If you’re reading this, you know it’s true: effective project management is a vital skill. Keeping a close eye on all the people, timelines and tasks involved in big work projects is a tremendous challenge, especially when there are unknowns or sudden curveballs thrown into the mix.
Research shows that only a little more than half of all business projects are completed on time and within budget. A circumstance often happens because of the dreaded “scope creep,” or the tendency of a project’s requirements to shift and grow throughout its life cycle.
One way to help prevent that is to stick to the “five phases” of the project management life cycle: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring and closure. These are now widely accepted concepts, developed decades ago by the Project Management Institute. They serve as a kind of framework to help project managers plan, focus and organize.
There are many project management strategies out there these days to help you and your team execute on all five of these phases. But simple, visual diagramming tools can be some of the most effective for keeping things straight in your mind, and in the heads of your team members, from start to finish.
Here are some suggestions.
Before you get started on any project, the first step is to figure out what the idea is, why it’s needed, and if it’s feasible. This stage is critical. If it’s a great idea, but impossible to accomplish with the resources you have, it must be scrapped (or at least modified).
A project manager can’t do the visioning alone; it’s important to compile ideas and get feedback early on. Visual tools help get everyone on the same page.
Try starting with a brainstorming template. From mind maps to affinity diagrams to clustering charts, there are a number of options. Regardless of the style, brainstorming with a visual aid helps inspire ideas and capture and organize them right away.
Another useful option is a SWOT analysis. SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) help with decision-making and planning around big business ideas. For instance, a company that makes fashionable smartphone accessories might be considering launching a new product line. Still, it needs to consider the costs and the competition long before designing anything.
The most important part of this phase is to reach alignment with all project stakeholders before you move on. Getting everyone to see eye to eye can be much easier with this kind of simple, visual documentation.
The next step is to start figuring out how, exactly, you’ll get the project done. Who’s involved? What tasks are involved? What tasks depend on other tasks? How long will the project take?
A great visual tool for this aspect of the process is a Gantt chart. Gantt charts help define what the project tasks are and when they’ll each happen, down to day-to-day goals. With diagramming software, it’s also simple to add milestones, create links between tasks, color-code the chart and much more.
You may also want to help visualize a project’s life cycle through an even cleaner timeline diagram, using a timeline template or roadmap template. Separating different aspects of the project like this can be very helpful when sharing with other teams or with company leadership.
Remember to ask yourself and your team a lot of detailed questions about the project so you can make the most accurate timeline possible, whether using a Gantt chart, a timeline template, or both.
With online timelines and Gantt charts, everyone on the team can contribute to the document in real-time, too, as well as easily stay on track with their tasks using a customized view.
A successful execution phase relies on a successful planning phase. To that end, one of the best visual tools for executing complex projects is also great for planning them: a flow chart.
Cross-functional flow charts, for instance, help project managers define who is responsible for achieving certain milestones as well as task dependencies. Some projects might have different teams working on other aspects of the project, too; these kinds of diagrams can define all of that and more.
“Swim lanes,” for example, define the people involved in each task, while “phase boxes” represent the timeline or milestone.
Once you’ve launched the project and execution are happening, having a shareable flow chart is valuable for keeping everyone up to speed. Team members can also comment on the diagram, adding context or updates as needed. The clickable shapes can expand to reveal extra information or be linked to external data, too, such as a database or spreadsheet.
At this point, you’re getting things done, but it’s still crucial to monitor each task to make sure nothing goes off track. One of the advantages of online visuals and data-linked diagrams is how easy it is to share progress with others, even those who aren’t directly involved in the project.
Diagramming software often offers simple status report templates, which help project managers distill essential points and share with managers and external clients or stakeholders.
Having multiple documents throughout the process, from your SWOT analysis to your flow chart, can also keep the project focused. You can help prevent scope creep by keeping tabs on the project’s original goals and deliverables.
Some diagramming software also works well with automation software, so you can design your project’s workflow, then set up automatic triggers, such as a notification when a task gets finished.
You made it! Once your team has completed all the deliverables, the project is done. But the key to this last phase is to take a moment to assess what just happened. Having clear, specific visuals at hand throughout the entire process makes it much simpler to look back and see what worked and what didn’t.
Schedule a post-mortem meeting with team members and stakeholders. Discuss both the successes and the challenges. You can even lean on an additional diagramming tool here: try a project post-mortem template to help capture feedback and ideas from your meeting.
Store all the documentation in a central location so that it can stay there as a resource for the next time.
All of this meticulous planning and documentation can seem like overkill, but it does help. Using visual tools that plan, communicate and keep track is one of the surest ways to keep your project in line, on budget and on time.