Tip #32: General Project Management Tips

The following tip is from a new book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. Today’s Tip #32 is by Hunter Vegas.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerOver the years, I have learned a number of valuable tips, either the hard way or from my talented colleagues. Here are some points that will be extremely useful to any project manager.

Concept: Successful project management requires a diverse skill set and covers a broad range of activities. Most project managers acquire that skill set the hard way, but hopefully this list of tips will help you acquire those abilities in a much quicker and less painful fashion.

Details: As mentioned previously, a good project manager is really a risk manager and a successful project manager is constantly working to identify and eliminate risk to the project. Beyond that, here are several other key concepts that a good project manager should understand.

• Good, fast, cheap – pick any two. This is an age old project management maxim, and the simple fact is that you cannot have it all. If the project must be completed quickly, it will either suffer in quality or cost more. If project expense is paramount, prepare to sacrifice quality or speed of execution. And finally, if the project must be of the highest quality, then it will either cost much more or take longer to install. Manage the client’s expectations. If the client is making unreasonable requests and demanding a fast track, high quality, low cost project then consider either declining the project entirely or informing them at the onset of the impossibility of satisfying their requests.

• Time nearly always trumps cost. Most projects have a one or two year payback. Therefore, a one week delay is usually worth 1 – 2% of the project cost. Spending a bit more to save time is usually justified by the economics.

• Never commit to something that you cannot deliver, but ALWAYS deliver on those items to which you commit. Follow this advice and your team will quickly gain the respect of your co-workers and clients. Instill this concept in your team and success is virtually assured.

• Never low-ball or undercut an estimate. Returning excess funds is infinitely easier (and much better career-wise) than over-running a job budget and begging for more funding.

• If the client wants to cut project cost, cut the scope rather than cutting out the contingency funds. NEVER assume everything will go perfectly – because it will not.

• Plan the work and work the plan. Take the time to plan the project at the start and continually compare the actual project status to the plan. Find simple metrics that will provide a quick and accurate picture of the activities and highlight possible problems early. Fixing a problem is difficult if you don’t know it exists!

• Know the team. Pick team members whose talents and quality are known and whose trustworthiness is a given. If their “first time right” percentage is low or they are new to the team, cross check their work early in the process.

• Realize that there is rarely one path to accomplish a goal. As a project leader it is easy to become so focused on proving your own approach that other viable options may be dismissed. Budget and timing limitations may dictate that things be done in a certain way, but if possible let the people under you run with their ideas. This makes them stronger team members and they will often become more engaged and work harder to prove that their concept will work.

• Communicate, communicate, communicate – be sure the team understands their role and understands the project goals. Formal meetings are not required and can often be replaced by constant informal communications that keep all of the team members on the same page.

• Identify scope changes early and document them well. If the contract is a fixed price contract, get formal approval BEFORE doing the work. When the client is desperate to get something in, he will say anything to get it done. However, people tend to forget those promises when the money gets tight at the end of project and they are presented with a verbally approved scope change for final sign off.

Watch-Outs: While communication is extremely important, realize that the productivity of meetings varies with the inverse of the square of the number of attendees. A two or three person meeting is highly efficient. Productivity begins falling precipitously after five attendees and approaches zero as the number grows above ten. Short, informal meetings of a couple of people will usually provide the best results.

Exceptions: Working the plan is important, but even more important is the ability to realize that the plan needs to be able to change! Be flexible. If things are not going as they should, do not be afraid to change direction early and quickly to rectify problems.

Insight: Young engineers often see themselves as managers before they are ready for the role. To be successful a manager has to have the skill and desire to manage clients, motivate and develop others, provide technical direction, ensure quality, keep the schedule, watch the budget, mitigate risk, do the billing, etc. If an engineer is missing some of those skills he or she should consciously pick the weakest one and work to improve it.

Rule of Thumb: The best project managers probably did not set out to BE project managers. In most cases they started out as engineers who over time proved their ability to successfully run increasingly large portions of projects and manage others. Most make the job look easy, but the role is a lot more difficult than it might appear.

Look for another tip next Friday.

Hunter Vegas

About the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.
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  • Mohammad Al-Khalidah

    Thanks Greg and Hubter great tips.

  • http://www.coilingtech.com/compression-springs.html Steven Howard

    Great post and insight. A good project manager definitely requires a unique skill set. In depth technical skill and knowledge as we as people skills and a personality that can motivate and effectively direct people.