Project management for non-project managers


The steps, skills, and troubleshooting techniques you'll need to deliver the goods without losing your mind.

What is project management?

Project management is the art of making a plan, then executing on it. But if only things were really that simple... You'll need to rally a project team. You'll need to track their progress. You'll need to anticipate avoidable problems, and troubleshoot the ones you didn't see coming.

If that sounds overwhelming, you've come to the right place. Here you'll find tips and techniques for each phase, as well as downloadable templates that'll make life a little easier. Ready? Let's get started.


Project management skills

Communication is an important project management skill.

Communication

It's hard to over-communicate. Team members need clarifications, stakeholders need status updates and sponsors need the results.

Time management is an important project management skill.

Time management

Aside from managing the project's schedule, you'll need to keep meetings on track (and manage your own time, too). 

Problem solving is an important project management skill.

Problem solving

You probably solve lots of problems in your regular role – keep that "creative thinking" cap on!

Organizational awareness is an important project management skill.

Organizational awareness

Get familiar with other projects that might need the same people at the same time you're going to need them. 

Diplomacy and negotiation are important project management skills.

Diplomacy

Be prepared to negotiate scheduling snafus, conflicting priorities, and personality clashes with grace.

Pro tip: The most important skill is the ability to set aside your usual job, and embrace your role as the project's manager.

Project management steps

If you're an "accidental project manager", there's a good chance the project was already underway when it landed on your plate. Jump to whatever step you're on using the links below to figure out what your next move is. And don't forget to check out earlier steps to see if there's any clean-up to take care of.

Step 1: Envision it

Don't rush through this phase. Iterate on your understanding of the problem space, and potential solutions, until you're confident you're on the right track.

Building the business case is part of project management.

Build the business case

Define the problem you're trying to solve, and the value in solving it. Talk to your target customers, whether internal or external, so you fully understand the problem space. When building a business case for your project, focus on what you want the customer to be able to do. Leave the specifics of how for when you brainstorm solutions with your team.

Recommended activities: 

 

 

 

Building the business case is a project management task
Form your project team.

Form the project team

Gather people with the skills you'll need to solve the problem. Aim for a multi-disciplinary team with a variety of backgrounds and problem-solving styles. Research shows diverse teams deliver better results. Delaying the project's start by a couple weeks for the sake of getting the right team may prove worthwhile.

Recommended activities: 

 

 

 

Forming a project team is a project management task.
Define success for your project during the envisioning step.

Define "success"

Agree on measurable outcomes to shoot for, and metrics to track your progress toward them. Make sure the project contributes to larger objectives your company is pursuing. If it doesn't, this might be the wrong project (or it might be the right project, but at the wrong time).

Recommended activity: 

 

 

 

Defining what success looks like is a project management task.
Brainstorm solutions to the problem your project is solving.

Brainstorm solutions

Now is the time to think about specific solutions, how you'd implement them, and how the customer will interact with the final product. Involve your team, and be ambitious at this stage. It's easier to pare down a bold idea than to turn a safe idea into something innovative.

Recommended activities: 

  • Disrupt – Generate a long list of great ideas in a short time.
  • Mindmapping – Explore different facets of a problem, and organize your ideas for solutions.
 

 

 

Brainstorming solutions with the project team is a project management task.
Fail and adapt early by prototyping your project's solution.

Prototype and test

Depending on the nature of your project, a prototype could be anything from flowcharts on the back of a cocktail napkin to quick-n'-dirty (but working) code. Put it in front of your target customers and stakeholders for early feedback. This is the ideal time to fail and adapt!

Recommended activities: 

  • End-to-end demo – Visualize your concept so it's easy to get feedback.
  • Experience canvas – Make sure your concept is user-focused, feasible, and valuable.
 

 

 

Getting early user feedback is a project management task.

Signs your project is at risk during the envision step

THE PROJECT'S VALUE IS UNCLEAR

How to get back on track

Choose a specific customer persona (whether internal or external customer), and turn on your empathy. Imagine why they would want this, then map that to the company's larger goals. Iterate until you've got customer value with strong ties to business value.

Recommended activities:

  • 5 "whys" – Give your team a deep understanding of the problem and its impact on your customer.
  • Customer interview – Understand your customers' needs and the contexts in which they're using your product or service.
  • Experience canvas – Make sure your project is customer-focused and makes sense for the business.

Download an experience canvas template to help with project management.
Ready to try the experience canvas? Here's a template to help get you started.
 
Goals or priorities conflict

How to get back on track

Agree on one (yes, one) objective to serve as your North Star for the project. Then sort through the conflicting priorities with that in mind. When you encounter trade-offs, prioritize the option that'll get you closer to that North Star objective.

Recommended activities:

  • Goals, signals, measures – Make sure the project stays focused, and you know what a successful outcome looks like.
  • Trade-off sliders – Create sliding scales to show how important each metric is and agree on what you should prioritize. 

Conflicting priorities is a sign your project is at risk.
Nobody knows who is in charge

How to get back on track

Reach a shared understanding across the project team, stakeholders, and sponsors as to who is ultimately accountable. As project manager, you're responsible for delivering the project on time and on budget – but you might not be on the hook for the project's overall success.

Recommended activities:

  • Roles and responsibilities – Define each person's role on the project, and what's needed of them so the team can be successful.
  • Project kick-off – Build a shared understanding of the project's main objective, scope, value, timing, and decision ownership.
  • DACI – Understand who's accountable for specific decisions, and what role the rest of the team will play.

Download an experience canvas template to help with project management.
Ready to try the DACI framework? Here's a template to help get you started.
 
The project team can't agree on a direction

How to get back on track

First, make sure your team truly understands the problem you're solving and it's impact on the customer. And don't be afraid to ask your leaders for guidance – just make sure to present them with options you're considering, instead of an open-ended "what should we do?".

Recommended activities:

  • Problem framing – Explore the problem space and it's impact on customers.
  • Demo trust – Create a space for open discussion and feedback from company leaders so everyone feels confident about the value and direction.
Disagreeing on direction is a sign your project is at risk.

Pro tip: Run a Health Monitor™ workshop with your team – the earlier in the project, the better. It's a chance to self-assess on eight attributes common amongst healthy, high-performing teams. 

Step 2: Plan it

This phase should be relatively short. While we recommend an iterative approach to planning, there are a few high-order tasks before moving into project execution mode.

Defining the project's scope is part of project management.

Nail down the project's scope

Based on feedback from early testing, and keeping your success metrics in mind, prioritize what to include in the project. Be clear about the trade-offs you're making. For example, optimizing for ease of use might mean pushing out the delivery date or driving up the cost.

Recommended activities: 

  • Trade-off sliders – Create sliding scales to show how important each metric is and agree on what you should prioritize.
  • Journey mapping  Understand the existing journey so you can design a better experience.

 

 

 

Nailing down scope and building a backlog is a project management task
Managing dependencies is a project management task.

Understand and manage dependencies

Does your project depend on work, resources, or assets from outside the core project team? Map those out, noting who will own each piece of work and when they're available to do it. Even if you can't resolve bottlenecks at this stage, you need to identify them and factor them into the project's plan.

Recommended activities: 

 

 

 

Managing dependencies is a project management task.
Build your roadmap during the project planning stept.

Build a roadmap and backlog

With scope agreed upon and dependencies understood, break the project down into discrete pieces of work, and estimate the time and effort required for each. From there, you can project when you'll hit major milestones and set a target completion date. Then collect all pieces of work into a backlog you can use to plan in short, iterative cycles.

Recommended activity: 

  • Roadmap planning – This exercise comes from the software world, but can be adapted to suit any project. 

 

 

Building a project roadmap with milestones is a project management task.
Mitigate as many risks as possible early on in the project.

Anticipate and mitigate risks

Think through what could go wrong or cause the project to fail, and dive into prevention mode. Also consider chances for mind-blowing success that you haven't yet considered. Missed opportunities are a form of risk, too.

Recommended activities: 

  • Pre-mortem  – Imagine what could go wrong, and make plans to prevent them. 

 

 

 

Mitigating risks is a project management task.
Make a communications plan as part of the project's overall plan.

Make a communications plan

Establish a cadence for team meetings and updates to stakeholders, and share it around. (Bonus points if you can keep the meetings to a minimum!) Then set up any recurring meetings, and put reminders on your calendar to update the project's dashboard or internal homepage regularly.

Recommended activities: 

  • Stand-ups – A daily opportunity for your team to talk about work in progress and blockers.

  • Project poster – If updated regularly, this serves as your project status report (but far less painful). 

 

 

 

Making a communications plan is a project management task.

Signs your project is at risk during the planning step

YOU'RE STUCK IN PLANNING MODE

How to get back on track

Shake off that "analysis paralysis", and get going! If you're using an agile approach (and you really should), remind the project team you'll have chances to demonstrate progress and course-correct as you go.

Recommended activities:

  • Project kick-off – Build a shared understanding of the project's main objective, scope, value, timing, and decision ownership.
  • Pre-mortem – Visualize risks and opportunities for the project, then figure out how to navigate yourself away from (or toward) them.
Analysis paralysis is a sign your project is at risk.
OTHERS DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR PROJECT IS ABOUT

How to get back on track

Call upon those communication skills and share small, frequent updates that are easy to digest – huge "walls of text" probably won't get read. Make sure you're sharing the right information in the right level of detail with the right people.

Recommended activities:

  • Elevator pitch – Develop a simple explanation of your project and the value it delivers to your customers.
  • Project poster – Shape and communicate your ideas, articulate what success looks like, and build a shared understanding with stakeholders.

Download a project poster template to help with project management.
Ready to try the project poster? Here's a template to help get you started.
 
Your project team is missing critical skills

How to get back on track

Re-shape your concept so you can move forward with the team you have. (Problem solving skills FTW!) Throwing hands in the air and saying "We're blocked" will only diminish the trust stakeholders and sponsors have in your team.

Recommended activities:

  • Trade-off slidersThe basic trade-off sliders exercise clarifies which aspects of a project are negotiable (and which aren't), but you can give it a twist. If you can't do "X", what other aspects of the project can flex to help you navigate the skill gap?
Missing key skills or people is a sign your project is at risk.
Spar on the high-level roadmap with your project team. It helps you gut-check what's realistic, as well as visualize dependencies and risks. – Sarah Goff-Dupont, accidental project manager

Step 3: Execute it

Finally, right?! Time to get $#!τ done. Work in 1- to 2-week iterations, with a demo for stakeholders and a team retrospective at the end of each cycle. 

Working in iteration cycles is a project management best practice.

Work iteratively

Agile methodologies may come from the software world, but they're useful for any project: IT, marketing, HR... whatever. Start each cycle with "just enough" planning, then knock out the work. Be sure to hold a short retrospective at the end of each iteration so the next one can be even better.

Recommended activities: 

  • Sprint planning – Plan the next 1-2 weeks' work based on what's highest priority. 
  • Retrospectives – Provide a safe space for the team to reflect on and discuss what works well (and what doesn't!) so you can improve.

 

 

 

Working in short cycles is a project management best practice
Tracking progress is a project management task.

Track your progress

This includes which pieces of work are complete, how much of the budget remains, and whether you're on track to meet your target delivery date. Use something digital like Google Docs, Trello, or JIRA so everyone can see your status easily. If you start burning through budget or time faster than projected, raise that with your sponsor and team right away so you can course-correct before things get out of hand.

Recommended activities: 

 

 

 

Tracking progress is a project management task.
Keep testing and incorporating feedback during the project execution step.

Test and incorporate feedback

At the end of each iteration cycle, update your end-to-end demo to reflect the work completed, and show it to stakeholders (and customers, ideally). Capture their feedback so you can take it into account when planning the next iteration. You may want to re-work X before moving on to Y.  

Recommended activity: 

  • End-to-end demo –  Visualize your concept so it's easy to get feedback.
  • Sparring – Let others challenge your own ideas and inspire new ones.

 

 

Ensuring feedback is incorporated is a project management task.

Signs your project is at risk during the execution step

YOU'RE STEPPING ON EACH OTHER'S TOES

How to get back on track

Remove and prevent bottlenecks. Clarify each person's role or area of responsibility on the project so you're not blocking each other or (eep!) duplicating efforts.

Recommended activities:

  • Stand-ups – Start the day with updates on who's-working-on-what, what got done yesterday, and what each person intends to tackle next.
  • Roles and responsibilities – Make sure everyone understands their role on the team, and what teammates need from them in order to be successful.

Stepping on each other's toes is a sign your project is at risk.
FEELS LIKE YOU'RE JUST SPINNING YOUR WHEELS

How to get back on track

Shine a light on everything your team is accomplishing. When you're eyeballs-deep in project work, it's easy to miss the forrest for the trees. (And if you're truly not making progress, your next move is to figure out why.)

Recommended activities:

  • End-to-end demo – Celebrate the incremental wins by iterating on a demo. As it evolves from diagrams to prototype to an MVP, your team's progress will feel more tangible.
  • Stand-ups – Build a feeling of momentum by highlighting what got done yesterday (and/or expose the hard truth that nothing is getting to the "done" pile.)
Not feeling like you're making progress is a sign your project is at risk.
SCOPE CREEP!

How to get back on track

It depends. If your timeline and/or budget are flexible, you might opt to expand the project's scope. Otherwise, you'll need to deflect additional ideas or make trade-offs to accommodate them. Just don't skimp on the quality of work you deliver. Remember: for most projects, you can keep making improvements after you deliver the initial "minimum viable product" (MVP).

Recommended activities:

  • Trade-off sliders – Decide which aspects of the project you'll prioritize, and think though the trade-offs you'll make their defense when new ideas are introduced.
  • DACI – Agree on who makes the call and who contributes recommendations – either for individual decisions about scope, or for the project as a whole.

Download a DACI template to help with project management.
Ready to try the DACI framework for group decisions? Here's a template to help get you started.
 
Communication has broken down

How to get back on track

Build trust amongst team members and with stakeholders so they feel comfortable talking again. If people are purposefully withholding information because they're playing politics, you may need to involve a neutral party (such as HR) to facilitate.

Recommended activities:

  • Stand-ups – Practice communicating and build trust by sharing quick updates and a chance to raise blocking issues or concerns.
  • Sparring – If team members aren't pushing each other creatively, use this technique from the design world to get honest, structured peer feedback.
  • Health Monitor™ – Provide a safe space for the team to discuss how they're working together (strengths, weaknesses, warts n' all).
  • Rules of engagement – Codify the team's values: the practices, results, and conduct you expect from one another. 

Broken communication is a sign your project is at risk.
ESTIMATES WERE WAY OFF-TARGET

How to get back on track

Recalibrate your projected timeline based on the information you have about the actual effort needed to reach your milestones. Be open about this so stakeholders have a chance to adjust their expectations and any down-stream plans.

Recommended activities:

  • Retrospective – Set aside time in each retrospective to compare that iteration's estimates with the actual effort needed so you can continually recalibrate.
  • 5 "whys" – Start with one estimate-gone-wrong to analyze and ask why it was so off – then keep asking "why" until you've uncovered the root cause.
Off-target estimates is a sign your project is at risk.

Pro tip:  Remember those measureable goals you set? Make sure to build in any analytics or infrastructure needed to measure progress towards them. 

Step 4: Deliver it

You've completed all the work. You're all done now, right? Not quite. Closing out a project involves more than cancelling the recurring meetings (although that part is fun...). 

Delivering your MVP, then iterating on it, is a project management best practice.

Deliver your "minimum viable product" (MVP)

This is it! The big moment! Your work is finally ready for public (or internal) consumption. If your customers are internal, or clients with whom you communicate directly, make sure they accept the project as complete. Depending on how smooth or rocky the journey was, you may want to get their acceptance in writing. Then, have a little celebration with your team!

Recommended activities: 

  • Celebrate! – Did someone say "team lunch"?...

 

 

 

Delivering your minimum viable product quickly is a project management best practice.
Closing out the budget is a project management task.

Close out the budget

Pay any outstanding vendor invoices, and if you were hired by an outside client, get your payment from them. Use the budget data you've been tracking throughout the project to create a report for your project's sponsor. Include analysis of where you'd spend more (or less) money on similar projects in the future.

 

Closing out the budget is a project management task.
Hold a project retrospective so you can improve next time.

Do a project retrospective

What went well? What went horribly, horribly wrong? Put these questions up for discussion with your project team. Be sure to capture the lessons you learned and share them with your peers so they can benefit. And don't forget to chat about how you might iterate and improve on what you just delivered.

Recommended activity: 

  • Retrospective – Reflect on and discuss what works well (and what doesn't!) so you can improve next time.

 

 

Holding a project retrospective is a project management task.
Announce your project's completion.

Get your brag on

Are you stoked about what you just delivered? Let's hope so! Write up a short company announcement describing the project and thanking your team. If the project is external-facing, you might want to share the news with customers by way of an email or blog post.

 

 

Announcing your project's completion is a project management task.

Signs your project is at risk during the delivery step

THE PROJECT ISN'T ACCEPTED AS "DONE".

How to get back on track

First, talk to your sponsor (or client, or team, or whomever is unhappy) and figure out where the discrepancy lays. Your goal for this conversation is to agree on a definition of "done" – something you should put in writing so it's easy for everyone to refer back to later. From there, draw up a list of the work that'll close the gap between here and "done", and set your team on it.

Recommended activities:

  • Demo trust – Use this as a forum for discussing "done" and next steps with the project's or your leadership team.
Disagreement over the definition of "done" is a sign your project is at risk.
Whatever you delivered will live on, so have a post-launch plan in place. Who will support or maintain it? What metrics or reporting will you need to measure it's success? – Aumarie Benpayo, Atlassian program manager

Step 5: Improve it

Most "accidental project managers" are keen to get back to their regularly scheduled day job once the MVP is delivered. Even so, take a moment to consider these questions: 

  1. Have you achieved your definition of "success" for the project?
  2. Are there ideas that were de-scoped from the MVP?
If the answer to either question is "yes" or "no", keep reading.

Technically, improving on what you just delivered is an on-going process – not a "step", per se. But whatever. It's still important.

First, let's talk scope. If important and/or cool stuff was de-scoped from the MVP, now is your chance to get it done. You might try to keep the whole project team together and dedicate all or most of your time to this. Or if that's not possible, you can opt to get a portion of everyone's time allocated to the project and chip away at your to-do list gradually. Either way, you're cycling back to the  "plan it" step.  

Now, what about your success criteria? You probably won't know whether you've met it until after you've delivered your MVP and let your work live out there in the wild for a time. You're already measuring progress towards the project's goal (right?), so your immediate job is to just monitor that.

For extra credit, think about what might help you reach it faster, and devise a lightweight test around it. Depending on the project, you might need to gather quantitative data (e.g., usage rate, cost savings), qualitative data (e.g., surveys, usability testing), or a little of both.

If it becomes clear that you're not on track to reach your goal, it's time to roll up your sleeves and iterate on what you delivered. Equipped with raw data from tests and metrics, your job now is to turn that information into actionable insights. You might discover that an idea you tested is worth implementing "for real". Or, analyzing test data might simply feed into ideas for additional tests.

Once you know what improvements to make, each one becomes its own mini-project. Or, you can opt to wrap a handful of improvements into a single umbrella project – this approach is useful if making each update will involve roughly the same group of people since it may be easier to schedule their time in one larger block. Either way, you're essentially cycling back to the "envision it" step. 

Signs your project is at risk of not meeting it's goals

YOUR MVP ISN'T BEING USED, AND YOU DON'T KNOW WHY

How to get back on track

Time for some qualitative research. Talk to your target customers to find out what's preventing them from putting your project to use. If it's appropriate for your project, set up a user test (either live, or using an online service) so you have a chance to observe their behavior as they interact with what you've delivered.

Recommended activities:

  • Customer interview – Go straight to the source and ask what the hang-up is.
  • Empathy mapping – Pair your quantitative data with your knowledge of the customer to understand how they think and feel about your project.

Download an empathy map template to help with project management.
Ready to try empathy mapping? Here's a template to help get you started.
 
INCREMENTAL CHANGES AREN'T MOVING THE NEEDLE

How to get back on track

Go bold. This might mean a major pivot, or overhauling your project entirely. Don't get discouraged, though. Making one major change on your way to success puts your batting average at .500 (and Babe Ruth's was only .342).

Recommended activities:

  • 5 "whys" – Use this analysis technique to uncover the root of the problem so you know what future changes need to address.
  • Disrupt – De-calcify your neuro pathways and generate fresh ideas.
Download a set of "disrupt" cards to help with project management.
Ready to try a disrupt workshop? Grab this set of cards, and click the link on the left for full instructions.
 

Project management templates

For your convenience, we've gathered all the templates suggested throughout this page into one handy spot. 

 

Download the experience canvas template for your project.
The experience canvas template helps you clarify your problem, solution, and customer persona.

 

Download it
Download the empathy map template for your project.
Empathy maps template help you get inside your customer's head and see things through their eyes.

 

Download it
Download the disrupt template for your project.
This set of "disrupt" cards will shake up your neuro pathways and help generate fresh ideas.

 

Download it
Download the DACI template for your project.
Use this DACI template to clarify each person's role in group decisions, and make right the call sooner.

 

Download it
Download the project poster template for your project.
If you hate project briefs and loathe project charters, try this template for a project poster instead.

 

Download it

Project management software

So, turns out we build software that makes project management easier. 

Learn more