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The Art and Science of Project Management

Whether it’s marketing and planning, software development or the leadership training I conduct these days at Success Labs, my entire career has been centered around project management. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that project management is a combination of art and science — and the key to success is balancing these two elements.

I’ve also come to understand that for high performers and complex organizations, the most challenging projects are the ones that never end because you never get the feeling of satisfaction that it is done. These types of challenges require careful leadership to manage that process.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group at the Louisiana Bankers Association about my philosophy and best practices for project management. Here’s a look at some of what I shared.

Why Does Project Management Matter?

To wrap our heads around the idea of project management, I think it’s helpful to break it down into two parts. First and foremost let’s define what a project is: a group of milestones, phases, activities and tasks that support an effort to accomplish something. Second, management in this context is the process of planning, organizing, controlling and measuring.

So why is project management important? It helps you manage risk, create achievable goals, determine clarity and direction, as well as create an orderly process and quality control. Additionally, project management helps you develop a central hub for information and communication – which is often overlooked.

Whether it’s the ill-fated Fyre Fest, New Coke or countless corporate disasters, these project failures are almost always derailed by similar deficiencies: a lack of understanding, resources, communication or adaptability. Effective project management takes on each of these potential obstacles directly and turns them into strengths. It just takes a combination of art and science.

Balancing The Art and Science: Four Key Steps For Any Project

When we refer to the “art” of project management, we’re really talking about leadership. Project leaders should build and share vision, encourage and nurture collaboration, promote performance, facilitate learning, and deliver solutions and ensure results. The “science” is the more tactical portion of the project management process, and it involves four key steps: planning, organizing, controlling and measuring. Let’s take a closer look at each step.

Planning The foundation for any project’s success, this is where you build and share the vision, while also encouraging and nurturing collaboration. Effective planning is an opportunity to involve key players while fostering buy-in, unity and mutual understanding, and ensure the right thing is delivered and of real value. Start by asking “what is possible,” “what is expected” and “what does success look like?”

Many times when launching new products or executing never-done-before initiatives, it may not always be immediately clear what “success” means. Still, it’s important to define success as effectively and specifically as possible — because you won’t know if your project is failing if you don’t understand what success actually actually looks like.

Which leads me to the next critical piece in the planning phase: prepare for failure early on by considering how things could go wrong, what could stop the project from being successful and how you could adjust the plan in these scenarios.

Organizing — Similar to the first step, organizing builds and shares a vision for the project while also encouraging collaboration. But it goes one step further by taking that vision and coupling it with objectives.

A clear vision with specific objectives sets the tone and direction for the project’s journey. It’s ok for these to change — in fact, project objectives are subject to change frequently due to a variety of factors. Just remember that changing the project vision also changes the project’s purpose.

The organizing phase is also the best time to determine available resources, work up a budget, and assign roles, owners and responsibilities.

At this point in the process, collaboration should have already begun. Collaboration is ultimately what makes teamwork possible, and you as a leader have to set the tone for collaboration by making time for it and ensuring your team sees you doing it. Lead by example. This drives home the fact that project success isn’t about individual accomplishments but rather the final team delivery.

Controlling Performance — Once you’ve set your project plan with key milestones along the way, you’ll have to work to make sure your team is performing as needed. Success here is all about flexibility because whatever framework you define in the early stages of the project is going to inevitably evolve. Things are not going to go as planned (see Planning phase). There are going to be failures and mistakes. You need to decide whether you’re the type of leader who allows failures to derail projects or propel them forward.

As a leader, if you want performance to yield results you have to cultivate learning. This is not a one-time activity but rather an ongoing effort that requires prioritization and scheduling. That means scheduling consistent check-ins and progress reviews, giving feedback and following up. Keep in mind though: training and coaching takes time. As a leader, it is also important to encourage creativity and trying something new, sharing ideas and learning from one another. And, again, schedule time for this.

Finally, own mistakes and accept change, then make corrections as needed to continuously improve performance and keep working toward your vision.

Measuring — To understand whether your project is actually succeeding or failing, you have to check your project against clearly defined metrics.

You’ve probably heard of a “post-mortem” meeting — a rather dark term that can sound scary and negative. Instead, I prefer to call this a sunset meeting — to not only explore what didn’t go well, but what did work and hopefully find ways to replicate those successes (no matter how small).

A sunset meeting with your team can help you explore what worked and what didn’t work and hopefully how to replicate those successes. The goal is to learn from your mistakes and optimize processes to encourage future success. Ultimately, measuring success effectively is about learning, teaching, growing, coaching others and celebrating.

If you’re a leader in any type of industry, your performance is going to heavily influenced by how effective you are at guiding projects to success — and that success is all about balancing the art and science of project management.

Success Labs is a full-service, strategic organizational and leadership development company located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.


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