How to Develop Project Management Skills

Probably one of the most important things when starting a business on the side is developing project management skills. This means being able to handle customers, tasks, marketing, calculations, etc. - just the typical project management stuff.

When you want to start a business on the side, it's likely that you're offering some service to others or work as a freelancer. With that said, you'll have to learn how to manage projects to make your business a success. Otherwise, you'll feel stressed, won't see any happy customers nor money coming in.

Coming from a job in business consulting, I have some project management skills. I lead a project implementing a new ERP system with a wholesaler, but that project didn't go well in the beginning. I had to migrate 450k customer and order records from their very old system to our new one, which took longer than expected. But it's those challenging projects that grow real project management skills.

The Basic Project Management Skills

When I started my first web design project, I learned the following lessons the hard way. I had no idea how to handle the customer, the freelancer, and my work, how to plan accordingly or how to price my job. I just started, did my work and luckily survived the project.

Handling Clients

Your customer is the most important person in your project. It's not you, nor is it a freelancer or contractor you might work with.

Your client is the one paying you and thus he deserves your attention. However, customers don't necessarily know what's good for them. Hell, they sometimes even have no idea about the result of the project. Here's where project management skills are life-savers.

Give your client the feeling that you understand him. You have more in-depth knowledge than your customer, who just focuses on his benefits. When you're communicating, use words your client can understand and resonate with. Clarify that you understand the main requirements and the desired benefits.

Lead into the right direction. Clients aren't always right, even though most of them think they are. It's your job to steer the project in the direction that results in the biggest benefits for your client. Don't argue with him, but explain your suggested changes and show how the results will improve for your customer. If he still insists on being right, then just follow him without thinking too much about better alternatives. Some people don't want to get the best results; they want to get their results.

Planning the project is also imperative and arduous in the beginning. Most clients I've worked with stuck to a pretty loose schedule, but things tightened up quickly. Expect not to hear from your customer for days or even weeks, even though you depend on their input. But once the customer comes up with a deadline in two days, he thinks that you'll just magically make it happen.

It's your job to get the customer input that's necessary. Train your project management skills and explain to your client that they need to do their part of the project so that you can do your work. Make this clear right from the beginning, and you'll reduce the risk of getting under pressure in the end. Plan at least the double time you'd typically need to finish the project. It's likely that you're working on several projects at the same time, and life will get in the way more often than you might think.

Task Management

Projects normally consist of several tasks, some of which depending on each other. You need to have the right project management skills to control the workflow, the number of tasks and the progress of the project.

In my experience as a web designer, clients like to change their opinion on design, layout, texts, graphics or whatever pretty often. They see it as minor tweaks, and they don't think about the efforts necessary to do the change.

Gather all requirements at the beginning of the project and have your client sign them. This brings both of you to the same level of understanding for the project. And most importantly, it's your proof when your client wants a new feature that you didn't know about and thus didn't plan for.

Manage your projects accordingly to always be in control. I like to break down my projects into milestones with tasks assigned to each of them. Then I estimate the workload for each task, calculate the timeframes for each milestone and thus know how long the project will take. Knowing how long each task should take enables you to control whether you're still on track or not.

Tools like Asana, Trello or Basecamp, allow you to manage your projects with ease and have the data accessible online, also ideal for teams.

Prioritize your tasks in a way that allows a smooth project flow. Don't respond to every question, feature request or change request from your client immediately. It's tough to reject those and to put them on hold until you've prioritized them, but it will save your project! Explain to your client why you're putting his requests on hold and how you will properly respond later. This is where you really can challenge your project management skills.

Handling Freelancers or Contractors

I'm working with a development/design company from Pakistan, called i-Intellect, for almost a year now. Their co-founder became a friend of mine and together we're rocking web design and app development projects. [Update: another year later, they, unfortunately, let me down on some projects. I discontinued working with them after they simply stopped answering my emails and requests.]

But to make the projects run smoothly, we need to clarify all requirements in detail. Everyone needs to know exactly what he or she has to do, to complete a certain task. Don't take anything for granted but explain every little detail. Assumptions regularly kill projects, just because some details weren't discussed properly.

Also, make sure that your developer has fully understood all requirements. Have them explain the project to you and ask questions about all the important (and not so important) details. Mail is a dangerous place for this, Skype or Hangouts are way better. You'll want to get in touch with your contractor personally!

Define a deadline that is before your project timeline, so that you have time to react to changes. My web design clients love to come up with new ideas two days before the website is finished - and those plans frequently require massive layout changes or equally drastic things. Reserving some time for your contractor to include those changes after his "deadline" can save projects.

After all, there's a lot more to say about working with virtual assistants, freelancers, and contractors. Therefore I'd like to point you to the new book of Mr. Outsourcing himself, Chris Ducker. Virtual Freedom shares everything you need to know about this topic!

Other Project Management Skills

Besides the two kinds of project management skills I just mentioned, you also need to be aware of the following items:

  • Calculating profit margins and project costs
  • Motivating employees, freelancers, and contractors
  • Getting in uncomfortable discussions if necessary
  • Know your tools, like performing a SWOT analysis for example

There is more to say on this subject, so I might use this as another blog post in the future. I'd like to hear how project management influences your daily business and whether you agree with my thoughts on project management skills or not. Please leave a comment if you have something to say!

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