We know that overwhelming feeling when your dream project lands on your desk. Maybe you’ve even been chasing it for years, and now everything seems to fall in place. It’s a high profile project that you know will certainly look good on your portfolio, and subsequently attract a substantial amount of free publicity.
So you excitedly launch it, guns blazing. You assume you have everything under control, until midway, when challenges begin to throw you off course. Maybe the project is only half way to completion, yet you’ve used up over 70% of the allocated budget. Or perhaps scope creep has set in, and because you didn’t get more budget, you’re starting to see the effects.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in small, mid-level, and large businesses. According to a report published by Standish Group, less than a third of projects are completed on time and on budget.
So, how do you steer a project back on course and manage the budget properly? Here are a couple of tips to consider before your launch your next project:
Clearly Define Your Project Scope
Cost control and overall budget management starts at the very beginning - the project scope level. In theater you have a script, in sports a playbook, and in project management - your project scope. It should comprehensively outline project deliverables, timelines and its corresponding parameters, including costs at various stages. A single deviation from it, ultimately, could substantially affect the budget and overall project cost.
To properly define your project scope, consult all the stakeholders and experts involved at all the levels of implementation. Depending on the type of project work, this could mean speaking to the creative team, development team, QA team, etc. Whoever they are, just make sure they are at the table when you are creating your scope. As a project lead, consider drafting an outline and sending it around to each team who will be involved in order for them to fill out their portion of the scope. This will help you come up with a comprehensive document, detailing even the smallest tasks and their corresponding budgets.
Consider using historical data from past projects that had a good outcome to inform how much you should budget for different aspects of the project. An important point to make here is that you have to be sure that the data you are basing your decisions off of is good, accurate data. We all know the saying “Garbage in, garbage out” - that couldn’t be more true here. Make sure that the data that goes in to your forecast is good, so that sound insights come out.
Set Goals With Realistic Timelines
Of course you want to impress your client. However, although it’s good, and even sometimes encouraged, to shoot for the moon, it’s also critically important to set realistic timelines for your project.
60% of all failed projects operate under extremely tight timelines. Here, the old adage, under-promise and over-deliver, is as salient as ever. Consider loosening your timelines. It will allow your team to only impress the client with its efficiency, instead of potentially disappointing them with an inability to deliver a project on time.
Take note, however, that being too generous with time can also spell disaster for a project. Although you may not be familiar with the term, you’ve probably experienced Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, as long as there is time left until a project’s deadline, people will find work to do for that project, whether it’s meaningful or not.
Be sure to set realistic deadlines, but don’t be so relaxed with your time frame such that your team continues to work on a project just because there is time left to complete it.
Understand Red Flags Before Project Launch
“We faced unprecedented challenges”. That may be one of the most commonly used phrases when project managers try to secure additional funds from their clients. To be fair, delivering a project on time and within budget is a rather challenging engagement - you can never accurately predict what’s going to happen. But, you should prepare for the worst, as you hope for the best.
Analyzing past challenges faced by similar projects should set you on the right path to understanding potential difficulties you may face during project implementation. Perhaps a past project for a client went poorly because of scope creep, or perhaps it was because you just couldn’t satisfy the client’s needs. If that’s the case, consider whether or not this client is worth the headache and if this client is actually profitable to your business.
Track your budgets methodically, in real-time
Many projects are on the path to negative margin well before your team even knows it. The causes of a project becoming negative margin or unprofitable are potentially endless. There could be scope creep without additional budget to account for it, there could be an insatiable client whose demands you just can’t seem to meet, or a multitude of other things.
Whatever the root cause of a project becoming one that your finance team is going to have to write off as a loss, there is hope in that there is a solution. You should be monitoring the health of your projects with the precision of a surgeon, in as real-time as possible.
We can’t say how many times someone has spoken to us and told us that they thought their project was going well until all information about the project - including time, expenses, general updates - was reported to the team. For weeks, the team lead thought the project was going well, until reality hit when data on project cost and status was reported.
Although you can’t always control for all of the things that might derail a project, you can monitor a project’s health in real-time. In order to do this, you need to find a system that makes time entry (which is most of your project cost) nearly effortless and incredibly accurate. If you can get this data in near real-time, then there will be no surprises about the status of any of your projects. You’ll be able to act when the time is right by changing project course, asking for more budget, or whatever it is that you need to do to make your project succeed. Shameless plug - Allocate makes this incredibly easy to do.
Work With The Right team
A project is not just a system of tasks and milestones. More importantly, it is the team chosen to implement the entirety of those tasks and milestones.
Now that you’ve analyzed and understood the entire project scope, use it to define specific skillsets you need in your team. In additional to technical skills, assess individuals on their ability to communicate, work within a team, understand instructions, and ultimately, execute.
Consider keeping a database of your colleagues with their roles, skills, preferences, and hopes for career development. This database will allow you to easily search through and find relevant people to compile the best team for a project. In a future post, we’ll share a template that you could use to achieve this.
Celebrate Budget Successes
Though it will be hard, challenging work at times, successfully delivering a project shouldn’t be all work and no play. Ticking off a major milestone within budget is a significant achievement. So take some time off, relax and acknowledge the little project successes along the way. A fantastic way to motivate your team to keep going is to acknowledge and celebrate “small wins”. Celebrating “small wins” is one of the best ways for people to be creatively productive in the long run.
Something as subtle as a shout out to the best performers, or maybe a celebratory dinner, could go a long way in boosting confidence ahead of additional, possibly more rigorous challenges. The more your team is motivated to work and deliver within tight deadlines, the higher your chances of a successfully completed project.
In summary, hopefully these 6 tips have given you practical advice for how to deliver a successful project within your budget. It’s simple really - it comes down to proper planning, managing, and celebrating. We know, it’s easier said than done :) In all seriousness, we hope this guide has not only provided knowledge, but also practical tips that you can implement when you look to begin your next project. If you ever want to chat about project management, shoot us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always happy to chat.