Guest post: What does good project management look like?

My guest this month, freelance project manager Nina Lenton, provides some really useful input for successfully managing a communications project. With the unprecedented times we are all currently living through, I’m sure there will be many projects being reassessed, now and in the medium to long term. I hope that Nina’s advice will help you as you move forward.

A photo of a calendar with brightly coloured pins stuck into different dates
As an experienced project manager, nothing annoys me more than a badly managed project, however large or small! A communications project that isn’t managed well can result in unnecessary stress for all those involved – whether that’s the project manager, suppliers, internal colleagues or other stakeholders.

I think there are four basic elements required to manage a communications project effectively and efficiently: a project lead, a project plan, management of stakeholder expectations, and management of supplier relationships.

1. A project lead

In order for a project to succeed, it needs a leader.

This sounds obvious, but if a project has a high profile within an organisation and includes contributions from many different departments, there may be several people at the forefront.

Having one person who is responsible for ensuring the delivery of the project will make life simpler. Everyone involved knows who to update with changes and who to go to with queries, and that person is responsible for recording this information in a format accessible to all stakeholders.

2. A comprehensive and flexible plan

All projects need a plan.

Very small projects probably don’t need a detailed plan, often just a few prioritised tasks recorded on a document will suffice. But all other projects need plans, whether that is created in a spreadsheet or an online project management tool.

A plan should include all key internal and supplier deadlines that are known, with a note to find out any deadlines that aren’t yet available. The format and timing of all deliverables should be agreed as far as possible before starting the project. This avoids any debates further along in the project about exactly what is being created.

Once these details have been worked out, other deadlines should be added, such as those for printing, web development, design work, copy and content reviews. These should be monitored regularly and changed as needed.

3. Managing stakeholder expectations

There may be many people who have an interest in a communications project. They are likely to have differing expectations, for example around the format and timing of the communication, the level of involvement of various stakeholders, or the measures of success of the project.

As well as agreeing the format and timing of deliverables at the start of the project, it is also important to set out who has responsibility for which aspect of the project. Some stakeholders will be involved in the initial decision-making, some will be needed to assist with development of content, and others will review and approve the final communications before they are implemented.

In the end, all the people involved in a project want it to be completed with all the required deliverables on time and (if relevant to them) within their budget, and for their part in the project to be as stress-free as possible. Some stakeholders will keep a close eye on what is happening at every stage of the project, and some are less involved. But either way, it is critical to manage their expectations.

As well as general project updates, the two most important aspects of managing stakeholder expectations are reaching a consensus on the project scope and deliverables, and communicating potential delays and cost increases.

Much of this is best done by communicating with a few key individuals on a one-to-one basis, in addition to any general updates on email or in meetings. This will take up more time than just disseminating information to a whole group all at once, but will ensure that all viewpoints are considered and as a result that these stakeholders are more likely to be supportive of the project.

4. Managing supplier relationships

It is useful to remember that suppliers are businesses. Whether they are freelancers working by themselves or are a printing company or web development agency, they have other customers to service and other aspects of running a business to contend with.

This means that it is unreasonable to expect them to be able to turn around a task within a very short timescale, unless it was agreed when briefing them about the work. Even then, if they say that a task can’t be done well in the timescale suggested, it would be wise to listen to them. They are experts on doing that type of work, that’s why they have been hired to work on the project.

If the project lead keeps having to ask suppliers and freelancers to do urgent tasks, they might need to take a step back and look at the project plan to see whether there are changes that need to be made there. This could include going back to internal stakeholders to manage expectations on delivery times and budgets.

When suppliers are given sensible deadlines and are treated with courtesy, including giving them useful feedback and saying thank you, they will be more likely to try to fit in urgent tasks in the future. Good suppliers and freelancers can be hard to find, so maintaining and nurturing good relationships with them is essential!

In summary
I think that the key to successfully managing a communications project are having a designated project lead and creating a detailed but flexible project plan. The project lead needs to have strong communication skills to be able to gain consensus where needed, proactively communicate delays and challenges, and keep all stakeholders informed on a regular basis.

Nina Lenton is a freelance project management specialist who works with medical communications agencies and medical charities to plan and implement marketing, communications and business support projects.

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