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When You Are the Project Manager

It’s the rare meeting planner who can’t also be called a project manager. Meeting professionals are always managing — and juggling — multiple projects, hopefully with a good team of people.

Whether it’s a board meeting, a staff retreat, an annual conference or an international tradeshow, project management comes into play.

The best project managers have a combination of skills — they’re part coach, part traffic cop, part conductor. And they realize project management processes can always be improved. Here are some ways to polish up your skills so the next project runs even smoother.

Sharpen your skill set.

Project management skills can always be polished. Plenty of business books, magazine articles, blogs and videos tackle the topic. A professional association for project managers — the Project Management Institute (PMI) — is a rich resource, with training, conferences, certifications and its own YouTube channel. Other project management pros, like Mike Clayton, a trainer, author and founder of Online PM Courses, have libraries of online instructional videos. Julie Morgenstern, an author and time management expert, recommends the book “Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager,” pointing out it helps the many staff who “manage projects, on the fly, without training.”

Peers are another excellent resource. Talk to fellow meeting planners about how they manage projects. What principles do they find most important? What software or tech tools do they use? Be wary, though, of overcomplicating your process. No team wants to spend days learning a highly specialized software system they will rarely use.

Communicate constantly.

Seasoned project managers will tell you constant and clear communication is the key to a successful project. That may be a tough assignment for some, as a Harvard Business Review survey several years ago found that almost 70% of managers aren’t comfortable communicating with staff.

By getting to know team members, you’ll learn about their strengths, experience and interests. Be an encourager, not an expert. Teams fall apart when a know-it-all manager doesn’t seek or value their input. Encourage discussions about problems team members are encountering with their assigned tasks and reassure them it is OK to make mistakes and to pipe up when they have ideas to make the project run more smoothly or more effectively. Be easy to access and quick to respond to questions or concerns. Make it clear you are there to assist, whether it’s by making suggestions based on your past experiences or brainstorming ways around roadblocks. And communicate constantly, because balls get dropped when teams aren’t kept in the loop. When projects pivot, quickly let everyone know. Write and distribute short recaps of meetings — whether they are by Zoom or in-person —  so everyone has the same facts to refer to as they work.

Draw a good roadmap.

When we don’t have a map — Google or otherwise — we are more likely to get lost. When people don’t know where they are headed on a project or why, they also lose their way. That’s why from the very start, a project’s goals must be established and understood. Ensuring the team and the client are on the same page will help avoid misunderstandings or work that doesn’t serve the project’s purpose. To make goals easy to absorb and remember, make them crisp and succinct, using active verbs and setting them off with bullet points. They should also be discussed by the team. Are the goals clear and understood by everyone? Can they be accomplished within the timeframe with the resources available? Can they be measured? To keep goals top of mind, include them at the beginning or end of each report or message to the team. And don’t assume goals for annual meetings or conferences will always the same. An organization’s aims will change from year to year as the business climate changes.

Take the mountain one step at a time.

A big project can feel like Mount Kilimanjaro, but if you act like a mountain climber and take it one step at a time, the summit can be reached. So, break big projects into small pieces and set deadlines along the way to keep everyone moving forward.

Include everyone in creating the project schedule and deadlines. The project manager can write a draft schedule — always starting with the project’s deadline and working backward from that final goal, then have team members evaluate it. They can suggest where timing should be adjusted because of issues like insufficient turnaround for client approval, holidays and other “lost” days in the business schedule and other issues slow down or speed up a project.

There’s always a deadline — especially with a meeting or conference — so start with that. Remember Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:” Begin with end in mind. As the project progresses, have regular check-ins so team members can report on their assignments, and if needed, adjust the schedule or find workarounds.

Be a prognosticator.

There’s no need for a Ouija board or a psychic. Chances are you and your team have worked on a number of projects and have experienced the many ways things can get thrown off course. Thinking ahead about what might go wrong and how to address it might sound like a negative approach, but being proactive and thinking about the most likely issues will get a team on its toes, ready to tackle the inevitable problems. You can’t prevent things from going wrong, but you can somewhat prepare for them. Keep in mind the most common stumbling blocks are communication breakdowns, insufficient budget or staffing, changes in project scope, and interference or lack of cooperation from clients or stakeholders.