy to overlook the less flashy tasks — everything outside of design, or writing, or the things that make up the bulk of the work. Those little forgotten tasks add up, so when you’re coming up with a time estimate based on a list of tasks, make sure you’re including:

  • Meetings
  • Email
  • Research
  • Revisions
  • Other administrative tasks

Base Estimates Off Data (Not Guesses)

Remember the planning fallacy, and how it means that people typically will recognize their past time estimates have been too optimistic, while still insisting that their current predictions are accurate?

You can help combat this tendency by relying only on data, not off what feels right. If you use any kind of a time-tracking app internally, you can pull the records and look at how long similar projects have taken. If you don’t already use a time-tracking app, there are plenty of choices — Toggl is a good, basic place to start.

Pad Your Time Estimates - A Lot

One last way to make sure you don’t underestimate time needed is to pad your time estimates. If you have a lot of hard data to refer to when creating time estimates, this isn’t as necessary — though a little padding won’t hurt and can save your bacon if something does go unexpectedly.

In general, a good rule of thumb is to add 10-15 minutes to each task to account for the switching cost. Once you’ve got all the tasks mapped out and the switching costs added, add it all up, and then multiple the final estimate by 1.5.

In a perfect world, you’d pass on this information to your team, and their time estimates would transform to become perfectly on-point. But even if you have a hard time getting them to adopt it, you can use this knowledge to create more accurate time estimates for your projects.

Teach Them How to Avoid Scope Creep

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, scope creep is defined as “uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project's scope.” In other words, scope creep is the opposite of good project management.

Everything we’ve covered thus far will help you avoid scope creep, but here’s a few extra tips that can really keep it under wraps:

Clearly define (in writing) your desired goals and outcomes before you actually start the work.

We talked about this earlier, but it’s worth reiterating. If you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t have a very good chance of getting there. Writing this down in a place that all team members can refer back to — whether that’s in a project management app, on an office whiteboard, or in Google Docs — can keep everyone on track.

Know the project priorities and what can be cut, if need be.

You’re in the last leg of launching a new product and an obstacle comes up. Do you know what part of the launch plan can be sacrificed without throwing the whole thing off track?

You do if you decided what’s non-negotiable at the start of the project. By picking 1-3 priorities, you’re letting your team know where the bulk of their attention should go, and what they can sacrifice if need be. This makes sure the important work actually gets done, and makes you more likely to hit those project goals.

Have communication turnaround guidelines.

This is especially important with remote teams. Does your team (including any contractors or freelancers you work with) know how long you expect to go without hearing from them? If they think a 48 hour email turnaround time is fine, and you’re expecting 12 hours or less, decisions will get held back while you wait on getting everyone’s input.

When you create the goals and objectives during the kickoff meeting, discuss expected communication timelines as well. Again, put this in writing — that way, everyone can refer back to it and stick to it.

By teaching your team how to avoid scope creep, create better time estimates, and plan more effectively, you’re cutting down on your work as manager, freeing it up to go into more strategic areas than hand-holding and nagging.

You’re also helping your employees become better workers, which frees up more of their time to spend on the work they love (that work you hired them for!). It’s a win for you, your team, and your company — so what are you waiting for?


About the Author

Michelle Nickolaisen is a freelance writer and business owner based in Austin, TX.